November 24, 2020

So you have one, or maybe ten, Purple Lizard Maps. But how do you read and understand them in order to make your own adventure? We'll discuss some quick hints below to help you on your way to a successful adventure with your Lizard Map:

As with any other map, the first step is to read the legend, or the map key. We find both of the terms rather odd so we prefer to use the term "Explanation of Symbols", because that is what it really is. Anyway, here you will find explanations of the symbols that you find on the map. We design our own symbols with the goal that they are intuitive so you can usually 'get it' without referencing this explanation of symbols, but it's always helpful to scan it to see what interesting things may be noted on the map that you weren't expecting. Our maps represent a carefully curated collection of text and symbols that are especially useful for our map users. Be sure to read the fine print as far we know of two Lizard Seekers who actually have Purple Lizard tattoos!

Next you'll want to orient your map. Lucky for you, all Lizard Maps are oriented north. This means that north is at the top of the map as you read it. We do not take into account declination, meaning our maps are oriented slightly off from magnetic north. Check for information boxes on each map for the adjustment needed to find magnetic north, which we've blown up in the image below: 

Magnetic North is needed when you use a compass, because the needle will point to magnetic North, not straight North. In the example above, you would need to adjust the compass ring by 10 degrees to allow the compass to match the map. Pilots and orienteering folks understand this, but most others rarely need to account for this global standard.

Orienting your map North is the default because that is the easiest way to read it. But often times on the trail, or at the trailhead, you will want to orient yourself with the map. This means you will spin the map to match your direction of travel, or your direction of sight. If you are standing at a trailhead, and about to hike the trail, spin your map to match the line on the map with the trail on the ground, and now you'll get a better sense of exactly what you will encounter on your right and on your left. At the summit, spin your map to match your view, and you will be able to identify the ridges, valleys and drainages that may be visible on the horizon! 

Stay Found In The Rain. Pine Creek Canyon PA

Now you want to consider what types of conditions your map can handle. All of our almost-indestructible Lizard Maps are printed on a paper-like waterproof synthetic material. Purple Lizard Maps are not completely tear proof or fire proof. You can tear them if you try hard enough. These maps don't make good fire starters at all, they just kind of melt in a slow burn. We hope you never experience this level of desperation when the time has come to burn the map for survival. The maps offer no caloric help at this stage either. 

Lizard Maps are completely waterproof. You can use them as a makeshift umbrella or tent patch, and they do float, but they are not suitable as a floatation device unless you are a grasshopper. Go ahead and test yours out by going on an adventure in the rain or snow sometime soon!

Purple Lizard Maps are big maps, they measure 24 x 36 inches, and include information on both sides of the map. There is a lot of public land to cover, and we want you to get out and enjoy as much as possible. With that said, many of our maps overlap slightly so adventurers don't encounter any gaps of information!

Next consider the scale of the map. The area shown on each map is set to a unique scale. For instance, one inch is equal to 0.6 mile on the Rothrock Lizard Map (seen in the image below), 0.8 mile on the Pine Creek Map, and 1 mile on the Bald Eagle Lizard Map. Most of our maps use a scale somewhere between 1:48,000 to 1:60,000; but again, be sure to check each map so you understand how long your chosen route may be.

Next step: Elevation change. Lizard Maps use contour lines and shaded relief to show elevation changes throughout the landscape. Contour lines are the squiggly lines, and shaded relief is the shadowy image behind the lines that looks like a soft airbrushed shadows. In combination, these two cartographic elements help you to understand how steep, or flat, an area is. Most, but not all, Lizard Maps use 50 foot contour lines. What the heck does that mean? Simply, the space in between every little squiggly contour line indicates an elevation change of 50 feet. To relate, one story of a house, say from your downstairs kitchen to your upstairs bedroom, is roughly 10 feet of elevation change. So, the space between each line on the image that you see below represents 5 stories of your house. The thicker contour lines are labelled with an elevation number, so you can use that and add or subtract the unlabelled lines to determine your elevation gain or loss. 

Lizard Maps include latitude and longitude as well as Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) numbers and tic marks on the outer edge. WHAT? This is for the more serious map and compass enthusiast. Without getting into the details of this subject on this blog, but for those who know what to look for: The UTM grid data is printed in magenta numbers and lat/lon is shown in black. Our maps do not have an internal grid or internal tic marks. For orienteering use or backcountry hikers navigating by compass, one can easily add such a grid or tics using a yardstick and a fine point permanent marker. We have learned the majority of our users don't need this grid, and we avoid including graphic noise that isn't needed. However, if you are attempting an off-trail hike in the backcountry, adding a grid on the area you are exploring can be most helpful to reference your location and direction of travel.

Take A Hike, Ride or Drive

Now that you know how to read your map, plan a trip and get on the map! Lizard Maps differentiate hiking-only trails from shared-use trails. If you want to hike a foot-use only trail, choose one of the green dashed trails. You will often use a shared-use trail (magenta dashed lines, usually) or public road or rail trail depending on how you want to make a loop. If you are on a bicycle or horse you aren't allowed to use the foot-only trails, so make your adventure using the shared-use trails. If you're doing a driving adventure, pay attention to the dirt roads and the High Clearance Roads, so you don't end up on a section of rough road that your car may not be appropriate for. Explorers looking for off-trail adventures can surely use our maps to have a good time, too. Do be sure to bring your compass (and know how to use it with our maps), double check all of the information described in the beginning of this blog, as well as public land use regulations, before trekking off trail. Following a stream or ridge top can be great fun, but with no formal trail you will encounter all types of obstacles and difficulties, and you must always be ready to turn back an retrace your steps. 

