Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Pleasure of Maps

Studying some maps for forthcoming ventures - of which more in a forthcoming post - and feeling excited I remembered this piece which I wrote for The Great Outdoors last year. I love maps!

Backpackers can find many items of gear exciting – tents and packs obviously but sometimes even utilitarian items like socks and base layers. For me though nothing comes close to a map for real exhilaration. Only a map can lead you through endless outdoor adventures both in reality and in your mind as you trace possibilities over the surface – where does this valley go, what’s over that pass, how easy is to climb that mountain? Journeys abound when you study a map. Not just journeys either. I love looking for possible camp sites – by that lake, on that col, maybe in that meadow. Sometimes the journeys and campsites go out into the real world, though many more stay as daydreams. And sometimes I find that going up that brush-choked valley was not a good idea or that the boggy bug-infested shores of a lake don’t make for a good camp site. Maps don’t tell you everything. Which is good. I don’t want my trips to be too predictable. But maps do give ideas and plans and that’s what’s exciting.

For the backpacker and walker the best maps are topographic of course, ones that show the shape of the land with contour lines (for which many thanks to mathematician Charles Hutton who came up with the idea on Schiehallion in 1774). Once you can read contours the landscape can be easily imagined in three dimensions and the shape of the hills and valleys visualised. Routes can be planned taking into account the elevation gain as well as the distance. Topographic maps are often beautiful as well with subtle shading and rich colours. In this respect the old Ordnance Survey 1 inch to the mile Tourist Maps are my favourites. Of modern maps the Harveys Mountain Maps are very aesthetically pleasing.

Walkers often think that there’s only a few map scales of use – 1:25,000, 1:40,000 and 1:25,000 – and when out in the wilds I think this is correct (though I have use 1:250,000 and even 1:600,000  when that’s all that’s been available). However for planning it’s often easier to see the whole of a walk on smaller scale maps. I still use the long-out-of date 1:100,000 Bartholmew maps for planning long walks in Scotland and recently I’ve been looking at some 1:250,000 Tom Harrison Recreation Maps of desert and mountain areas of the western USA for a forthcoming venture. But once outdoors, whether the Scottish Highlands or Death Valley, I want larger scale maps.

Of course these days maps are not just sheets of paper or plastic but also exist in digital form for use on computers whether desktop or phone. Maps in this form are very useful and I use them regularly. Instead of counting kilometre squares and contour lines to find distance and elevation gain I love just being able to draw my route and have the computer calculate these for me. But I still much prefer map sheets for their size. When someone invents a light compact rollout screen as big as an Ordnance Survey map I might change my mind but until then a big sheet easily beats a small screen. With maps spread out on the floor or the ground I can see the whole area and all the options. I find it easier to daydream over a big map sheet too.

Maps aren’t just for future trips either. They can bring back memories. Looking through my map collection for this piece I was distracted by many reminiscences as maps I hadn’t seen for years appeared – a stormy autumn traverse of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, leading a trek to Everest Base Camp, climbing Glittertind in Norway on skis, building igloos in Yellowstone National Park with Igloo Ed. Maps really are wonderful.


  1. I still have my fathers Bart's 1950 GB Road Atlas. 4 mile/1" A thing of beauty that has fascinated me since childhood. Much more detail than modern road maps. Great for 'the big picture' and letting the imagination run!

  2. I love to daydream over my maps - what Colin Fletcher called "map brooding."