Create your own adventure map

I was sitting in a coffee shop partway through a road trip, thinking ahead to my next stop: Joshua Tree National Park. I had a hiking book, a park map and pages of notes from a variety of Internet sources. With only a few days to spend in the park, I wanted to put these disparate sources of information together in a way that was easy for me to actually use. The book contained too much information, the map was overwhelming and the scraps of paper shoved in my pack were disorganized. How could I put all my research together into a neat, user-friendly package?

The map, I thought, was the easiest visual display of data. But it had too much detail about certain things and too little detail about others. I decided to pull out a journal and a pack of markers (you travel with these too, right?) to see what I could do.

In a couple hours, I had it: a beautiful, easy to use map that contained navigational details, major roads, trails, ranger stations and notes relevant to our trip. All on two pages of a journal.

Weeks later, I decided to replicate my process step-by-step in order to demonstrate how you, too, can craft your own adventure map. I chose a park I had never visited and knew nothing about: Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Through the process of creating a map for a fake adventure, I actually got REALLY EXCITED about visiting; I started researching flights and thinking through the logistics of how to make a trip to Texas this fall! What I learned is that the act of reading and processing information can breed a deep interest in a subject. So here’s your warning: if you start creating your own map, you’re going to find a way to make your plan come to life. Enjoy!

Choose a park

Obviously, you’ve got to start somewhere.

Draw the major roads

“I’m not an artist,” you exclaim. Hear me out: you can do this. Look at an overview map of your park. Find the major route(s) in the park and just focus on those first. Those are the roads leading to the entrance booths, ranger stations and points of interest. You don’t have to get it super accurate (although if the size is right you can trace over a paper map.) Get the general idea on paper. Use a pencil so you can adjust the lines later. This will be the framework for your entire design. Write the name of the park at the top of the page, wherever it fits conveniently.

As you begin the research portion of this project, you can look back at this visual reminder of the park’s layout. This will help you develop a reasonable itinerary that will fit within your time constraints.

Research activities and destinations for your season of travel

This is where you’ll spend the bulk of your time, and you don’t even have to touch the map again during this process. Think about:

  • Permits and fees
  • Points of interest
  • Activities (hiking, kayaking, guided tours, climbing, etc.)
  • Time commitments for each activity
  • Camping/lodging options
  • Ranger station/park hours of operation

Remember the “seasonal” part of this research assignment. Not all activities and areas of the park will be accessible all times of the year. Also, if you want to participate in activities that require advanced registration and/or permits, find out about availability and dates NOW. Popular tours and activities sell out quickly. Not sure how to go about trip planning? I’ve written a whole series of articles on the topic, starting here.

Calculate drive times and add them to the map

Here’s where a bit of technology can help immensely with your trip planning and map functionality. Go online and calculate drive times between points on the map, like how long it would take to drive from one entrance to another, or from the campground to the major hiking trails. Since road quality and speed limits will vary from place to place, simply plotting the mileage isn’t all that helpful. It might take you an hour to go down a 10 mile gravel road or to get through a traffic nightmare in peak season at Yellowstone. It’s also helpful at this stage to look up park shuttle options and schedules as well as if you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle to travel safely on certain roads.

Plot important landmarks

Now the fun part begins. Grab that pack of markers because you’re going to want to color code these. Create a key of symbols that you can use to represent the following items:

  • campgrounds/lodging
  • ranger stations
  • trailheads
  • gas stations
  • restrooms
  • picnic areas
  • points of interest

This is not an exhaustive list. Choose a few items that are relevant to you and start adding them to your map skeleton. You may also need to add more roads to your base map at this point. Only include the information that is necessary; if you want to see it all you can refer back to the actual park map.

Create an itinerary

Now that you’re looking at a map of the things that are important to you and you can see how long it will take to drive from place to place, you can build an itinerary. How much time do you have to explore the park? Start by ranking, in order of importance, the things you really do not want to miss. Then look at your map. What’s near those key destinations that you could add on? What are your route options? Take notes on a separate piece of paper. You’ll add this information to your map, but not yet.

Add relevant hiking trails to the map

I’m assuming hiking is your thing (you are reading a hiking blog) so this is going to be critical. But if you’re doing other things like biking, rafting, etc you can add these routes as well. Just add the trails that you intend on exploring during your trip. Add a few backup, plan B hikes too. You and I both know that trips rarely happen exactly as planned. So prepare for that now instead of scrambling later. Your trails do not have to be to scale or perfectly reflect the hike. If you want, add distance and estimated hike time near the trails you draw on your map. Then you won’t have to memorize or look up these facts later.

Research interesting background facts

Take some time to get to know your park. With even just a little bit of knowledge, you’ll be able to appreciate the park so much more once you get there. I’m most interested in the plants and animals I might see, but you might be curious about things like geology, native culture and history. Start digging around on the park website and other resources to gather a bit of background. Then add a few tidbits to the map where there’s blank space.

Create a checklist

I love a good checklist. I added two checklists to my map: animals and plants. I randomly selected a mixture of things I wanted to see and things I was likely to see. The list size was determined by how much room was on the page. But if you’re big into lists, you could put that on a separate page in your journal. Other list ideas include: points of interest, historical sites, scavenger hunt items (great if you’re bringing kits along), etc. What are you most excited to see?

Add timely information

Your map should be looking pretty sweet by now. It’s time to set it aside until the trip is just about ready to take off. Dive back into research mode and add information related to weather forecasts, road conditions and other timely data.

Fill out the blank space

Here’s an optional, but fun step you can take to put some finishing touches on your map. If in your research you found some interesting tidbits or useful bits of information that didn’t make it on the map yet, here’s your chance. You should have some areas of blank page where there’s room to add more text or drawings.

Just remember not to make your map too cluttered because that’s what you were trying to avoid in the beginning!

Interact with your map during the trip

This is a living document. Use it! Check off the things you see. Highlight the trails you walk. Add information you learn or you think you’ll need once you’re there. Jot down the ideas you get from the rangers. Cross out anything you got wrong. And use the remaining pages in your journal to record things that just won’t fit on your map.

While this may seem like a long and daunting process, the act of researching and engaging with the place ahead of time will serve to enhance your enjoyment of the trip. If at any time, this project feels like a chore, then set it aside. This should be fun, just like your ultimate adventure.

If you make one of these for your next trip, please leave a comment with your experience and share your pics! I’m excited to see what you come up with. Happy adventuring…