Hike Off-Trail With Topomaps

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A topgraphic map of Mingo Creek County Park
A topgraphic map of Mingo Creek County Park
Photo credit: USGS/Public Domain

Relying on a topographic map and a compass to hike around the woods is an old school approach that works in remote areas where cell phones don’t work.

Hiking off the beaten path is beyond hiking on a trail. Before hiking off the grid, people might begin with less strenuous regular walks that help build muscles and short hikes to learn what preparation needs to be done.

Topographic maps – or topo maps – help people understand the terrain in advance better than a device. Using topo maps takes advance planning and practice.

Four parks in the area lend themselves to people enjoying a hike off the trail.

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  • With 2,400 acres, Mingo Creek County Park can be ideal for this sort of hike. The park doesn’t restrict hiking to trails, although people should avoid hiking on steep slopes in the park. Slopes can be avoided by looking at elevation shifts on a topo map while their planning their hike.
  • Hillman State Park is an undeveloped state park with 3,600 acres of wooded areas for off-trail hiking. Part of the park has been designated as Pennsylvania State Game Lands 117 and is managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission for hunting. Hiking may be limited on state game lands during hunting seasons.

Outside Washington County

  • Raccoon Creek State Park in Beaver County has all the forests that most people will ever need for hiking – 7,572 acres surrounding Raccoon Creek and Raccoon Lake. Along with hiking, people boat, fish, swim, camp, ride bike and go cross-country skiing at the park. 500 picnic tables can be found at picnic areas.
  • Ryerson Station State Park offers 1,164 wooded acres in Greene County, close to the West Virginia state line. Along with trees, the park is filled with picnic tables. It also offers pavilions, sites for camping, cottages, a playground and hunting.

Park are open from dawn to dusk.

What’s On A Topo Map

Contour lines are the most obvious part of a topo map. Every point on the same contour line has the same elevation. As can be seen in the image at the top of this article, contour lines are marked with numbers that show elevations and are drawn in brown.

Several contour lines spaced close together would indicate steep terrain, while lines spaced far apart would indicate a gentler slope.

Contour Lines and Topo Maps

Two contour lines that merge into one line indicates a cliff – something else to avoid as the hike is planned. Small cliffs and ravines, such as are common in the area, may not show on a topo map.

Following the contour lines (by eye or with a finger) as the numbers gets higher leads to a peak where the lines form a circle. Climbing a little peak might be doable – but not a high one.

Green indicates a lot of vegetation, which can be seen in the topo map in this article. The areas that are white in this article’s topo map are open terrain.

Thin black lines on topo maps are trails. Including trails on a hike can pace the walk and make it more enjoyable.

Roads and railroads are thicker, and are colored red or black.

Mingo Creek is a blue line. Blue lines and blue areas indicate water.

Mine shafts, which are dangerous and should be avoided, may be marked.

Human-made structures may be shown on the map.

Topo maps include a scale. For instance, a 1:24000 scale means that one inch on the map becomes less than a half-mile (2,000 feet or 24,000 inches) of terrain. Using those calculations, people can lay a string on the map along a planned route, straighten the string and measure it. A string that’s 13 inches long works out to be about a 5-mile hike, which is a good first hike.

The Orange Trail at Mingo Creek County Park is about 5 miles long. Walking the Orange Trail can help people learn whether they can hike 5 miles off-trail. Walking trails before going off-trail also familiarizes people with the terrain, which can help them plan a better off-trail experience.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), a governmental agency, provides free digital versions of topo maps. Printed versions can be purchased.

Print a custom topo map from CalTopo, which can be accessed through a browser or downloaded to a smartphone as an app. The app has a free tier. CalTopo has a paid feature that overlays slope angles, allowing people to figure out whether a route is too steep.

Trail Safety

Planning an off-trail hike calls for more attention to safety than a simple walk or day hike on an established trail.

Wandering off the trail can have serious consequences.

Hiking at the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR)

  • Match the distance of the off-trail hike and elevations to climb with personal physical fitness to avoid overdoing it.
  • Bring water and snacks.
  • Take a first aid kit and a whistle.
  • Pack a cell phone, topo map and compass.

There’s enough information on a topo map to … find your bearings in a pinch.


  • In the summer, it’s a good idea to have sun screen, sun glasses and a hat.
  • Hike with a friend.
  • Let other people know your route and timetable. This can help people get found more quickly if the adventure goes awry.
  • Check the weather before setting out.
  • Some people take a walking stick.

Forests can include areas with delicate habitats that can be destroyed by careless hiking. Animals can be spooked by people walking through their territory. People should be careful about how and where they walk.

As people move from taking regular walks to short hikes to a hike with a topographic map, they can plan a hike off the beaten path using printed topo maps and a compass that will work even when the cell phone signal is lost.

Four places to hike off trail