Bushwhacking in Rothrock State Forest PA

Bicycling on a Lizard Map

Mountain biking is very popular on all the areas we map, but be aware that easy trails are few and far between. Most of the Appalachian Mountains offer rough, rocky trails that mountain bikers refer to as 'technical trails'. These are prime challenges for intermediate and advanced riders, but can be hike-a-bike slogs for novice trail riders. The Allegrippis Trails at Raystown Lake offer some of the best trail riding in the state, and those are called 'flow trails' because they are smooth and rock-free! The Rail Trails on our maps present outstanding opportunities to explore riding in remote places while enjoying a smooth surface, and the popularity of the 'gravel ride' reflects the untold miles and miles of excellent gravel roads we have in our public lands. 

Reckon Mountain Trail System Moshannon State Forest PA 

Take A Drive

The best way to learn about the forest and plan future adventures is to take a drive. You can scout trailheads, determine how to coordinate a car shuttle, and get a general sense of the terrain. You can stop at the many State Parks on our maps and explore the amenities, check out the campgrounds, and think about returning and spending a few days. Look for the lizards that may be a vista along the road and go vista hunting!

Here at the Department of Adventure, we take the time to drive, walk, or ride 95% of the roads that appear on our maps. This attention to detail allows Lizard Maps to delineate major paved roads, local paved roads, gravel/dirt roads, and 4wd roads with an accuracy not found on other maps. Our users range from Amish buggies, to low clearance mini-van and Prius drivers, to high-clearance Overland vehicles. Our job is to make a map that caters to all of these user groups, and we take our job seriously.

The image below highlights a small section of a working copy of our Dolly Sods-Seneca Rocks Map after a day of field work. Notice all of the gate symbols in black marker (the ones that look like dumbbells). We'll discuss these next. 


In addition to delineating the surface conditions of roadways on our maps, we also note every gate that we find on these roads. This is the 'dumbbell' image that you notice in the above image. Why do we do this? First of all, we usually can't find this information on any other map. Secondly, we do this so you as the driver don't drive yourself into an unexpected dead end. We also do this so our non-motorized user groups can feel confident enjoying these roads without encountering a motorized vehicle. Gated roads are great dog walking roads! Note: we consider any manufactured barricade across a roadway as a gate on our maps. This includes modified trenches, mounds, boulders, and of course gates.

Enjoy the three images below, which highlight our full size Toyota Tundra and lead cartographer navigating an extremely narrow road up to the top of a mountain in West Virginia. Needless to say, it was a tough turn-around and a long drive back down the mountain...but we learned that the top of this road is gated...and now that you know how to read our maps, you won't be finding yourself in the same situation (or will you?)!

Private Land 

Although we'd like to show every last road and trail on every inch of our maps, Purple Lizard Maps is not in the business of mapping private land. Simply put, you will not find trails on our maps which go through private land unless we've received permission from the land owner to include them. We ask that you respect private land and remember that your actions will affect access for everyone. 

Public Land

At times, you will find trails on public land that are not on our maps. We work closely with professional land managers to determine which trails should be included and which should not. For the most part, we map only officially recognized trails that are part of the most recent trail inventory. Yes, most state and public agencies have official trail inventory lists. These trails are also distributed to the emergency response data base. When a trail is decommissioned it comes off the list, and off our maps. In some cases there is a middle ground when the trail remains signed and blazed on the ground, but is removed from the maintenance list. We create a different trail symbolization for this situation: Unmaintained Trail. This means the land manager no longer maintains it, but individuals or local trail groups do, and it remains a legal, well used trail, so we include it on our map. If you study local guidebooks and other maps you may find additional, unofficial trails and you can use our map to help find those routes even though we chose not to include them.


We oftentimes chose not to include specific backpacking campsites and roadside campsites in primitive locations. The reason for this is simple: We feel there are too many and we believe some knowledge should be earned. There are many on-line resources that give the locations of peoples favorite or 'best' campsites in these areas. As you explore these areas you quickly realize there are already many campsites out there, so we ask that people please use existing campsites and fire rings. Building new fire rings near existing fire rings erodes the primitive feelings one receives when exploring these outstanding areas.

Purple Lizards

What about those random little lizards? A Lizard cult favorite, we put tiny purple lizards at places we think are worth seeing. Sometimes these are in locations with no trail, but with a little research you should be able to figure out how to get to them. There are places out there worth finding that take considerable effort and skill to reach—some lizard spots are not easily accessible. Others you can drive to!

Ralphs Majestic Vista Moshannon State Forest PA

Need Inspiration?

We get lost so you don't have to! We post tons of blogs on our website, which describe adventures (and some misadventures) on lands covered by our maps. Our blogs include hiking, running, biking, driving, skiing, backpacking, and more exploration ideas throughout public land in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Allegheny Front Trail Moshannon State Forest PA  

Make Your Own Adventure With a Purple Lizard Map

Purple Lizard Map Locator Graphic

Check out our blogs, reference your Lizard Map, and make your own adventure! Tag Purple Lizard on your adventures @purplelizardmaps, and keep in touch!

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