Notice the first thing I will do with my map is orient it in the direction I'm actually going to go. I'm told that this is a "female" thing and that male riders usually feel no need to do this to orient themselves. But I do. The next thing I'll do is mark South, East, and West along the borders of the map. I will carry a compass in my pocket that when set to north will tell me the general direction I am traveling, which does not help me with the turns, but certainly affirms I'm going the right direction on the trail. I'm also going to put directional arrows on the map if ride management hasn't already done so to assure that I'm taking the loops in the proper direction and following course as described in the meeting.
Okay so here is my flipped map. I have it oriented in the direction I want to be going...which is West (please note all trails begin on blue). As you can see at the first intersection of the trail we pick up yellow to the south and we are riding a straight line more or less until the trail has a three prong fork one solid yellow, one red/yellow, and one not part of marked trail at all. So looking at this map you take the left fork onto yellow/red and take the straight center trail at the next intersection...all the time heading south...for the most part on yellow. I'm then going to cross a creek and soon hit another intersection on which I stay straight and begin traveling west, a trail comes off to my right...I stay straight, and my direction begins to curve back around to the east and I ignore a trail on my right, stay straight, crossing the creek again and take the next hard left onto red/yellow heading north, I then take the second trail to the left head west until the first trail intersection which goes straight, left, or right. I stay straight on yellow continuing to the west, curving out to the south and bend back to the north, directional change to the east again, doing a little zigzag and I intersect red/yellow follow it to the T, turn left , and swing to the left again on blue into ride camp. If I crossed any county roads I'm off trail. If the lake is to my east, I'm off trail, if the ponds come up on right I'm off trail, if I crossed the creek more than twice I'm off trail. If only trail maps were this clear (clearer yet with directional arrows) and if they showed all the county roads, service roads, and illustrated all the little dog leg trails. Which is why I'm sure we rely on ribbons to get us around in the first place. But total reliance on ribbons I've found to my own detriment to be pure folly. You simply must be oriented to your place on the map.
Now lets add in a bunch of service roads as dashed lines on your map, those access trails are out there, but they are not on your map above? How confusing would it get?
This is where it would be ideal to have estimated mileage markers for all of your turns (in a perfect world) on the map. And why it is so disastrous when ribbons are torn down, or trails are marked haphazardly with the mindset that everyone knows the trail. We don't...we really don't! I honestly just want to complete, and do not need the trail stacked against me in the form of "which way do I go." But at the end of the day I'm thrilled with ribbons, and directional arrows, and X's on trails you do not want to head down. I've found that to be enough if they are in place. Your map reading becomes crucial when they are not, but you have to be oriented to where you are in the first place. So!
Special notes on your map: Take a pen and paper and your map to the ride meeting. Pay attention at the ride meeting. Critical information gets passed there. So if they point out that you will be passing through a green gate on the yellow loop, you can bet they mean the green one, not the BLUE one, or the chained one, or the cattle grate. So jot that on your map. If at the meeting they say the 50's head out on the trail to the left of camp, write it down, especially if you aren't starting with the general group. It has not been unusual in my experience to have all loops return to camp, but to leave the hold in different directions depending on what loop I'm riding.
*If maps are plentiful, ask ride management if you may take two. Put one in a plastic zip lock bag and zip it into your pocket. My second 50 I changed clothes twice during the ride. It was sunny and warm, and I was riding in a tank top, next loop the temperature plummeted and I was out in a sleet storm, and I've ridden several rides in the rain (without rain gear ) and let me tell you your map can dissolve into nothingness in the rain.
*Talk to someone who has ridden the trail before and they may be able to clue you in on where you are most likely to get tripped up, how much paved or unpaved road to expect, and other helpful information.
* The best way to learn to navigate with a map is go to a park you've never ridden before, ask for a map, and spend the ride working with the map, no matter how slow you have to go.
In closing...there is one place in the Hoosier National Forest that has tripped me up twice now. The same darn place! It cost me my ride one time, and could have cost me the second but I got lucky. That is one trail I'd like to spend a week at just riding, and learning the trails. Come ride with me ☺