Finding My Way
BY KIERSTIN KLOECKNER
There are three songs, one Led Zepplin and two
Rush, I tend to sing on a continuous loop during long bike ventures. Finding My
Way, Ramble On and Fly By Night. All three tend to tap into the “adventure
side” of me. All three make me want to get lost and then find my way back home.
And although I purposely allow myself to drift and get lost from time to time,
you will never see me on one of these ramblings without a map. Call me a
Luddite if you will. Mock me for choosing to take the old-fashioned route. But
mark my words, even if I make my way over to GPS land permanently at some
point, I will always be armed with a good old fashioned map and will most
likely have a cue sheet of sorts tucked away just in case everything hits the
In this modern world, we have made so many useful breakthroughs. The GPS being
one of them. For those not map savvy, or for those not fond of stopping to pull
out a map frequently, the GPS has helped cyclists and drivers reach their
destinations with much more ease. It has also put a lot of folks who are not
prepared out into both wilderness or rural areas.
I will admit, I have used both. My first time was riding with others at Dairy Roubaix in 2012. I had my personal map and cue sheet, but I was riding for awhile with several folks who were only using their Garmins. There was a tricky spot on the course where we had to backtrack for a bit but then take a turn off the way we came in. The Garmin led us astray and we missed our turn even though my cue sheet had directed us to turn at that mileage point. There was no harm done, and we were only off by half a mile before we realized it, but from that point on, I didn’t trust GPS units fully. I saw them as a tool or back up to my map and cue format. The same situation played out a month later during Almanzo. A large group missed a critical turn because their computers didn’t sound off to turn. For the rest of the ride, I relied solely on my odometer and cue sheet but had to make constant calculations due to the added mileage form the wrong turn.
Looking back, most of my life has been full of reading maps. Exploring state park hiking trails as a kid, then the BWCA and Beartooth Wilderness as a teen as well as taking longer road rides outside of city limits, and finally taking non-stop road trips to wilderness areas in my twenties. Cell phones didn’t exist, and GPS units were only used by a few and were not affordable or packable. The moment you stepped foot out of the city, you better have a map handy or be ready to knock on a door or stop a local driver if you came across one if lost.
As I ventured further and further away from civilization, my map reading skills had to expand. I went from checking road signs and matching them to my map to becoming efficient at map and compass. I learned to study maps prior to my outings to familiarize myself with the terrain (elevation gain, steepness, water availability) and make either notes or cue sheets so I didn’t have to unfold my map at each turn or juncture. Maps essentially became both my friend and my lifeline. I kept them post trip, and sometimes even framed them. Their presence in my house gave constant whispers of possibilities or upcoming trips. In essence, maps inspired me to dream, plan and engage. To this day, look under my bed and you will find a large plastic bin of maps and cue sheets…separated by location as well as activity. This bin is one of the few things I’d make sure to grab if there was a fire and I could only save a few items.
So how does this map fanatic maneuver through a world run on GPS systems? Well, I use both. When driving someplace new, I use them initially to orient myself. I may even have the unit on silent mode throughout the trip. I do, however, still study the route prior to taking off. By doing so I feel more connected to the journey itself vs. just the destination. I also will use them from time to time on gravel events if I know there are multiple unmarked forest service roads or farm roads. There are certain areas in both Northern Illinois and Northern Wisconsin where every road sign seems to be missing. I guess all emergency workers are also using GPS too! Although I have become a master at “guessing the road” by counting turns and studying the shape of the road, it can be frustrating to stop at each intersection to study a map, especially during gnat, mosquito or black fly season! Amusingly enough, however, I have a map case on my bike bag and I tend to second guess and double check each turn the computer tells me to take.
As a former wilderness instructor and wilderness first responder, I would urge anyone using solely GPS units to learn or brush up on some basic map reading skills. And although gravel events usually don’t put you that far into true wilderness areas; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bailed out other riders out who chose not to carry the cue sheet or map and rely completely on their computer. Think about it…batteries die and computers can go on the blink. Maps are almost foolproof. Learn your cardinal directions and wind direction. If all else fails, you can usually tell by the angle of the sun and where the wind is coming from which direction you are traveling. Also, write out some prominent things which may trip you up if just using GPS (where water crossings are, large climbs, water stops, etc). If anything, they will act as destination markers to help split up a long ride.
With writing this article, I’m not taking one side or the other. I just have my personal preferences and know what has worked best for me over the years. Both maps and GPS units have their place and I’m quite happy I’ve been schooled in using both. Here’s to rambling on and finding your way back home…or at least back to civilization!