There are two standards for backcountry road navigation. The Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer and the Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas. Which is better?
When I am on any kind of backcountry trip, I always take maps. Not only do I simply like maps, they are also a necessary tool. Despite the prevalence of smart phone apps, GPS devices or even being on a well-marked trail, I find a map is needed. For off-trail hiking especially, there is no real substitute for the appropriate map.
Other devices and tools may help you stay on route, but a map will let you plan and alter your route much easier.
Likewise, getting to a more obscure trailhead or navigating backcountry FS or BLM roads, a map is still needed. An automotive-based GPS does not always have the necessary data for non-city driving and relying on a cell phone is never a good idea.
So the answer is a road atlas. Not the Rand McNally atlas for highways and city roads (which I also make use of), but rather a road atlas with more detail needed for the backcountry areas. Something that shows not only the fabled blue highways, but also the brown (dirt) ones, local landmarks and other geographical information.
If I am going to an obscure pueblo in Utah or even a trail head, I need this type of detail.
A Rand McNally will not have the right detail and a topo or a typical commercial hiking map will not necessarily give the broader overview I need for this “in-between” navigation.
The answer for many years was, and still is, a Delorme Gazetteer and Atlas. This Maine-based company is nearly 40 yrs old and is very much a part of many outdoor enthusiasts gear kit. Countless Delorme atlases are stashed under seats, have wrinkled edges, some slight dirt stains and fine grains of sand from countless trips done or planned on the fly for the backcountry. Backpackers plot out the best place to start their hike of a canyon, hunters pick out the best dirt road access to set up an elk camp, mountain bikers plan out their route on obscure jeep roads and many ATVers consider these atlases as much part of their kit as a good helmet.
Outdoor enthusiasts can sometimes be a divided lot. But the need for good maps is a constant. And the Delorme atlases has filled that niche for many years.
For-not-quite 20 years, a new company has steadily become a competitor and alternative to the Delorme series: the Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas series. This Oregon-based company does not have as many atlases as Delorme, but has developed an ardent following for the western part of the US.
So, which version is better?
The answer, as usual, is never clear-cut. But here’s my take.
Keep in mind, my focus is on backcountry use. I primarily use these atlases to get to trail heads and to scope out the occasional primitive camping site. Someone into ATVing, MTBikng or a more frequent primitive camper than I am (or even using a small RV) may have a different take.
(Note: My circa-2002 scanner is packed away and my iPhone photos stunk. So I shamelessly stole the photos via Google Image Search!)
Delorme Gazetteer and Atlas
What I like:
- Very good detail. The scale is larger. Think 7.5 minute topo vs a commercial hiking map. Good if hiking something like the CDT and need to know bail out points and alternate routes
- Topo lines. Easier to see how steep a road or an approach may be since I am used to reading maps.
- I like the road designation system used by Delorme. To me, it is very intuitive to see which road is paved vs dirt vs a rough jeep road vs a VERY rough jeep road
- Slightly less expensive than the Benchmark series
What I don’t like
- Inconsistent. Some roads on the map have different numbers than what is “on the ground” or even have no numbers at all. On our recent Utah trip, there were road numbers visible on signs from the road we were currently on, but no road numbers listed on the Gazetteer!
- Other users report just plain wrong info. Some roads don’t exist, others do exist but are in better condition then what is reported on the map
Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas
What I like:
- Smaller scale which is good for a larger overview. More features such as campsites, oil wells, reservoirs, local businesses, landmarks, etc. oddly enough on the maps themselves despite the smaller scale
- Shaded relief is easy and quick to read at times
- Features stand out more. Also makes it easy to read.
- Seems to be more accurate as the road numbers were not only listed, but reflected what was “on the ground” as well. The roads names on the map matched up with the local names, too
- Lots of extra info: Indexed towns, natural points listed, ,campsites, etc.
What I did not like
- I miss the topo lines
- To me, the road designations on the Delorme are more intuitive. Admittedly, that could be just because I am used to the Delorme. a past partner actually picked up the road types quicker than me on the Benchmark. Her experience with the Delorme is limited.
So…which one do I like? The Benchmark is better for general navigation. The Delorme is better if I need more details in terms of topography vs road information.
If I had to pick just one, I’d go with the Benchmark. The ease of reading, apparent accuracy and features make it the better choice of the two atlases in my opinion.
In reality, I like them both as they complement each other. The Benchmark and Delorme series tend to show things in different ways and sometimes have different information.
Though ~$40 for two books may seem somewhat pricey, considering I tend to keep these map books for about five years or so before I update them, the overall price is not that expensive.
I suspect the Benchmark series will be my primary backcountry road atlas going forward and the Delorme my supplementary one. In a side by side comparison on our most recent trip, the Utah Benchmark was the one we tended to consult more often than not.
EDIT – MAY 2015: In the past year, I’ve grown to love the Benchmark series. I lament when Benchmark does NOT have a map for a state. When the Mrs and I went to the Pawnee National Grassland recently, the Benchmark made it very easy to navigate the maze of roads in this area vs five years ago with the Delorme.