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Tools for the Trail: Maps and Apps (or, how to not get lost in the woods)

Confession: I am frequently lost. And yet I love to go wheeling and hiking and camping in the wilderness where, as far as the eye can see, there are only trees and mountains. So what’s a gal to do? Luckily there are lots of options available to help me find my way. Perhaps you’ll find some of these useful as well.

When I say that I’m directionally challenged, those who know me well may think that's the understatement of the decade (and my husband is rolling his eyes). I’ve lived in Fort Collins for almost five years, and I still get lost (sigh) in a town that’s not so big. Most of the time I can see the foothills to the west, and I can get my bearings. A few months ago, however, I ended up on the opposite side of town from where I needed to be for an appointment because the mountains were obscured by fog and I didn't know which direction I was driving! (Yes, I realize I could have turned on my phone’s GPS, but I’m stubborn and using Google to get around a town I should know well would have been like admitting defeat).

So, that’s why, when I’m on the trail and don’t know where I’m at, or how I got there, or how to get where I want to go, I feel a flicker of panic that I might not make it back home. I admitted my need for some help to the friendly gal at the Ranger District this week, and she suggested the following options.

  1. PDF Maps – an app for your smartphone that allows you to download maps to your phone, for use with your phone’s GPS even if you don’t have wireless/data service. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m eager to do so! I asked around and heard good things about this app. Many of the maps are free (I’ve already downloaded the Canyon Lakes Ranger District Motor Vehicle Use Map [MVUM] and the Boulder Ranger District MVUM since those are the areas in which I most frequently wheel). Once you’ve downloaded the maps, you can pinpoint a location (such as Home), and a destination, and according to the Ranger District it will also tell you where you’re at on the trail. Since that’s really the biggest issue for me I’m so excited to give this a try!!! Just make sure to remember your phone charger.

  2. Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) – the old fashioned paper kind, these are free from your local Ranger District. They show the entire Ranger District’s roadways, differentiated by type of vehicle usage (e.g. all vehicles, motorcycles only, etc.). These maps also show dispersed camping areas (meaning you wheel out on a trail and pick a place to camp – this or backpack camping are the only ways to camp in my opinion). And, MVUM’s show Forest Service Roads – handy when those are the only road markers you can find on the trail. When we ran Ballard Road / GRSW, our friends had the Canyon Lakes Ranger District MVUM and that’s the only way we found the start of Ballard trail. If it hadn’t been for their preparedness I’d probably still be out there in the woods.

  3. National Forest Maps – also paper, these are available from your local Ranger District for around $10. What I like about these maps is that they differentiate by type of road (paved, gravel, road not maintained – that’s where I’m going!!).

  4. Other GPS – there are a multitude of other GPS options available and it’s really about personal preference. Make sure the maps are updated to show unmaintained roads or trails. Some people have had success on the trails with these brands or apps: Garmin, ViewRanger,

  5. Trail books – my go-to trail guide so far has been Trail Damage and I love their website, but in the mountains I can’t access it without cell service. I do carry a print-out of the trail description/directions where we’re going, but it would be nice to see nearby trails also, if inspiration strikes. To this end, I ordered Guide to Northern Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails 3rd Edition, by Charles A. Wells. I’m excited to read it (yes, I’m a nerd). The Ranger District said this was the best book for wheeling north of I-70, and they said Mr. Wells even called them personally to check on some of the trails he’d reviewed before the book was published (the Rangers were impressed with his due diligence).

  6. The is an awesome website and good resource for off-road adventures. Trail Damage, as I’ve mentioned many times before, also gives good info and reviews on off-road trails. What I like best about their site is they rate the trail so I’ve got an idea what I’m getting myself into before I make the run.

  7. Compass – an old school basic that everybody should have and know how to use. Just Google “how to use a compass” for instructions (though I had a chuckle because some of the pages said “not sufficient for those who would like to travel safely in unfamiliar terrain”). Ummm…yes, that’s me. My son, thankfully, did not inherit my lack of directional sense. Last year, when he was five, he brought a compass home from school. I was holding the compass and chatting with him about it, and I casually asked, “So, which way is south?” We were inside our house, and the sun was not out, (and he was five), but he looked around and pointed. I checked the compass (because I certainly didn’t know) and he was RIGHT! I asked him how he knew his directions, and he said with a shrug, “Well, I just knew!” (Somehow this makes sense to everyone but me).

If you get lost in the woods and have no technology at your disposal, there are other techniques that can be used to determine which way is north (the sun / time of day, moss on tree trunks, etc.) but that would only be useful if you know which direction you need to go. Most of the time I just set forth and hope for the best, but I will be employing all of the above tools on my next wheeling trip and I think I’ll stay on track. Happy Trails!

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