I had the pleasure of meeting several hikers on the trail this year who had purchased and read my book. All had something in common: they did NOT have my book with them. It’s an ebook, after all, and I didn’t spot a single iPad on the JMT. It’s also a “planning” guide, not trail guide.
They shouldn’t feel bad–I didn’t carry a copy of it either. Instead, I carried Eric the Black’s John Muir Trail Atlas. Although it wasn’t without flaws, overall I was quite pleased with my choice.
The book is a compact eight-inch-by-five-inch volume, and is about an eighth of an inch thick. Mine, complete with 212 miles of dirt and sweat, weighs in at two-and-three-quarters ounces. Inside you’ll find twenty-five pages, printed front and back. (If one were to number each page, except for the back of the covers, it would be fifty pages.) I was NOT careful with mine, and it remained legible and without a tear throughout the trip.
The first five pages includes a legend, a list of places from which one can resupply, an overview of the entire trail, and town maps for Mammoth Lakes, Bishop, Independence, and Lone Pine. I can see where they might come in handy, although I didn’t use any of that introductory information, except for the legend.
On the sixth page the good stuff begins. The entire trail, from Happy Isles to the top of Mount Whitney (and down to Whitney Portal) is represented on forty-three pages.
Each page has three sections. The top is a table of landmarks that appear on that page’s map with mileage and elevation data. There is also a set of icons associated with each landmark. The icons refer to the place as a possible water source, camping area, bridge, etc. The mileage data is cumulative (both going southbound and northbound), so when you arrive at the bottom of the Golden Staircase, for example, in an instant you can tell you’ve walked 145.2 miles from Happy Isles, and you have just 65.2 miles to the top of Whitney. (The cumulative distances are also handy for calculating your daly mileage between campsites.)
The second section depicts two sets of data, one quite useful and one not so much. The useful one is the mileage between landmarks (instead of the cumulative mileage you found in the section above). Of all the data I found in the guide, this is what I probably referred to the most. I met some folks on the trail who questioned the mileage figures, but I found them to be pretty reasonable. Measuring trail distance is an exercise in approximation, regardless of how you do it, and this book does as good a job as any. (It certainly does better than the signs you’ll find in Yosemite.)
While the miles between landmarks was great to have, the other illustration in the second section was the weakest part of the atlas: the profiles. It’s not that the profiles were inaccurate, it’s just that the scale was compressed & inconsistent from page to page, and the effect was that I really didn’t get a feel for how steep the terrain was ahead.
How important are the profiles to a hiker? Since this was my second thru-hike, it wasn’t that big of a deal–I knew what was coming. On my first thru-hike, though, I found the self-made pages I used (which were great at illustrating the climbs and descents ahead) invaluable. I would not have wanted to be without them.
The last section, occupying the lower three-quarters of the page, is a 3D shaded, topographical map. On the map the location of each landmark is shown, along with a number of other waypoints.
(All landmarks and waypoints, by the way, are downloadable from his website to your GPS unit after you buy the atlas. Waypoints have the atlas page number in the name. Being able to get them on your handheld device in seconds, instead of manually entering each one either through a software package like TOPO, or, God-forbid, manually entering them into your GPS, was WONDERFUL. Out on the trail, even though my old Garmin didn’t depict the terrain, I could quickly see where I was by interpolating between the waypoints that appeared on my screen.)
The maps also are marked so that you can determine the UTM coordinates for any location, and show possible water sources, camping areas, and other useful information.
I liked the maps quite a bit. Their only drawback, as compared to the Tom Harrison set I carried on my first hike, was that they show a relatively limited amount of terrain. You could identify a peak, using the atlas, which was two or three miles away. You probably couldn’t identify one if it was five or six miles distant. (On the other hand, you could tell more about the terrain represented on the map, since the scale was smaller.)
One similarity with the Tom Harrison maps: it’s cause for a minor celebration when you exit one map sheet to another, and with forty-three maps, the celebrations come quicker!
A last observation: my atlas also became an augmentation to my trail journal. I noted times I arrived and left campsites and break areas, the number of other people I met during that day, where I camped, etc. That is much easier to do with this atlas than with traditional map sets.
I don’t know Erik Black, but he seems like a skilled backpacker who is trying to turn his passion into a living (or at least have it contribute to his bottom line). I can certainly sympathize with that. The price is $30, which is a little more than my book, but you don’t have to carry your iPad to read it!
Good hiking, Ray