How to Read a Map

Know How To Read A Map
And You May Stay Alive
 By Tread Trainer Tom Severin

Photo by Audrius Meskauskas

It’s easy these days to rely entirely on a GPS receiver to direct you during a trip. Just program in your destination, and let the friendly voice and digital map guide you along the way. But like any electronic gadget, a GPS unit has its limitations, and you can end up in trouble if you’re not careful. Plus, they can lose power or break, leaving you stranded if you don’t have a back up.

GPS units are of limited use when you’re driving off road. The maps and other data they provide tell you how to get from Point A to Point B, but they say nothing about the quality of the roads. This became painfully clear to a group that was traveling in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in early August. Instead of a leisurely ride, these folks found themselves being led down the wrong roads, many of which were barely passable, and way off course. They ended up at the edge of a cliff, where they spent the night before being rescued.
The GPS system offered what appeared to be the most obvious route, which normally is the most direct, but it could not account for the quality of the roads. Their vehicles got stuck in sand, and in their attempt to backtrack they ran low on gas. But they were lucky: they got out alive.
Driving off road requires more than just a command of a 4WD vehicle. You need a good topographical map to help you navigate that difficult terrain. Available from numerous retailers, a topographical map shows various features such as hills, streams, and gullies, and provides a better idea of the paths and roads you’ll encounter. If you don’t know how to read a topographical map, I suggest you find someone who can teach you.
One of the best topographical maps is the 7-1/2 minute series published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). This is a very detailed map at a scale of 1:24,000. Most GPS mapping software is based on the work of the USGS.
If you are used to using latitude/longitude formats with your GPS in degree, minutes, and seconds, you should become familiar with the UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) system. It makes pin pointing your location on a map (or vice versa) much easier.
The 7-1/2 minute maps also show UTM grid lines, which help you calculate the coordinates of your position. The UTM system divides up the entire planet into a series of grids six degrees wide by eight degrees tall. Each grid is referenced by a two-digit number representing the east-west direction and a letter that designates north-south direction. (For example, most of southern California is in UTM sector 11S.) Every location in the grid is measured north in meters from the equator and east in meters from a point west of the grid.
It might take awhile to grasp the entire concept, but fortunately you don’t need to in order to use UTM. You’ll notice tick marks along the edges of your map. These divide up the map into section 1,000 meters on a side. By overlaying a more detailed grid pattern, available through various stores, you can create subsections that are a mere 100 meters on a side.
A careful reading of the values of the east-west and north-south grid lines will give you the approximate coordinates for your location. Close enough, anyway, to lead rescuers to you and your family.
GPS receivers are extremely helpful for most trips. Heck I rely on the one in my vehicle to get me around the state and even out east to see my kids. But you shouldn’t rely entirely on one when you’re off road. Learning how to read a topographical map and calculate a location–which aren’t hard to do–can literally be a life saver, and bring a lot of peace of mind to your next off-road adventure.

Tom Severin is a volunteer Tread Lightly! Master Tread Trainer.  He is also a 4×4 Coach and teaches 4WD owners how to confidently and safely use their vehicles to the fullest extent in difficult terrain and adverse driving conditions. Visit to develop or improve your driving skill.  Copyright 2015, Badlands Off-Road Adventures, Inc.

Can I Recreate in “Wilderness” Areas?


Area Designated As WildernessWilderness is a legal designation designed to provide long-term protection and conservation of Federal public lands. Wilderness is defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964 as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…”


Wilderness Areas support a wide variety of recreation uses that are consistent with protection of wilderness characteristics. Recreational uses in wilderness include activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, backpacking, camping, nature study, photography, and climbing. Bicycles and other forms of mechanical transport are not allowed in Wilderness Areas, since they are prohibited by the Wilderness Act.


No. The Wilderness Act generally prohibits the use of motor vehicles in wilderness. The law contains special provisions for motor vehicle use when required in emergencies or as necessary for the administration of the area. Motor vehicles may also be permitted for special uses such as access to a private inholding, to support grazing, or to exercise valid existing rights.

List of Wilderness areas in the United States

How to minimize impact when camping in Wilderness

More information about the 1964 Wilderness Act

Tread Lightly! Announces New Website Launch

Tread Lightly!, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and enhancing recreation opportunities through education and stewardship, announced today the launch of their newly revamped website at

This new website will feature an event calendar, quick tips, program information, new recreation tips, including the responsible use of drones on public land, and an easy-to-navigate interface to engage users in a more effective way.

“We are excited about our new website launch and the information it provides for recreationists, land managers, partners and media to better understand how to minimize their impact on public land,” said Brian Higgins, Tread Lightly!’s Marketing Manager. now features state-specific information to help recreationists find information relative to their local trails. The mobile-friendly site will help on-the-trail users be able to access responsible recreation tips and maps easily.

Tread Lightly!’s site will be updated regularly with new featured articles, videos and more. For more information on Tread Lightly!’s mission visit:

About Tread Lightly!

Tread Lightly! is a national nonprofit organization with a mission to promote responsible recreation through ethics education and stewardship programs. Tread Lightly!’s educational message, along with its unique training and restoration initiatives are strategically designed to instill an ethic of responsibility in outdoor enthusiasts and the industries that serve them.  The program is long-term in scope with a goal to balance the needs of the people who enjoy outdoor recreation with our need to maintain a healthy environment.  Tread Lightly!’s award-winning materials, programs and services are solutions to some of the nation’s most pressing recreation issues. Individuals and businesses can commit to Tread Lightly! and protect outdoor access by becoming a member at

Usher in 2018 with New Membership Benefits

The New Year is the perfect time start anew with membership benefits that fit your recreation lifestyle and help you save in 2018!

