Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Maps....the tool for exploring backroads

Notice that I said MAPS, plural.  Unfortunately, there is no single map source useable for exploring the usbackroads.  Almost all maps are produced by federal, state, or local governments.  Private mapping companies take these government maps and repackage them for various purposes.  Unfortunately, there is no federal office of boondocking on federal lands.  Although that might be a good thing.

As a professional Forester, maps are the most important tool in my vest.  And I have lots of them!  My collection includes aerial, satellite photos, and multi-spectural images, as well.

All maps are drawn to show and convey specific information.  Once you know the information that  the map shows, it is easier to interpret and read the map.  For example, the US Census maps the roads throughout the United States for the purposes of conducting the census.  They match the address on the census form with the address on their maps.  This how they know to send out a census worker to remind you to return your census form.  The Census is looking for homes.  So those roads without homes on them are basically ignored by the Census.  If you use a "private" map or mapping program that is based on the Census "Tiger" files, the backroads without homes are going to be marginal in their mapping.  The backroad portions of these maps will be more general, lacking in detail and many omissions.

Let's start with the grandaddy of all maps, the United States Geological Survey 7.5 minute series topographic maps.  Most hikers use these maps and I am quite sure many of them think they were made just for them by USGS.   Not so. The USGS made them for building roads, subdivisions, powerlines, factories, mines, timber sales, and other economic development.  The key factor for designing all these projects is topography.  USGS maps are accurate with respect to topography.  The cultural features such as roads and trails are secondary and could or could not be correct.  So if you need topography information look no further.

The United States Forest Service prepares a several different sets of maps useful for boondockers.
The first of these is the Visitor Map.  Costing anywhere from ten to sixteen dollars, the visitor map is usually comprised of one National Forest and shows many roads, campgrounds, and other visitor activities.  Some Forest maps show other public land ownership, as well.  These are especially good for boondockers since it shows many dispersed camping area possiblities on and off National Forest land.

The Forest Visitor Map displays developed areas where the Forest Service thinks you want go and ALSO where THEY want you to visit.  There is nothing wrong with this, but sometimes I just want to explore on my own.

The Forest Service also makes what they call "Firemen's maps".  They are also sometimes called Ranger District maps, but check to make sure they are based on the fire maps.  These maps show all roads and associated road numbers that show up on the ground with those brown plastic posts along the road.  They show nifty items such as lookouts, emergency lookouts (view site!), fire camps (hey, you can get a big rig into these.  Of course, after a lighting bust you might have a LOT of fellow campers dressed in yellow camping with you),  seaplane landing spots, rock sources, portable water pump sites, and of course, heliports and helispots.  They generally sell for about six dollars for each Ranger District.

I love the disclamer on these maps:  "This administrative use map was constructed by the USDA Forest Service.  This map does not comply with National Map accuracy standards.  There are many roads shown on this map which are NOT maintained for passenger car use".  Hey, this sounds like my type of map!!

The Forest Service sometimes publishes one more map and the price is right:  NO CHARGE!  It is not FREE since you pay for it with your tax dollars.  It is called the Travel Management Map.  These maps show which areas are closed and open to motorized travel.  That includes your RV!  In the near future, all Forests will have to have these maps available to the public.

If you are boondocking on Forest Service managed land stop by their offices and take a look at all three maps.  In many cases, the Travel Management map might be all you need.

The BLM also produces maps.  Their base series is called the Surface Management maps.  The BLM manages the Federal mineral and oil and gas resources.  Pass on these maps.  They do not show enough roads and you probably do not care about mineral rights on federal land.

The BLM in several areas of the country has joined with the Forest Service in producing joint Visitor Maps.  These are worthwhile.  In some areas, the BLM also produces their own visitor maps and in some cases, they produce specific maps for small areas.  These are great and in many cases free.  The BLM does a good job of using their in-house data sources for producing very useful maps.

Google Earth is a great tool for checking out specific areas where you have an address or latitude & longitude.  No, Google did not send a satellite in orbit to take photos.  Again, these are government sources that Google packaged into their software.  A few years ago the resolution was rather poor, but has improved significantly in recent years.  You really do need a photo-interpretation class to best use Google Earth.  If you find one, sign up for it.  You will learn a lot.

Even without the photo-interpretation class, lots can be learned from Google Earth images.  For example, you can determine the aspect of a slope.  If it is a north facing slope with lots of trees, in the spring time it may be difficult to drive this road due to lingering snow and trees falling across the road.  A road on an open grassy slope facing south is probably going to be free of snow much sooner.  There, you just did some photo-interpretation even without a class.   Look at Google Earth and see what you can learn from it.

This covers the major map sources I recommend for boondocking.  In the next segment, I will show you how to build a library of maps without going broke!

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