Mapping for Public Lands

“MAPS ARE ESSENTIAL,” wrote Mark Jenkins in his award-winning book The Hard Way. “Planning a journey without a map is like building a house without drawings.”

Whether you’re dreaming about new places to explore, or new lines to ski, or just a more efficient route from point A to point B, maps are a backcountry skier’s best friend. And of course when you find yourself turned around deep in the wilderness, with no cell reception, you’re glad you’ve got a 7.5 topo map and a compass.

But did you know maps are also powerful advocacy tools? As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Maps provide us a way to clearly show the Forest Service how we access and explore the backcountry, helping to make the case during current forest planning efforts for protecting important non-motorized recreation areas.

Using regional maps during pre-scoping for travel planning on the Inyo National Forest

In our work with winter travel planning, Winter Wildlands Alliance uses maps to understand how different types of recreation overlap, and how recreation and wildlife habitat overlap; to document important non-motorized recreation areas; and to determine where snowmobile use is appropriate. When we submit written comments to the Forest Service we almost always include a map that illustrates where skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers are accessing the forest, which backcountry areas provide high-quality non-motorized recreation opportunities, and our suggestions for where snowmobile use should be allowed.

A lot of this work comes down to documenting where skiers and snowshoers are recreating, and recently we’ve been exploring ways to do this more efficiently. (Unfortunately we’re not able to visit all of the places people backcountry ski ourselves — wouldn’t that be a dream job?! — but there are a number of online tools to help skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers tell us where their priority areas are.)


Last year Winter Wildlands Alliance teamed up with Powder Project to better document how skiers are using our National Forests. Powder Project is an online resource that allows backcountry skiers and splitboarders to share information about ski lines and skin tracks, to talk about gear, find partners, and also find links to avalanche centers and other avalanche information.

But Powder Project is more than just a cool site for getting information on where to ski. Data collected from the website also helps Winter Wildlands Alliance and our partners identify and advocate for protecting important backcountry ski terrain. When you add information to Powder Project it becomes part of a larger digital database that Winter Wildlands Alliance is building to help inform our advocacy work. Then, when a National Forest decides to launch into winter travel planning we pull up our database, overlay all of the ski lines and approaches we’ve collected onto a map of the particular forest as a graphic means to show the Forest Service how and where — exactly — the non-motorized community uses that forest. Documenting where skiers and snowboarders are recreating is the first step towards protecting those recreation opportunities.

Documenting where skiers and snowboarders are recreating is the first step towards protecting those recreation opportunities.

Maps also present a new way for avalanche professionals to better understand decision-making in avalanche terrain. Right now a team of scientists at Montana State University is using GPS tracking and logbook surveys of backcountry skiers to better understand how backcountry travel practices line up with the “human factors” in decision making. By comparing maps of where skiers go with information about their decision-making processes these scientists hope to better understand what types of terrain decisions backcountry recreationists make. Their research will help avalanche professionals tailor their messaging to better address the human factor, and to help keep us all safer in avalanche terrain. The data they collect will also help Winter Wildlands and other groups advocate for better stewardship of the public lands we all enjoy.

If you want to get involved, have fun with maps and be proactive about protecting the places where you play or part of ground-breaking research that will directly contribute to your safety, check out and

UPCOMING EVENT: Winter Wildlands Alliance is working with REI to document where backcountry recreationists play. Join Hilary Eisen at REI in Bozeman, Montana on March 23 to learn how to use online mapping tools to gather and share information about backcountry skiing areas and be part of the planning process. RSVP online here.