Wednesday, November 14 , 2018, 11:44 pm | Fair 46º


Ray Ford: In Today’s Digital Age, Is It Time to Trash Your Topo Maps?

Ease of electronics may make finding your way a bit more precise, but there’s still something to be said for a paper trail

Starting our adventure from Bluff Camp at the edge of the San Rafael Wilderness. Click to view larger
Starting our adventure from Bluff Camp at the edge of the San Rafael Wilderness. (Ray Ford photo)

I have to admit that I’m an addict when it comes to maps — and topos to be more specific. I have a copy of every topo for Santa Barbara County, and plenty from most everywhere else that I’ve hiked, biked or climbed.

In past years I’ve even devoted an entire wall to a set of backcountry topos, with the collars neatly cut off and the maps taped together to form one large map of the San Rafael and Dick Smith wilderness areas.

One of the first things I’ve always done when heading into new territory is to seek out the closest bookstore, bike shop or mountaineering store. While I may buy a book or two, it’s the maps I’m most interested in, given the spatial sense of place they provide.

Simply put, I almost never take a book with me on the trail, but until recently I’d rarely leave the trailhead without the appropriate map in my back pocket or fanny pack.

The times I’ve been careless enough to leave them at home are some of the most regrettable experiences I’ve ever had. Most vividly, I remember the one time I got lost in the San Rafael Wilderness with my friend, Bard, who is a great guy to have along on the trail with you: always cheery, easy-going but tough, and patient as can be.

Exploring Santa Cruz Creek

We’d planned a day trip to explore Santa Cruz Creek from Bluff Camp, about 10 road miles in from Upper Oso. The goal to hike off-trail down the Grapevine Trail and then head off-trail down the East Fork of Santa Cruz Creek.

From there we would continue down the creek for about three miles then circle back up a small tributary to Pelch Camp where we could catch the Grapevine Trail and loop on back to Bluff.

Heading directly down the East Fork of Santa Cruz Creek. Click to view larger
Heading directly down the East Fork of Santa Cruz Creek. (Ray Ford photo)

The going was rough down the creek, with blackberry brambles, poison oak and other dead vegetation forcing us to wade in the stream quite a bit of the time. The canyon was beautiful, especially a limestone narrows that was totally unexpected, but by the time we reached the Pelch tributary it was late afternoon and we needed to scramble.

From there we quickly began wading up the smaller creek to Pelch Camp, thankful we’d finally made it and ready to be back on open trail.

Totally Disoriented

But after a well-needed rest stop and snacks, and ready to hit the trail, I realized I’d forgotten the topo at Bluff Camp with my overnight gear. Worst, I was sure the Grapevine Trail cut right through the top edge of camp but I couldn’t find it.

I’m looking at Bard and he’s looking back at me like, “aren’t you the backcountry guru”? Though he doesn’t say anything I’m sure he’s wondering how we’re going to get back to camp before dark.

Bard heads one way to see if he can find the trail and I’m looking on the opposite side of camp. There are just enough game trails that appear promising but they all peter out after a few hundred yards.

When we reach the limestone narrows that the creek has cut through, we know we’re getting close to Pelch Creek. Click to view larger
When we reach the limestone narrows that the creek has cut through, we know we’re getting close to Pelch Creek. (Ray Ford photo)

A half-hour later we’re both getting a bit frustrated and dusk is closing in. Just then we spot what appears to be an opening near the top of the Pelch meadow, but the brush is overgrown enough that it doesn’t look much different than the other dead ends we’ve explored earlier.

Neither of us is confident we’ve found the trail but finally Bard suggests we follow it to see where it will take us.

Three hundred yards or so along and, amazingly, we reach the Grapevine Trail. What a rush! I’m now feeling like a total idiot. Pelch isn’t located along the Grapevine but down the short spur that we’d just come up.

But before I can wallow in my stupidity for too long I can hear Bard say, “Hey bro, it’s still a long ways back to camp and there’s not much more than an hour before dark.” So we push on and, with luck, make it back to camp just a few minutes before the night closes in. Disaster avoided, barely.

At camp I grabbed the topo and sure enough, I could spot the spur leading off the Grapevine and the route leading down to Pelch Camp.

“That won’t ever happen again,” I vowed, and I’m pretty sure that I’ve kept that promise over the years.

The New Normal

But that was then. Today’s kids, it seems, are growing up in a far different world than the one I did, where exploration was such an adventure and heading into the unknown was just that.

Finally, we reach Pelch Creek but the creek is pretty overgrown and there is a lot of poison oak to avoid. Click to view larger
Finally, we reach Pelch Creek but the creek is pretty overgrown and there is a lot of poison oak to avoid. (Ray Ford photo)

Recently, when I related the Pelch story to a group of teenagers before a hike up the Franklin Trail mostly what I got were blank stares. Get lost? Need a paper map? Huh??

Then one of them asked, “Didn’t have your phone with you?”

“No dude,” I replied back silently, “that cute little thing you have in your hand hadn’t been invented yet.”

He pulled out his phone, punched in a few keys and proudly showed me an app, the screen filled with a small part of the Carpinteria topo map, with a bright blue dot showing us our exact location. He knew where we were and I think was a bit baffled that I didn’t.

Recent experiences like this have made it abundantly clear to me that topographic maps, like 8-track tapes and VCRs have become increasingly irrelevant in today’s world. The new normal for going outdoors seems to be an Android or iOS smart phone in your pocket.

With their increasingly accurate GPS systems, apps that provide the ability to use geo-referenced digital maps to locate your position within a few feet means you may never get lost again.

I’m not ready to throw out my topo collection quite yet, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be using them too much anymore.

Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. Click here for additional columns, or view his previous work at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter: @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.

Pelch Camp at last! Click to view larger
Pelch Camp at last! (Ray Ford photo)
Bard is as tired as I am and we haven’t discovered the trail out of the camp yet! Click to view larger
Bard is as tired as I am and we haven’t discovered the trail out of the camp yet! (Ray Ford photo)

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