Cool People Use Maps

This is part II of a series on Maps. Read part I here.

There are few skills as fulfilling as navigating by map and compass. Chopping wood? Weak. Sculpting? Common. Driving? Really now… that is a basic necessity if you are reading this blog. I think I have made my point… Nothing is more skillful and savvy than reading a map and compass. But because I like to beat a dead horse, I’ll tell you a story.

I (Aaron) remember during 6th grade camp at Trout Lodge we had an orienteering competition. We all broke off into groups of 5 and were assigned a camp counselor to make sure we didn’t do anything stupid. (We were 6th graders after all.) The idea was to find a set of pre-placed markers and make it back before any of the other groups. Well I am pleased to say that my group won that competition by at least an hour. The only downside was that I spent the rest of the evening picking thorns and burrs out of my legs, and the rest of the week scratching my poison ivy (but trust me, there is nothing more manly than having battle scars from your heroic expedition. I didn’t mind too much). None of this would have been possible without my map and my compass.

Thankfully for you, you don’t have to bush wack through the Ozarks to get the thrill of a good map. There are plenty of ways to enjoy a map while staying on a well maintained trail or road. The first way is to use a highway map. The most basic of which are the State Highway maps you can pick up for free at just about any rest stop.

1. They are free. Literally they are free. I’ve heard that if you are a AAA member you can just put in a call and they will send you as many as you want. One of my friends claims to have wallpapered his room with highway maps as as child. I never saw pictures so I’m sure it never happened, but the thought is rather pleasing. You can pick up a copy of your state highway map at the DMV, most rest stops, some truck stops, and in some states you can even just download them or order them online. (I’ve personally enjoyed this page of historic maps, but we will get to using historic maps in another post.)

Even a good map can’t prepare you for everything.

2. They are simple to use… if you stay on major roads. Interstates, US Highways, most state roads, some county roads, and major city roads are usually included on the map. Notable landmarks such as major cities, highest points, forested areas, and bodies of water also show up clearly on the map and can help to give you a good bearing.


1. You have to learn how to fold a map (I tried finding a link to a video about the struggles of map folding, but all of them involved profanity of some sort. That should give you an idea of the rage and fury this task brings forth.) I think highway maps were passed down to us from a race of Origami masters who are now extinct. I’m not entirely convinced they weren’t wiped out in an unsuccessful attempt to spare the world of their plight.

2. It is easy to get lost. Because they are limited by their size (the whole map has to fit on 1 page) they often miss out what would be important landmarks that could help you find your way. They also misstate the size of roads and bodies of water. Often a road looks like it crosses a river. But under further inspection with a microscope you realize that there is a gap and you end up having to turn around at the one house with the rottweiler, the confederate flag, and shirtless man with a shotgun at the ready.

3. Because of Con #1 you can’t simply glance down at the map while you are driving to get your bearings. You have to stop, pull over, grab a roll of tape or a weight to hold down the massive sail you are about to unfurl or else you’ll be carried off like Dorothy and Toto into someplace like Kansas. (We’re in Missouri, I’m just a little bit partial. If I had the choice between Oz and Kansas, I wouldn’t be tapping my ruby slippers anytime soon.)

So with the score now 2-3, I can safely say that using a free highway map is a harrowing (ergo character building) endeavor which all of you should try. But if you feel like seeing what other options there may be, I suggest you wait until the next time I decide to talk about maps in which I will discuss the timeless Road Atlas.

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  1. Or better yet, the state gazetteer. I love looking at a state gazetteer for strange and unknown localities to explore.