Custom Backpacking Maps

I absolutely love backpacking, there is something about carrying everything you need for a few days, a week or longer on your back. Its satisfying and it gives you this great sense of accomplishment, and you just feel alive.

With GPS in the pockets of almost everybody these days thanks to cell phones, navigation by compass and map is a skill that is fading. I am not saying its a bad thing, but most national parks I could get around without a map, due to how well the trails are marked.

Regardless of how well a trail is marked, or if you have Garmin GPS unit or Gaia GPS on your Android or iPhone, a paper map is still hands down one of the most important pieces of gear you can take out on the trail with you.

Despite being one of the most important pieces of gear, I find it hard to find a great map in REI or other local outdoor stores. A lot of maps are filled with “clutter” and by clutter its often really useful information about the national park you are visiting. I want maps that are focused on navigation and are personalized to my skills.

You may be asking yourself, how different could one map of an area be from another? The answer is very different, there are a lot of different features that are on some maps an not on others, and its really all personal preference. These days you can pretty much customize everything in your life, from your cell phone to your sunglasses, why should it not be the same for you maps?

I am going to compare a National Park map that I purchased at REI and a custom map I ordered through MyTopo.

National Geographic map you would buy at any outdoor store:

Regular map bought at REI

Regular National Geographic map bought at REI


My Custom map ordered at MyTopo:

Custom map from MyTopo

Custom map from MyTopo

Lets start with the first obvious difference. The map on top has a whole lot of text! The map on the bottom you can see, is much simpler and its just the basics. To be fair, the map on top has more map on the back and no text, while the custom map on bottom is completely blank on the back.

The National Park map which I purchased at REI has a lot of text, which is not necessarily a waste. Here is some of the information that is in all that text:

  • Description of Nation Geographic map features
  • Regional locator
  • Joshua Tree general over view
  • Wilderness area information
  • Back country regulations
  • Phone numbers/websites for Joshua Tree
  • Rock Climbing Information
  • Safety Information
  • Leave no Trace Ethos
  • Climate Chart
  • Spring flowering calendar

All this information is useful, but I personally like my maps to focus just on navigation. Most of the information. Most of that information like regulations etc. are things I look up before I go out to the national parks. Granted it is nice when you purchase it all right there, and you don’t have to look for it on the internet, but information changes and the internet will have the most up to date park regulations.

Now why exactly am I complaining about all this extra great information? With the lack of text on my custom map, the one thing that stands out is magnetic declination reference.

Magnetic Declination

Magnetic Declination and other useful navigational data

Now I have looked all over the Nation Geographic map, and I have yet to find the magnetic declination reference. If someone else finds it please let me know, but if I am lost in the woods, and I cant find this easily there are issues.

So why is magnetic declination important? Well if your electronic GPS breaks, runs out of battery etc. you will have to rely on your basic map and compass. If you plot two points on a map and try and use your compass to navigate in between them with out knowing the magnetic declination information, you will be very far off.

**Skip the next two sections if you want to get back to comparing maps, the next two sections are a quick and dirty explanation of why Magnetic Declination is so important**

Magnetic Declination

Lets quickly explain how magnetic declination works and why this is so important to me. In the picture above you will see GN, TN and MN.

  • Grid North (GN) – The direction North along the grid lines on the map
  • True North (TN) – Direction to the geographic north pole
  • Magnetic North (MN) – Direction your compass points North

So how exactly do we use this magnetic declination reference on the map? Lets pretend our GPS device broke and we know our last good position we have on the map. We next plot our destination we have to get to. Connect the lines with a pencil, and measure the direction using a protractor. This will give you an azimuth that you need to follow to get to your final destination.

If my azimuth is 200 degrees grid, and we just point our compass to 200 degrees and walk, we will not get to our final destination, because our compass is pointing 13 degrees east of grid north.

200 degrees – 13 degrees = 187 degrees

187 degrees is the direction we should actually point our compass in order to go 200 degrees grid.

 13 Degrees whats the big deal?

So 13 degrees may not sound like a huge difference, but in reality it is. Lets use some simple geometry to prove it. Using excel and math, I have produced the below chart to visually show how far off course you could walk depending on the distance traveled.

Miles off Course....

Miles off Course….

If we did not know our magnetic declination and just used our map and compass we would be 13 degrees off course. What the chart above shows us, is that if we walked 4 miles, we would be just under a mile off from our final destination. The farther we walk the more off our original course we would go. So if we walked 10 miles we be just over 2 miles off course!

Back on topic

I went a little off topic there, from the original purpose of this post, but you can now see how important it is to have useful navigation data on your map. Some other great reasons why I love customizing my maps is that you get to pick the scale, and navigational aides.

Most maps sold in stores default to longitude and latitude. This is purely preference but I do not like to use longitude and latitude for plotting courses, I like to use the Military Grid Reference System or MGRS. I find plotting points much more accurate using a protractor and MGRS, thus all my custom ordered maps from MyTop are MGRS maps. For reference I can choose to keep latitude and longitude tick marks on the edges.

Overall custom made maps with MyTopo are great because you can select the area, you want and do not have to hunt for the exact map in a store for your route. For instance if you are planning a through hike that may spill onto two maps, you can easily select a map on MyTopo where your through hike will fit onto one map.

Here is a quick overview of why I enjoy MyTopo custom maps vs National Geographic maps:

Pros for using MyTopo

  • Simple with no clutter
  • Detailed navigation information
  • Can pick MGRS or Longitude and Latitude
  • Center your map on any point
  • Choose your own scale
  • Choose your own map size
  • Choose to have maps laminated

Cons for Using MyTopo

  • More expensive
  • Website could be better designed
  • No park information




Custom High Quality Map Board


Fixing a Flat with a Hatchet…


  1. William Leach

    On that particular map of Joshua Trees the declination indicator is on the side of the map that says “East Side ” at the top. Looking below the words “East Side” you will see the Pint Basin. Look to the left of the word Basin and there it is, the long lost “Declination Indicator”. National Geographic tends to hide them on their maps, blending ink color in with the background, but they are always there. After all, it is National Geographic.

    • Mike

      Thanks for the tip on where to look! I could never find it!

      • William Leach

        LOL Even though it was the “Pinto” basin and the marker is to the right.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén