Six maps you need for an urban evacuation

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maps you needLet’s assume an urban disaster scenario, and you must leave quickly. How will you find your way? What maps do you need?

We’re talking about the printed, paper in hand type. Don’t plan to rely on a GPS. They are as reliable as their batteries, and constant use could mean the unit is soon powerless. Also, any electronic device can break or just quit working.

So before you worry about maps, get a good compass. I prefer one with a clear baseplate that is designed to work on maps. Invest in a good one with declination settings, and then learn how to use it. The smaller compasses that come with some survival kits are only useful as backups and for giving a general direction.

Here are the maps you need:

City map: Your evacuation will start with this map, so get one with the finest detail possible. This map can help you figure out alternative street evacuation routes if bridges and/or overpasses are closed. Also, gridlock on major highways and freeways is a given, so you might need to plot a course around them.

Topographical map: A topo map is a three-dimensional view of an area. Looking at it, you can get an idea of the terrain.

According to the Geospatial and Analysis Cooperative of Idaho State University: “The concept of a topographic map is, on the surface, fairly simple. Contour lines placed on the map represent lines of equal elevation above (or below) a reference datum.

Topographical maps show the terrain features of an area.
Topographical maps show the terrain features of an area.

“To visualize what a contour line represents, picture a mountain (or any other topographic feature) and imagine slicing through it with a perfectly flat, horizontal piece of glass. The intersection of the mountain with the glass is a line of constant elevation on the surface of the mountain and could be put on a map as a contour line for the elevation of the slice above a reference datum.”

I have the National Geographic mapping software for Oregon, so I create a custom topo map for every outing. I print them out on standard-sized letter or legal-sized paper. These sizes fold nicely in half and fit in a quart Ziploc plastic bag. This bag, in turn, rides in the thigh pocket of my BDU pants. The map is easy to pull out and check, which means it will be.

During an urban evacuation, you might need to go cross-country through a park or open space to avoid crowds or other potential dangers. The city map gives street details, but it may not show water obstacles or other physical barriers. With your topo and compass, you should be able to plot a course effectively.

State Highway map: This gives the big picture of your situation. It shows major highways and roads, and gives general directions. It could be useful for figuring out where to go once you get away from the urban scene.

Forest Service map: I carry this in my car in central Oregon. Commonly referred to as a fire road map, this is a large overview of the national forests and public lands. Most importantly, it shows fire and logging roads. The map doesn’t show if the roads are improved or not, so don’t depend on this map to tell you if you can drive on it. In some instances, the roads may have overgrown into trails. You may be able to hike or ATV them in the summer, or, in the winter, snowshoe or operate a snowmobile.

These maps help you figure alternative routes in wilderness areas. Assuming you make it to a wilderness area, a good compass, this map, and the appropriate topos will be worth their weight in gold.

These four maps should help you get out of town.

Here are some others that could also prove to be useful:

History maps: I buy any historical map I come across. Some of them, such as the Oregon Trail or Lewis and Clark maps, show routes used by historical figures. While the trails may be obscure right now, that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. Overland pioneer routes were established because wagons or pack trains could travel on them. Those trails might be a good thing to know at some point.

River charts: My fishing obsession and map nerd-ism combine again with these charts. Every navigable river in the United States has detailed charts showing river terrain, danger areas, and topography of the stream. These charts allow a traveler to plan a river evacuation or trip. I carried a set of Mississippi River charts on my end-to-end journey in 1980. It was easy to plan overnight stops, or decide where to pull out.

On smaller streams, the maps can show take-out points, landings, and water dangers.

Hunting maps: Put out by your state fish and wildlife departments, these are useful to anyone who goes into the wilderness areas. I carry one to see the boundaries of my hunting unit, road closures, and the terrain, to some extent.

None of these maps are of any value if you don’t know how to read and use them. A good training activity including some exercise could be to take your compass and maps, create a possible evacuation scenario and practice navigating somewhere using alternate routes, streets and cross country travel.

So check out these maps, practice with your compass, and give some thought to how you might get out of town if you had to.

For more info on land navigation, visit Staying Found

12 thoughts on “Six maps you need for an urban evacuation”

  1. One other map that I consider mandatory would be a DeLorme Road Atlas for your state(s), available at any Wmart, Kmart, R.E.I. , CampingWorld, Cabellas or any number of retail outlets for around $20.
    It is a road atlas and topo map book rolled into one. It is a rather small scale for using solely as a topo map, but it will give you very good topo reference and excellent road atlas for the entire state. I have one in every vehicle. Get one, you wont regret it, I promise!

  2. Highly suggest that you go to and use this site to locate your area and print/save a topo map of your emergency exit route. You can laminate it with laminate stock covered with a cloth (like a pillow case) and ironed on low or spend a few dollars and get it done at an office supply store. You can also go to your states Game and Wildlife pages and print hunting maps of the park areas.

  3. Hello =) thank you for sharing. I’ve recently stumbled on your page; so happy I did. It’s been most helpful.

    Kindly advise me on how to learn how to read any type of maps. Are there courses available for free? Online and/or hand-on. I’ve started to do trails when we moved to the PNW and any resources to direct me to the right path would be beneficial.

    Thank you =)

  4. Book “BE EXPERT WITH MAP AND COMPASS” by Bjorn Kjellstrom, available Amazon and may be able to download PDF. US ARMY Map and Compass training manuals, Gun Show vendors and Amazon. “US ARMY Map reading and Land Navigation Manual”:FM21-26; “Silva Be Expert With Map And Compass” and last but not least “Never Get Lost (aka Green Beret’s Compass Course)Apr 26, 2011,by Don Paul” ALL Maps have a description of symbols used, a scale of miles to inches and a declination scale (see book definition). Maps with topographic detail are helpful to navigation, especially if on foot. Practice Geo Caching hobby for experience. Get a Pace Counter to keep track of distance travelled and learn your personal pace count (in the books) Have fun, wear comfortable shoes.

  5. After watching “Wild”, with Reese Witherspoon, I researched national parks. One useful website, “” has everything you need and it’s free.

  6. Add a star map. To help you identify stars at night and help navigate if needed at night. This also creates a fun activity for kids at night. It can also help us tell time of the year as constellations shown differ each time. It takes a lot of familiarization though, especially looking for Polaris the North Star, which is the most important one in Celestial Navigation.

  7. I like to study my area on Google Satellite, partly because I’m just wierd. But my area is criss-crossed with canals and dotted with ponds and lakes (for example) which can make an alternate route slow, difficult, or even impassable.

  8. I would add one thing to get. train tracks. even old abandoned ones they generally run straight for many miles provide bridges over highways and rivers and won’t have the high crowds that will follow the roads. they generally run away from closing and densely populated areas. large buildings will have dumpsters to hide behind and sometimes protection from elements having little population anyone who approaches will be seen before they see you. also, many buildings have lunch rooms with candy machines and pop machines which will offer some food and water most bathrooms will have a hot water tank that will still have water in it lockers may have clothing and most maint sights have coats for the people to work outside. some will have places with cleaning fluid that will work as fire starters. and then tools some that could be used for defense. supplies as mundane as nails and rope can be used to trade for things you need. many have three wheel bikes that can haul items. lastly the emer. lighting have batteries that can be recharged with photovoltaic cells they are usually small enough for transport but large enough to power lights or laptops. see what is along the tracks which cities and parks it goes near. when walking in a straight line with no hills you can cover a surprising distance.

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