If you check our links section, we've got a couple of links to free map servers on the internet. One is the USGS store, and the other is AcmeMapper. Both are great, and both are free, although we like the ability to customize the maps at Acme when and where needed.
There are also a few other maps you can buy. National Geographic has a series of maps for the Sierra. They're pretty good, but the scale is sometimes too big, and you can't always see what you need to see. And when you add that to the very complicated (and at times too dark) color scheme of the maps, sometimes you can't see the important stuff, like contour lines. Tom Harrison's maps are also very good, and not quite so cluttered as the National Geographic ones. But they also are, at times, too small to see everything that you want. Both of these have mileages for every segment of the trail--although they are not infallible--we've found errors particulary in the NatGeo maps.
So we like bringing one of the larger maps as a big picture guide. (It always helps to know what is on the other side of that mountain, or the name of that peak in the distance.) But we also bring a few print-outs in very small scale, so that we can see every contour line and identify every tiny pond. It's a good system.
(By the way, the map in the photo above is a superb map of Henry Coe State Park--taken from a trailhead sign. And on our camera, the zoom feature allowed us to see everything we needed to see from this single photo. How cool is that?)
GPS: Lots of people swear by GPS. They never leave home without one, and are perfectly happy to carry one along on every hike. We don't. We don't like the extra weight (although we certainly bring fishing equipment and books--both of which weigh more than a GPS unit) and we don't like the idea of the batteries going dead halfway through a trip. P used GPS extensively when he sailed, so it's not a rejection of the technology--it just doesn't seem like part of the experience for us. And we don't like the idea that a GPS unit will show that the top of Half Dome and the trail to Mirror Lake are less than half a mile apart. That 1/2 mile is straight down.
Marking Your Progress: Either way, with maps or GPS (or both), you'll need to make sure you understand where you are as you walk along the trail. This is navigation at its purest. When you pass a lake, you know you have passed the lake. When you come to a junction, you match the signs on the trail with the trails on the map to make sure you are exactly where you think you are. And when you climb over a ridge, or start to follow a stream, you can find that on the map and clarify your position.
All of which sounds easier than it sometimes is. It assumes that there is a sign on every junction. There isn't always. On a recent early season trip, there were so many ponds and lakes in the woods that we couldn't tell where one started and the other stopped. And in fact we passed three large ponds and confused them with three small lakes...and well, it's a long story. And it was a lovely "detour."
But if you do it right, you can pretty much track your progress along the trail. You can figure out how many miles you've hiked in the last two hours, and even estimate how many hours it will take you to get to the next water, lunch stop, or campsite. Don't forget factor in the countour lines---we find that climbing up a steep trail may drop our speed to half what it is on the level. It's part of being smart in the wilderness.
If all this sounds like an extended word problem from the sixth grade, you are exactly right. But if you can't do these sorts of problems, you will have many other problems in the woods. Trust us on this one.
TRAILS: The other half of knowing where you are is making sure that you are still on the trail. You'd think this would be easy, and in most cases it is. There are lots of clues about where the trail goes, and if you follow them, you won't have much trouble in the more popular areas of the Sierra.
The most obvious technique is to follow the path that you can see on the ground. It would be hard to lost the trail in the photo at left.
In most cases, this is enough to keep you moving in the right direction, and on target to any junctions or destinations that are further up the line. It works well except for a few tricky cases. But we've hiked with enough people to know that it is also easy to lose the trail.
Any time a trail gets near a fishable body of water, river or lake, there will be a ton of use trails created by fishermen who want to stay close to the water and fish everywhere they can. If you start to follow those paths, you can easily get sidetracked for a few minutes or even a few hours.
In 2010 we met a young couple that had hiked a tough trail up to a lake, only to discover that they got sidetracked and never found the trail out the other side. They had to backtrack to their original trail on the way out...all because of these use trails. The true trail never actually went down close to the lake, but since the fishermen all did, the true trail was less used than the use trails. Oops. A sign would have helped there.
Sometimes the park service or forest service will let you know that a trail should not be followed. If you ever see a trail with some fallen timber inside, you can be sure it's not the right trail. The trail at right was pretty clearly marked as one NOT to take! This is particularly true working up switchbacks or rocky ravines. For some reason, people love to cut the corners on these trails, and it destroys the engineering of the trail. Don't do it. And don't get tricked into following people who have done it. They do way too much damage already, and don't need your help to do more.
Which leads us to another situation you'll often find on the trail. It's not only a problem with hikers. As water courses down the hillsides and mountains of the Sierra, your trail often becomes the path of least resistance. So the wonderful people who create these trails often place a line of rocks (or even a log) across the trail at its lowest point, to channel the water off the trail. When you see one of these, it helps to stop and think a minute. Does the trail continue to follow the watercourse, or does it follow a different path. On relatively primitive trails, you can walk quite a few yards before you begin to think that...this looks more like a streambed than a trail.
