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  • Ken Ilgunas

How to walk across the country (Part I: Mapping)

This past fall and winter, I walked 1,700 miles on a never-done-before journey across Canada and the United States. My route led me over remote and sometimes desolate terrain—farmland, grassland, hills and canyons. I had no guide or guidebook. No trail or road to follow. I had no idea how I would get water, if I’d get shot for trespassing over private property, or what natural elements I might have to contend with.

How much food should I pack? How many miles can I walk in a day? Is that cow going to sit on my face? I was at the same time attracted to and daunted by the unusual nature of my trip and the countless unknowns I was sure to encounter. While I knew I wouldn’t be able to figure everything out beforehand (like how I might cross this or that river), I figured, with some intensive planning, I could at least turn some of the chaos into order, some of the “unknowns” into knowns.

Because I thought a proper explanation of my trip-planning might be helpful for aspiring hikers, or just of interest to folks who followed my journey, I present to you my definitive how-to, beginning with how to map out a hike.

Step #1: Find a good mapping program

It made the most sense to begin by mapping out my path. By doing this first, we can figure out how many miles we’ll walk and what sort of terrain we’ll be walking over. Once we know this, we can begin to think about how much food to buy.

My route followed the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline. To my dissatisfaction, there were no good maps of the route that I could simply find online and print out. There were, I should say, maps of the Keystone XL route on the U.S. government’s website, but they were entirely inadequate. The maps had no color and they were much too “zoomed in,” only showing a few geographic features that would be of little navigational help to me. The Canadian Keystone XL map was even worse.

If I was going to have good maps, I’d have to map it out myself. To do so, I found two excellent mapping programs:

The first was Toporama, a Canadian mapping program that can be accessed by anyone online. It’s free and made available by the Canadian government. The only cost is printing out your maps at a professional printing service (i.e. UPS or FedEx Kinkos).

Toporama has a few drawbacks. For example, you can’t easily draw lines on the maps when on the website, maps don’t come with kilometer or mileage scale, among a few other shortcomings that would take too long to explain). But the pluses outweigh the minuses. The maps are free, colorful, incredibly detailed, and once you get the hang of it, the program is pretty easy to use.

Transcanada’s Canadian maps of the XL were even worse than the US government’s, but, to my amazement, much of the Keystone XL route was already on the Toporama map system (because the Keystone XL would parallel preexisting pipelines, which were presented as dotted lines on the maps). This made figuring out my route much easier than mapping out the American part of my adventure.

This is a Canadian Toporama map. You can see the dotted line that indicates where a pipeline is already in the ground and where, conveniently for me, the KXL will be laid. I drew over it with a yellow line in Microsoft Paint. The only available map of the actual KXL was this horribly incomplete map, which did, though, help me confirm that this dotted line was in fact the line I needed to follow.

The other mapping program that I used (for the US section of my trip) is called TOPO!, which is sold by National Geographic. It’s expensive—$50 per state, but it was the only reasonable option. I could have downloaded US maps for free on the US government website, but downloading those maps takes forever, plus the borders of the maps cannot be shifted the way they can be on a good mapping software program. It’s often the case that, when using already-drawn maps, your route will run along the edge of one of these maps, which will force you to buy and carry many more maps than you’d like. (As a cheapskate, it pains me to say this, but when planning a journey, it’s wiser to just shell out the money if it’ll make things easier for you later on.)

TOPO! is an excellent mapping program. It will let you draw your route on the map (while on your computer), and you can move the maps around on your screen so your path is in the middle of the map you’ll print out. And when your path is in the middle of the map, you can then use a number of geographic features like hills, lakes, and rivers to help you navigate. The other great thing about TOPO! is that when drawing your route on the map, the program will keep track of how many miles you’ll be walking. This comes in handy when we get to Step #3: Making a mileage chart. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; first comes printing out the maps.

This is the lower half of one of my TOPO! Kansas maps. It was printed out on 11x17 paper, double-sided, with color.

Step #2: Printing out maps

I would suggest printing two maps for the area you’ll be walking over. The first will be a “zoomed-out” map that will give you a general overview (comprehensive road system, scattering of towns, plus some major geographic features like big hills, lakes, and rivers (1:200,000 for Canadian Maps and 1:250,000 for US maps.) The second set of maps should be much more detailed and “zoomed in.” These maps will help you use gentle topographic features like small hills and creeks to navigate. (For Canada 1:50,000 and US 1:100,000). TOPO, by the way, will allow you to tinker with these scales.

Also, I’d recommend getting state and provincial maps as well. These can be gotten for free from any state’s tourism or transportation website. Just google “Free Kansas road map,” find the appropriate website, give them your info, and they’ll send you a map for free. I got all of my state and provincial maps for free.

Once you have all of your topographic maps, compile them in a Word document or PDF file, and have the file printed out at a professional printing service (i.e. UPS or FedEx Kinkos) on big 11 x 17 paper, double-sided with color. I probably paid about $100 for all my maps and about $350 when you include the cost of the state TOPO programs.

Step #3: Making a mileage chart

This is my mileage chart of every town I come remotely close to. (This picture, I should point out, only shows a few South Dakota and Nebraska places of interest. Towns in red font were towns that had post offices, and those that I highlighted ultimately became resupply towns. To the right are the US mileage numbers (i.e. Atkinson was at the 576th mile of the US section of my hike).

Once you’ve drawn your route onto your maps, you can begin to make a mileage chart, which will be crucial for planning food drops.

I went over my maps inch by inch, writing down the mileage number of every major road, river, and town (i.e. The towns were of particular interest to me because I needed to find post offices (roughly 100 miles apart) to ship my food resupplies.)

Now that I have my maps and my mileage chart, I can begin to think about food, which shall be discussed in my next entry.

Extra notes:

– Though I own a good backcountry GPS unit, I didn’t bring it because I didn’t want to carry the extra weight, I wanted to force myself to learn map-and-compass navigational skills, and I had an iPad, which can, in a bind, work as a GPS unit, which I’ll discuss in a forthcoming post.

– Andrew Skurka has some wonderful and much more detailed blog entries on TOPO and Toporama. I learned much from him, and I recommend these two posts of his:

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