Are you a member of an active Tread Lightly! club?

This year we are giving members of Tread Lightly! Clubs huge saving on individual memberships.


Also new in 2018

General Tire Discount up to $100 rebate for $50+ Individual members

And out brand new 2018 Membership T-shirt and decal designs!

We still have our most popular Tread Lightly! Membership benefits including:

$100+ Individual Members

  • Chrysler, Jeep Ram, Dodge, SRT, and Fiat Affiliate Rewards Program Preferred Price, 1% below factory invoice on purchase or lease of new vehicles

$50+ Individual Members

  • FREE 2018 member shirt and decal
  • 20% off Tread Lightly! online store
  • 20% off Goal Zero online purchases
  • Up to $100 General Tire rebate
  • Up to $100 Discount Tire rebate
  • 20% off OutdoorX4 Subscription
  • Eligible to apply for a Tread Lightly! Stewardship Grant

$25+ Individual Members 

  • FREE member decal

Find the membership that fits your lifestyle at

Respect and Protect Native American Heritage

In the early 90’s the month of November was deemed ‘Native American Heritage month’ to help recognize the significant contributions and growth that have been made by Native Americans. Tread Lightly!, along with our dedicated partners, would like to encourage you to take time this month to learn and appreciate the rich traditions and ancestry of Native Americans and help us protect ancient artifacts, rock art and petroglyphs.

We recently teamed up with the Utah Bureau of Land Management on a campaign called Respect and Protect. This campaign aims to educate the public about how to protect cultural, historical and archaeological resources on federal, state and tribal lands from looting and vandalism. You can help by reporting vandalism on public land to your local land management agency.

Help us see these amazing relics into the future by sharing our message. Use the hashtag #RespectandProtect when sharing these sites on social media and be an on-the-ground advocate when on public lands.

Check out our video on the importance of our Native American history, filmed in Escalante, Utah above.

Outdoor Retailer Show 2016

Tread Lightly! is lucky to have an office located in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, not only because of the awesome access to ski resorts, but because it hosts the Outdoor Retailer Show, the largest outdoor gear, apparel, accessories and technology tradeshow.

This year’s Winter show is expected to bring in over 22k attendants throughout the weekend. We toured The Salt Palace convention center on opening day and found some pretty cool gear. Check it out:

How to Clean Up Oil Spills on the Trail

How to Clean Up Toxic Oil Spills Promptly, Thoroughly, When Driving Outdoors

By Tom Severin, volunteer Tread Trainer and 4×4 Coach


We four-wheelers are naturally conscientious folks, and are always concerned about our impact on the environment. Unfortunately, we  sometimes are faced with leaks and spills from our vehicles.


Engine oil, transmission oil, gear oil, brake fluid and radiator fluid can have a devastating effect on the environment and wildlife. Radiator fluid is particularly hazardous, as its sweet taste makes it attractive to mammals. Worse, it doesn’t take much to kill. One teaspoon of ethanol glycol will kill a cat; three tablespoons will put down a dog. I highly recommend you switch to a propylene-based radiator fluid like Sierra brand. If by chance you spill some and don’t get it cleaned up thoroughly, there’s less of a risk to native animals.


As with any exercise, planning and preparation are key.  Essential clean-up items include a plastic container with a tight lid (Tupperware products work nicely), kitty litter, paper towels or rags, and a shovel. You probably already have paper or plastic cups in your vehicle. If not, grab some. High-tech absorbents and wipes are available for large oil spill situations and to wipe down rock surfaces.  You may want to pick up some to help with those problems.


If you choose to build a spill kit, I highly recommend you include kitty litter. It is one of the most absorbent materials around. NewPig offers a variety of useful materials as well as complete spill kits.


Before dealing with any spill or leak, make sure that the vehicle is secure and that all passengers are safe.


First, catch any dripping liquid in a plastic container. Use a cup to scoop up pools of liquid. If need be, dam up the area to keep the spill from spreading. Use special absorbent rolls like the Pig Blue Socks, or build a mini earthen dike around the spill.


Next, spread kitty litter or other absorbent material to soak up the spill. Paper towels, rags, diapers, even a t-shirt or sweatshirt will do in an emergency.


You should also pack absorbents and wipes designed for oil spills. Two others that are particularly effective are PeatSorb and Oil-Dri. You may find these products locally, but look for a retailer who breaks down the bulk quantities and offers these materials in smaller units. You’ll save money by buying larger quantities and breaking them down for yourself and friends into individual spill kits.

PeatSorb is ideal because it is very effective on grease and oil spots (even on rock), and it is naturally decomposing.


Everything is hauled out. Proper clean up means that the spilled liquid and contaminated soils are removed for proper disposal. All material and soil should be collected in plastic bags; double-bag, if possible. Place the bags on the rubber floor mats in case there’s a leak. Gear oil, in particular, leaves a nasty smell in your carpet that is very difficult to remove. Remember to wipe down rocks with the proper absorbent pads available from PeatSorb and Oil-Dri.


Make sure the lid is secure on your container(s). You don’t want the fluids and kitty litter spilling all over the inside of your vehicle.


When you get home, dispose of the mess in the proper manner. Call your local authorities if you have any questions about how to handle this material. You may be able to use PeatSorb-treated soil. The manufacturer claims that the soil is safe to use for planting in three weeks.


Toxic spills are a potential with off-road driving. Quick action on your part, using ordinary household products, will ensure you leave the area as you found it.


Tom Severin, 4×4 Coach and Tread Lightly! Master Tread Trainer, teaches 4WD owners how to use their vehicles safely and confidently over difficult terrain in adverse conditions. to develop or improve your driving skill.


Copyright 2009, Badlands Off-Road Adventures, Inc.