Mapping out the forest

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RALPH BARTHOLDT/Press North Idaho hunters have more than a dozen maps to choose from as they plan their outings and hit the trails this season. Some of the choices are better than others.


Staff Writer

Allen Scott is a map guy.

He likes the feel of the paper under his finger as he follows a contour line on a topographic map. Lines bunched together show steep terrain. He knows that. When he sees lines that spread apart like pages falling open in a book, his mind holds a picture of forested glades, meadows and benches.

Those far apart lines represent places where walking is probably easier, and a hiker can kick back in the shade of trees and crack a lunch.

Scott, who owns North Idaho Blueprint, began selling topographical maps at his store 30 years ago.

“We used to hunt a lot,” his son, Brett, said. “There was no place in town that carried them.”

Nowadays the maps, which come in a couple different sizes, cost about $12. And despite a plethora of GPS-based products on the market or available as apps on a smartphone, Scott’s North Fourth Street shop still sells a bunch of paper maps.

“They are not as popular as they used to be, but we do sell a lot of them,” Allen Scott said.

Topp maps are a good option for boots on the ground, but anyone interested in familiarizing themselves with the 5,000 square miles of public land in the Panhandle should consider visiting a local ranger district.

The Fernan Ranger Station on the 2500 block of East Sherman Avenue has more than a dozen free maps, including the district’s motor vehicle use map — a behemoth depiction that is glossy white and almost the size of a tablecloth. It was updated in 2015 and shows the spiderweb system of roads on the state’s federal land.

The forest map for the Kaniksu, Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe is the same size, multicolored and includes Idaho Department of Fish and Game hunting unit boundaries, trailheads, points of interest and land ownership. Between its accordion folds lie myriad motorized and nonmotorized roads and trails. It plots elevations, creeks, peaks and campgrounds.

“If there’s a better map, I want to know about it,” said Kimberly Davis, who works at the ranger station.

Roger Phillips, IDFG spokesperson, knows the security that’s kindled by a good map. For Phillips, maps are as important in the woods as good boots.

“I’m a map nerd,” he said.

A detailed, updated, fold-in-your-pocket map is functional, Phillips said. And it usually won’t let you down.

“The batteries will never go dead on a map,” he said.

When he decides to visit new country, however, it isn’t always paper that Phillips turns to. He uses the IDFG Hunt Planner on the department website.

“You can tell it what to do,” he said.

The planner shows boundaries, hunt units, contour lines and zooms in to specific drainages, creek bottoms or road systems. It’s utilitarian for hunters and hikers in the state’s ample backcountry.

“It’s a really good tool,” he said.

The maps on the website can be printed, sprayed with waterproofing or stuffed into a ziplock bag and carried into the field.

The department’s planner can be accessed on a cell phone along with commercial GPS products. Their main value, he said, is to assure you don’t cross boundaries, and, in a pinch, to make sure you return safely to your vehicle.

Because of their accuracy, the IDFG product can make sure you stay within a controlled hunt unit.

“I’ll know that if I’m 10 yards from the unit boundary, everything to the right of me is in play, and everything to the left of me is out of play.”

Battery life, however, can be a problem with a GPS unit or a cellphone app.

“They eat batteries really fast,” he said.

And whether a hiker or hunter uses paper or electronic, knowing a map’s shortcomings is just as important as using its advantages. Maps in a scale of 1:100,000 can show routes in and out of the forest and provide enough detail for road travel, but a hiker needs what is called a 7 1/2 minute map. It scales down to 1:24,000, in which one inch equals 2,000 feet.

A lot of maps sold commercially are not updated regularly, or they may use inaccurate scales. It’s best to use a map designed for whatever purpose you have in mind.

“Every map has its weakness,” Phillips said.

Allen tends to stay away from smartphones to map a ground plan.

”It’s nice to have a hard copy,” he said.

Pulling out a map and plotting destinations in the woods, routes that take you there and that will get you back out, highlighting landmarks and nearby waterways, is what captivates many map aficionados.

“It’s kind of fun to look at a map and see where you were, and where you are,” he said. “It’s a good tool for getting in and out of the woods.”

Topo maps can also be downloaded at the USGS website. Scott’s shop prints them on waterproof Tyvek.

“It’s basically indestructible,” he said.

Forest Service PDF maps can also be downloaded at

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