“Map” is often listed as first essential on the hiker’s list of The Ten Essentials and you’ve got to have a map.

But not just any map. You need a good trail map, one designed for hikers.

Think mapmaking these days and you think of Google and reportedly thousands of its employees toiling on its digital maps. But hey, paper maps aren’t just relics from the past; specialized maps are very helpful to the hiker and can be used without a cellular signal!

Tom Harrison makes terrific maps for California hikers.
Tom Harrison makes terrific maps for California hikers.

Congratulations to our old friend and master mapmaker Tom Harrison who is profiled in the March 2016 edition of The Atlantic in a Q&A article entitled “How a Modern-Day Mapmaker Does His Job.” Tom has created maps for several of The Trailmaster’s Pocket Guides including “HIKE Point Reyes,” HIKE the San Gabriel Mountains,” and “HIKE the Santa Monica Mountains.”

I’ve supervised the making of more than a thousand hiking maps, plain and fancy, simple and detailed. And I’ve reviewed thousands more as a backcountry traveler and an as an armchair traveler.

Master Mapmaker Tom Harrison at work.
Master Mapmaker Tom Harrison at work.

I have a deep appreciation for mapmakers in general and hiking mapmakers in particular. Like trail-building, trail-mapping is both an art and a science. A science certainly, with its precise measurements, and as an art, with its often colorful presentation.

My favorite maps for hiking really highlight trails. While this would seem like a no-brainer (Of course a map for hiking should highlight trails!) it pains me to report that many hiking trail maps poorly represent the trail, display it an awkward scale and for any number of reasons are not as hiker-friendly as they could be. Irking The Trailmaster to no end are mapmakers who draw maps—and publishers who print them—with an orientation other than north at the top of the page. Some park maps are just that—maps of parks with pathways lost in a clutter of features or not clearly marked.

Maps in trail guidebooks and from local and regional park authorities vary in quality from great to abysmal. Just remember that the more the map is oriented to the traveler afoot and the better it represents the trails, the more useful it will be to the hiker.

Mapmaker Tom Harrison has field-checked (read hiked) thousands of miles of trail while producing detailed maps of California’s scenic gems—Death Valley, Yosemite Valley, Lake Tahoe, the Santa Monica Mountains, Point Reyes and many more terrific places to hike. The master cartographer offers a half-dozen tips for selecting a good hiking map:

Six Tips for Selecting a Good Hiking Map

1. Look for a map that is easy to read. The type should be large enough to read comfortably, the little squiggly lines should be crisp and clear, the colors should be well-balanced.

2. Most maps have North at the top of the page-but some don’t. A map without a North arrow or a map with the north arrow pointed sideways can be disorienting to the hiker.

3. Make sure the map covers the area you want. You may have to get more than one map for the complete route.

4. Get a set of maps that have an appropriate scale for your trip. Small-scale maps show a large area but not a lot of detail. These are great for planning a multi-day trip or getting a general overview of an area. Large-scale maps show a small area but in greater detail-these are the best for day-to-day hiking.

5. Waterproof and tear-resistant plastic is becoming the standard material for maps, and they hold up really well outdoors. If you need to write on a waterproof map, use a ball-point pen, not a pencil. And keep them away from solvents like stove fuel, insect repellant, and sunscreen. The ink sits on top of the plastic rather than being absorbed on paper so it is vulnerable to solvents.

6. If you use a GPS then look for a map that has a grid—either a UTM grid or a latitude/longitude grid. Then set your GPS to the datum of the map. Most maps use 1927 NAD (North American Datum) and a few use WGS 84. Most GPS units have a factory default of WGS 84 so reset your unit according to your map.