And sometimes it is. Don't be afraid to stop and check with the other people in your group to make sure you are interpreting the trail correctly. A little time taken here may save an hour or half a day of hiking later on.
On the other hand, sometimes the terrain is too rough for the path of the trail to stand out on it own. That's the point when we start seeing some of the other trail markers that have become part of mountaineering lore.
Let's talk about cairns. These are the little stacks of rocks that have been placed through the Sierra to mark trails over terrain that is too austere to show the passage of hikers' feet. They can be as simple as a single rock placed in an unlikely position on a boulder, to carefully stacked towers of stones that stand like tiny monuments to mark your way. They are also called ducks.
The one at left is on the top of North Dome in Yosemite. It's a good example of a cairn that has been augmented over the years by bored hikers. Resist this temptation. It doesn't always turn out right--sometimes the taller cairns fall over in the more extreme winter conditions, and that leaves the trail unmarked. (Frankly, on North Dome there is no nead for cairns at all, as the trail can only lead in one direction.)
In fact, we strongly recommend that you never touch a cairn, either to add or subtract stones. In our experience, there are quite a few cairns in the Sierra that mark a secondary or alternative trail, or even the path of someone who got lost. Not a good thing--so please don't add to the confusion. Just leave things as they are. Those who follow you on the trail will appreciate your thoughtfulness.
On the other hand, some surfaces are so bleak that it is easier to just outline the trail in stones and let you walk right across the granite. This is one of our favorite sections of trail in the Emigrant Wilderness--a clear path right across huge granite slabs. And there is no question where the trail lies. Just keep the rocks on your left, and you can't go wrong!
Wouldn't it be nice if all trails were this easy to follow?
You'll also find trails marked in a very traditional way, with blazes cut into trees. This is no longer an accepted technique, as it opens the tree to pests and disease, but you'll see a lot of the older trails in the Sierra marked this way. Each trail has its own personality. and following the blazes on trees really brings this into focus. Once you get the hang of it, it can be a lot of fun. But it's also a challenge when a tree has fallen over, or the blaze is covered up by new growth. We once decided to camp near a meadow because we could not find where the trail went next. Only the next morning did we see the blaze on the tree across the meadow---almost completely obscured by two new fir trees that had grown up since the blaze was cut thirty years ago.
If you don't like the blazes, you'll be happy to know that a more modern system includes using plastic tape tied to trees. It isn't exactly reminiscent of the great French voyageurs, but what the heck. It works pretty well.
There are certain times of the year when things get more complicated. Early in the season, you'll find some trails under snow. It's a real art to try and follow a trail like this. You have to check the map frequently, to see where it is supposed to go. And then you have to use your imagination to see how it might do that. For a few yards it can be easy. For miles, it is often simpler to just understand where you need to arrive, and head there directly. This isn't a lot different from creating your own cross-country trip, and should only be attempted by people who know how to read a map and apply what they see to the terrain in front of them.
The winter snow trails are often marked with markers high in the trees--easy to see when there is ten feet of snow on the ground. But in spring, when the markers are high above your head, they are harder to follow.
Springtime is also a tough time to cross meadows. Not only are they sopping wet, but the grass has frequently grown up everywhere, including in the trough of the trail. What would be a clear path in the later summer is just a deep wet spot in the meadow---and you'll have to look carefully to see how and where the trail comes out the other side. And of course this is also the season before a lot of the trail maintenance gets done. A single large tree can create quite a detour on a trail, and a windfall or avalanche of trees across a section of trail can make it almost impassable.
Actually, any stream is an invitation to get lost. Unless there is a bridge, every hiker will look for a new and better way to cross...and often confuse the trail when he does. I am never worried about losing the trail going into a stream crossing, but I'll always double check to make sure I understand where it goes on the far side. That's what really matters.
Is all this sounding too complicated and dangerous? It's not. We've never really been lost in all the years we've been hiking. True, we've found a couple of different ways to get where we were going, and a couple of times we just decided that we were not going to make it to our destination. But we always knew where we were, and where we had to go to get out again. That's the most important thing.
And sometimes, as you are hiking on a trail, all you can do is admire the work done by the wonderful people who build and maintain these trails for our pleasure.
They have gone before us, and smoothed the ground over which we walk. They have carved steps into the granite, and built stairs to ascend to the heavens.
And all of that has allowed us to explore and enjoy these marvelous mountains.
Try to remember that when you are climbing the stairs at right, gasping for breath, sweating like a pig, and swearing with every step you take.
Ah! Gasp! Wheeze!