Using Adventure Cycling Association Maps
Bicycle Touring 101 often receives emails from people looking for route planning tips. Dale Oswald submitted this excellent article discussing the maps that are available from the Adventure Cycling Association. Dale has used their maps to cross the United States in sections over the past few years so he has a lot of firsthand practical knowledge that he discusses in the article that follows.
These excellent maps are published by Adventure Cycling, a nonprofit organization that promotes travel by bicycle: http://www.adventurecycling.org/. The maps are line maps, i.e. they show the route and a limited amount of surrounding context. They include both graphic maps and narrative directions.
Adventure Cycling publishes maps for transcontinental routes (3), both coasts and the Mississippi, the Continental Divide mountain bike route and several regional ride maps.
In my humble opinion, their maps are simply the best.
AC publishes one map per route section, covering several hundred miles. Each section is broken down into panels of about 30 miles. Each panel shows the route and surrounding highways, with mileages and services available. The back of each map has an elevation profile, details on en route services and interesting background on the history and geography of the section.
Maps are updated and republished every few years. The organization provides current corrections to the route and services, online in their Route Addenda.
So you know where your author is coming from: I’ve used the majority of their Northern Tier Route maps and am a member of Adventure Cycling. I personally prefer maps to narrative directions. I may decide the day’s end as I go, but I research routes and services heavily before departure.
About maps and planning
We all have our gifts as well as things that we aren’t good at. I can’t remember to stop for milk on the way home, but I’m good with maps and directions – and I demand good maps. Other people, well, shouldn’t choose navigation for a career; they usually prefer narrative directions. These maps have both. (By the way, “getting lost” is another way to say “asleep at the wheel” – whether you use a map or narrative directions!)
Some people plan heavily, others take each day as it comes – sometimes quite literally. If you just get up each morning and keep the sun or the ocean on the same side, then look for a vacant lot to set up your tent, these maps are not for you. If you plan heavily and are willing to follow a predetermined route, these maps are outstanding.
Bear these thoughts in mind and read on...
Positives of using Adventure Cycling maps
- Line maps focus on the established route, if you’re not great with directions they minimize getting lost (off route).
- They have both a graphic map and narrative directions
- Somebody has figured out a reasonably good route for you and identified the services, which is a huge task to do properly. I’ve planned my own tours using DeLorme maps (and others), and it’s a lot of work – and you’ll probably get your mileage estimates wrong.
- Online addenda are usually up to date, but depend on the care level of the users who send in updates.
- They are clear, easy to use and accurate. These are outstanding maps.
- They are printed on waterproof paper.
- They fit in most map holders (but don’t get me started on map holders).
- Line maps don’t show much surrounding road for detours or alternate routes. North isn’t always at the same end of each panel.
- The mapmakers’ philosophy and objective is clear: to provide a route & service information along that route. Having said that, their approach sometimes varies, especially regarding use of backroads vs. highways.
- These maps are not cheap. Individual section maps are $8 each ($11 for non-members). You get a small break on complete sets; for example, the Trans-America route set is $78 ($114 non-member).
How to use the maps
- To determine if they go where you want to go (or vice versa), look on their website to see what routing they use.
- Buy the map(s). Your purchase gives you an excellent product and it supports a worthy organization.
- Trust the maps. I’ve found precious few errors in them (but errors do occur). They strive to put the route on roads that aren’t dangerous and try to avoid nasty climbs.
- Look up the addenda online, print them and take them along (or mark up the maps). Note: the addenda don’t usually list road construction zones. Most state or provincial DOT/MOT/AOT websites list highway construction that’s in process.
- Start by looking at Adventure Cycling Association's pointers for using the map
- If you are a detailed planner, lay out your daily itinerary (and contingencies) ahead of time. The marked mileages are a big help in figuring where to stay each night. If you tend to fly by the seat of your pants, look a day or two ahead as you go.
- Recognize that a listed restaurant isn’t necessarily a restaurant. It may really be a casino or convenience store with a grill. It may be open very limited hours, it may have a limited menu, it may be closed (it’s a tough business). No matter whose map you use, always carry contingency food.
- AC maps list only permanently established services. Keep your eyes open for unlisted ones, such as church dinners, fire company pancake breakfasts, farm markets or even lemonade stands. Don’t be afraid to ask the local police about sleeping in the park. For this, it’s usually better to ask permission first rather than forgiveness later. If you have an organizational connection, use it. Are you a fireman? Belong to a fraternal organization? Are a retired military person?
- Their routing is generally very good, but you might sometimes choose to go a different way. Sometimes they use a scenic back road instead of a perfectly good highway that’s also scenic (e.g. US 93 in Montana, US 61 in Minnesota). Sometimes they route you on a highway with low volumes but no shoulder (Ohio 500) instead of delightful paved backroads. Sometimes they use a nicely improved but unpaved trail (Erie Canal in western New York) instead of a moderate volume state highway with wide shoulders (NY31). Look at the map and decide how you wish to proceed.
- Daily, look ahead and plan your meals and next night’s stop. This is obviously more important if you aren’t fully self-sufficient, i.e. if you don’t camp or cook en route. You don’t need much other information than the map.
- In some settings with lots of detailed turns, the map isn’t quite descriptive enough but you can use the narrative to fill in.
- When you find an error or update, send in the card or go online and report it. The addenda are only as good as our feedback to them.
Adventure Cycling’s maps are pricey, but they are outstanding maps. You really get a lot of good information for the money. Be sure to check the addenda; I’ve read more than one travelogue where the user was misled by out-of-date map information. If they’re going your way or you’re willing to go theirs, the maps are about all you need to travel by bike.
Submitted by Dale Oswald
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