Most of us have suffered through trying to read well-meaning but wildly confusing directions to get to a remote trailhead or campsite on obscure forest service roads.
The directions usually look something like: “Turn off the main road, then go to .7 miles on Forest Road 1234. At the 3-way fork, take the middle fork on road 1234-10, then go 3.2 miles on that, and then . . . ” You get the idea. And if any new roads have been added or removed since the guidebook got printed, or some local yahoos have been shooting up the road signs so you can’t read them, then things REALLY get confusing!
Here’s a superior system for giving a precise location, and ideally directions, to most anywhere that doesn’t have an actual street address. Which is most of the fun places we want to go play, right?
If you type latitude longitude coordinates (preferably in decimal degree format) into a Google search or a smartphone mapping app, it places a marker directly on the spot. You can then get driving directions to it.
Try it! Here’s the lat long coordinates in decimal degree format for the Mt. Thielsen trailhead in southern Oregon:
(If there’s any guide book authors reading this, can you please please please start using latitude longitude decimal degree corners to describe Important Places in your book?)
- Use a comma between the latitude and the longitude.
- Be sure to include the “minus” sign before the longitude. This indicating west longitude rather than east. If your intended map of Oregon instead draws in China, then you probably skipped the minus sign. =^)
Note the number of decimal places. In this example, we are using four. If you use less than four decimal places, Google doesn’t recognize it as a coordinate and thinks it’s some kind of a math problem.
Four decimal places gives you positional accuracy down to about 3 meters. We’re not measuring property boundaries here, so for things like finding your tent in the woods or locating a trailhead, four decimal places is fine. If you use a GPS app on your phone, you may see a coordinate of six or even seven decimal places. This is theoretically accurate down to sub 1 m, but that’s a little deceiving because the GPS chip on your phone is not that good. When I get a six digit coordinate from my phone or mapping app, I usually just remove the last several digits until I get down to four decimal places. That is simpler and easier to transmit and write down.
You can get decimal degree coordinates in several ways.
Probably the easiest is to go to Google maps and zoom in on your area of interest. Right-click, and choose “What’s here?” This opens a pop up box. The latitude longitude coordinates in decimal degrees, of the exact point you clicked, appear at the bottom of the box. Copy and paste the coordinates into a new Google search to test. If it draws your spot correctly, your coordinates are correct.
Go to caltopo.com, the best online mapping software. Using the different map layers from the upper right corner, choose one that lets you zoom in to your area of interest. The coordinates of the cursor are shown in the upper right corner. Change the coordinate type under the “Config” menu at the top of the page.
- UTM coordinates, the preferred coordinate system for backcountry navigation, are NOT recognized by a Google search.
- Latitude longitude coordinates in the traditional degrees minutes and seconds and the more specialized format called degree minutes ARE recognized with a Google search, but these are harder to obtain and it’s easy to screw them up when you enter the coordinates. (The “degree minutes” system is typically used by electronic navigation systems in ships and airplanes, and usually not much by civilians.)
It’s usually best to stick with decimal degrees as shown above.
Coordinate examples, all of the same location, the Mt Thielsen trailhead:
UTM - 10T 570913E 4777387N
Latitude longitude, degrees minutes and seconds - 43°08’46”, -122°07’41”
Latitude longitude, degree minutes - 43°08.76’, -122°07.68’