Backpacking Gear Selection I: Your Route, Miles, Elevations, and Exposure

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 24 January 2011

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Welcome to the Winter Gear Video Series.

Gearing up for any trip, be it Summer or Winter, requires that you do the scouting to understand the nature of the situation you are getting yourself into.

You must do this for all of your seasonal trips, but this scouting becomes especially important during Wintertime, when it is imperative that you properly gear yourself  for the possible range of conditions.

The first video requires that you find the proper maps to ascertain your route, its elevation range, the mileage of your route, the nature of the terrain it crosses, and where you will be exposed and where you will be protected.


This information can generally be found in National Forest or State Park maps, local and specialized mapping companies which offer local maps, and the USGS. Myself,

 I possess a big collection of maps covering the Sierra Nevada Mountains from all of these sources.

Here's good sources for hand held maps to use on the trails:

Wilderness Press (Emigrant Wilderness, Yosemite region maps-Excellent Summer hiking maps, not suitable for Winter)

National Geographic (Sequoia-Kings Canyon, another excellent hiking map-Excellent Summer hiking maps, not suitable for Winter)

National Forest Maps (Carson Iceberg and Mokelumne Wilderness maps-excellent hiking map-Excellent Summer hiking maps, not suitable for Winter) (Yosemite & Mammoth hiking maps-Excellent Summer hiking maps, not suitable for Winter)

USGS: The bible of US hiking maps. Though not the best as hiking maps on the trail, the USGS 30 minute and 7.5 maps should be studied in conjunction with each other to get the best detailed and overall views to get a feel for the terrain you are going to cross. This will allow you to better understand your regional hiking map.

The full collection of USGS maps can be accessed and downloaded to your computer for free from the USGS Store.

All of the best hiking maps, such as those by Wilderness Press and National Geographic, are based on the USGS maps. They are just formatted and laid out to emphasize the trails. The USGS maps are laid out by geographic standards, not to center your trails. This often truncates the trails into a corner of a large 7.5 map, and you will find you need a whole map page to cover a little segment of trail.

National Geo, and a number of differnet companies offer slick custom map setups. With these you can trace your route on the scale of map that suits your needs on your home computer, center your trail on the page size, and print a series of maps that well-cover your route.

You can also do the same thing with the USGS digital topo maps for free using MS Paint, photoshop, and a nice little printer.

During Winter Travel, when the trails are covered with snow, your map must be detailed enough that you can identify and navigate by terrain features. Many  large scale hiking maps make that difficult, while the 7.5 min USGS maps almost provide too much detail...

But I highly recommend that you throughly explore, and are very familiar with the area you are going snow backpacking through.

The appearance of places you know very well changes radically when covered with snow, and there are no trails to follow.

Check out and download  excellent USGS topo maps for free at the USGS store.


Now that you've found good maps, you need to extrapolate the distances, elevation changes, and the topography you are going to cross, not just for the exposure, protection, and escape potentials, but to understand how these factors are going to influence your physical strength and endurance, especially if some nasty weather blows in unexpectedly.


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