Got Maps?

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In the age of GPS, there are two things that I have learned:

1. You can’t always trust GPS


2. Most people not only cannot read a map, they don’t even own any maps.




GPS is a great enabler, and I’m all for using whatever enablers you can get your hands on.  However, if your plan is to rely on it exclusively for your Bug Out, Mutual Assistance Group, or whatever other SHTF plan you have in place, you are setting yourself up for failure.  GPS reliability is limited by the laws of physics and subject to the whims of man; even a moderate solar flare can disrupt the Position, Navigation, and Timing signals from the satellites.  Add to this that the signals can also be spoofed (giving you bad data) or jammed (giving you no data) by a bad actor.  Further, you are relying on something that requires battery power…and you may not always have that available.

Get maps.  All kinds of maps.  And make sure you have the most up-to-date maps, in at least one format, that you can get.

I keep a few types of maps on hand in the GHB and at the BOL:

– Standard road maps of my state and of the immediately surrounding states.  You can easily pick these up at gas stations or truck stops.  Some states will provide them for free at visitor centers; check online as well with your state’s tourism department or Department of Transportation for free or discounted maps.  Another online resource is OmniMap, which has a vast selection of maps and atlases.


Commercially Produced Road Map
Free Map Provided by State Tourism/DOT

– Topographic maps of the area in which I live, the areas that I may have to travel through to reach my BOL, and the area around the BOL itself.  These can very exceptionally useful and I highly recommend that you obtain topographic maps that are relevant to your situation and know how to read and employ them in conjunction with a good compass.  The downside is that topo maps tend to get updated at odd intervals, so you may not be able to find ones of your area less than a few years old.  Get the latest you can get anyway!  For topo maps, I prefer to get mine from Trimble’s website myTopo.  While you can get US Geological Survey maps from other sources, including downloadable and printable versions directly from the USGS, myTopo allows you to order customized versions at a reasonable price.  This customizing includes the ability for you to select exactly the area you want; there is an old joke in the military that all battles will occur at the corners of four adjoining maps…with myTopo, you can have a single map incorporating areas of adjoining maps made.  Other options available include printing on waterproof paper, Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) lines, and hybrid topo/aerial imagery, to name a few.  If your planned area is in a popular hiking or fishing area such as national/state parks or the Appalachian Trail, you’ll usually be able to find more updated topo maps; good sources for these are sporting goods stores or websites local to that area or the government entity that oversees the park.

Topographic Map

– US/North America and world maps and a US/North American Atlas.  The idea behind having these is to be able to keep track of where other things in the world are happening.  This is especially useful if you are sitting in BOL, listening to shortwave radio.  If there is something going down in Pig’s Yell, Arkansas you can find that location in your atlas, mark it on your (hopefully laminated) wall map of the United States, and use that information according to your needs.


The other item you need to have and know how to use is a quality compass.  Do you need a tritium USGI lensatic compass?  No…but they’re nice to have.  However, the real deal can be pricey, usually in the $70+ range.  If you can afford one, get one. Or two.  Having said that, unless you are doing precision land navigation or calling in artillery fire, my opinion is that you really don’t need one these.  You can do just fine with a simple Suunto or a Silva compass; I own both of these brands and they are lightweight, durable (one of my Silva compasses is now about 30 years old, obtained back in my days as a Boy Scout, and it’s still going strong), and easy to use.  And really, don’t waste your money on the cheap knockoffs, you’ll just get burned in the long run.

USGI Lensatic Compass


Silva Brand Compass


Suunto Brand Compass

Other very useful items that I recommend:

– A map case, preferably one that allows you to make markings with a grease pencil (aka a “china marker”) or dry erase maker.  This not only protects your map, it also allows you to easily remove your markings and preventing any bad guys from having a handy dandy guide to where you’re going and what you’re doing.

– Grease pencils and/or dry erase markers.  Each have their pros and cons: grease pencils won’t dry up, but they aren’t conducive to making fine notations.  The reverse is true for dry erase markers.

Mechanical Grease Pencils
Map Case

Now that you’ve got your map(s) and compass, learn how to use them, then go out and put that knowledge to the test.  There is a plethora of instructional videos and books online, and stores like REI conduct classes from time to time, make use of these resources so that when the time comes you’re not lost in the woods!


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