Gear Review: National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Maps

It takes a lot to improve on the concept of a map. After all, excluding GPS, it’s not like too much has really changed in the area of navigation in the last century or so.

But National Geographic has really upped the ante with its line of Trails Illustrated maps. Developed it partnership with local land managers and choc full of region-specific information, each of the line’s 200-plus U.S. titles is tailor-made for backcountry exploration. Featuring a wide range of popular outdoor destinations (Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area is well represented, for example, as is Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Franconia Notch in New Hampshire and the Great Smoky Mountains), the maps feature a mix of access information (roads, parking areas, campgrounds) and backcountry guides (detailed topographic information, well marked trails, recreational points of interest and navigational aids), along with specific local information about each area (access fees, for example, and permit information).

Aside from the nuts and bolts, however, what really sets these maps apart from the crowd is the plastic material they’re printed on. Tear-resistant and waterproof, these things are all but indestructible on the trail (and they can even be used after being frozen, according to the care instructions). Spill a little of your morning coffee? No problem, it wipes right off. Want to fold, un-fold and re-fold your map (over and over and over again)? Don’t expect to see any tears along these creases. Caught out in the rain or snow? Not a problem. In fact, if I have any gripe at all about the Trails Illustrated maps it’s that they’re almost too tough, making it difficult to ball them up or stuff them in a pocket in a hurry.

So, can the unbreakable map be broken? Obviously, yes (and the tip of a hiking pole will do the job nicely), but why would you want to? Not only do these maps stand up to the rigors of general outdoor use beautifully, they all but beckon you back outside. With great destinations and concise “only what you need information,” I can’t recommend these maps highly enough.

Yes, the Trails Illustrated titles do command a premium over more basic topo maps, but the very fact that they are durable and they last make them worth the extra cost. Recommended for winter and summer use.

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About the author

Tim Sprinkle

Tim Sprinkle is a Denver-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Outside, Backpacker and Wired.