Maps are a great help in preparing a trip, both in the air and on the ground. You could save a little weight by not taking them along, but this is usually regretted later on. There seems to be a surprisingly large quantity of unknown terrain when you lack a map, even in an area you are familiar with. You will be able to find your way without it of course, but a map does come in handy when navigating unknown terrain. If your trip covers a large area such as the full Alpine range, the number of maps you would like to take along could weigh (a lot) more than a GPS. If you can avoid taking along chargers or spare batteries, using a GPS instead of paper maps could save weight. The batteries are unlikely to last more than a few days though, unless you only turn on your GPS occasionally.
I find maps more reliable and adequate than a GPS, both for vol bivouac trips and regular cross-country flights. Maps always work, won't crash, don't need batteries and thus won't die on you when you need them most. Maps also give you a much better overview than those tiny GPS screens. Flying/hiking/planning with a GPS feels like I am driving a car with only a small section of the frost covered windscreen cleared. I prefer limiting weight by taking along a fairly limited number of maps, without compromising too much on navigational precision throughout the Alps. One or two maps suffice when staying regional, three to five when going on a long distance trip throughout the Alps.
On the ground
Contour maps help me set and correct the global lines of a trip, while the more detailed decisions are made on the spot by natural navigation. Contour lines give you a fair idea of how long a hike is going to take and whether the terrain is flyable or not. Even when I know the area, I tend to take a map or two along that help me to get out of obscure places after landing out. These are often isolated spots where normally you don't like to land, but the next best alternative to a tree or river landing for example. Road maps are close to useless in this respect. They tell you how to get from A to B, but not how to get from the middle of nowhere to the nearest path. The contour shades on these maps look nice, but usually do not give an adequate impression of a mountain's height and shape.
The IGN 1:25.000 scale topographic maps are generally excellent for hiking in the French Alps. Similar maps exist for Switzerland and Austria. The excellent 1:25.000 scale maps from Swisstopo offer an impressive amount of information and detail. Even if you do not know where you are exactly, you will be able to pinpoint your position by using the 10 m contour lines and other information that can be found on these maps like bridges, tunnels, houses, chalets, sheds, farms, flora, lakes, rivers, and streams. The IGN maps are less precise and their quality varies. They are adequate enough to help you navigate correctly through unmarked terrain, but I have run into inconsistencies more frequently in comparison with the Swiss maps. Overall, I like the relaxed approach of the French, but I wouldn't mind if they showed some more Swiss Gründlichkeit now and then. On the other hand, the sometimes vague information on the French maps sharpens my natural navigation senses and thereby helps me to find my way without a map. And when I do find my way efficiently without one or with one that is wrong, the resulting feeling is even more satisfying.
Quality aside, the scale of these maps makes them cumbersome for planning a flight. A trip from Gourdon to Grenoble could require dozens of maps for example. A considerable weight and volume that could be used to carry other, more important items. The old blue (some were green) covered IGN 1:100.000 scale maps offer less detail, but are a good compromise between hiking and flying suitability. With just three maps (53, 54 and 61), you have the French Alps more or less covered from Nice to Chamonix. You could add maps 51, 52 and 60 when flying a westerly route, but you need only half of each. So I don't use them. The same goes for map 45 (covering the region Genève - Chamonix), half of which is taken up by the lake and other areas I am unlikely to go. My three preferred maps do not cover the full French Alps, but they offer a good compromise between saving weight, while still having a reasonable chance of finding my way in unknown areas. It feels great to be standing on a mountain somewhere in the Alps, knowing that I could go as far as I can see and beyond. While knowing at the same time that I can fall back on my trusted maps, should my natural navigation falter.
Unfortunately, these old blue (green) covered maps are out of print and have been replaced by new ones having a light green cover. These new maps have a larger size when folded, but somehow seem to cover less terrain, requiring you to buy more maps. They often have disturbingly large publicity printed on them, probably in order to seduce you in buying other IGN maps or products. Is it really so hard to phantom for IGN what their customers want? Do IGN marketeers really believe buyers like to have advertisements for IGN products on their map, rather than geographical information? Maybe I am the exception that falls outside their target group, but I prefer geographical information. Especially after I landed out in the advertising part of the map. The Alps do not stop at the Italian border. Sadly, the IGN map more or less does. As I cross over to the Italian side on map 158, advertisements take up the place where the geographical information should have been (as was the case with the previous version, map 54). New map 151 suffers from the same disease, which seems contagious. It has spread out to a substantial number of other maps in the new series.
In addition to that, the new maps have been 'cleaned up'. This means they probably look more attractive to the average buyer, but quite a bit of valuable information that used to be present on the older maps, such as altitudes, mountain names, chalets, houses or sources, has been eliminated in the process. This makes finding your way around more difficult in comparison with the previous editions. There are numerous local spots for example, which have a name that is hardly known outside the area. The corresponding villages, hamlets, farms, pastures, fields or mines may no longer be there, but clues to their former existence are often still around. Their names may have been used to name hiking trails for example, or may be found on derelict and partly overgrown signs, buildings or sources. By removing them, IGN considerable decreased the chances of pinpointing your position by searching for such a name on the map. To make matters worse, the quantity of useless stuff has been increased, such as the presence of golf courses, tourist information offices and museums.
This disappointing development makes me a bit sad, as well as angry. Advertisements already have the tendency to irritate me and commercial overkill tends to make this worse. Seeing advertisements on something which I already paid for, freaks me out. It is probably a psychological problem of an old fashioned frozen mind, but I just can't help feeling revulsion by the sheer penetrating volume of commercial crap that seem to drive modern times, as well as the corresponding mediocrity that comes with it. I have dropped the new IGN 1:100.000 scale maps and fallen back on my trusted old ones for the moment. They don't look as nice as the new maps, their worn appearance held together by scotch tape, but they do a much better job. If somebody has a better alternative (please don't start about using a GPS), I would be happy to hear about it. Fortunately, the red covered Swisstopo 1:100.000 scale maps offer excellent value for money, just as their 1:25.000 scale maps that have a brown cover. You will need maps 105, 107 and 109 when flying the southern Swiss Alps. Take along maps 101 and 110 when visiting the northern part.
When planning to discover some new terrain, I will be taking along one or two detailed 1:25.000 scale maps (if I have them), or a 1:100.000 scale map of the region (if I don't). The detailed maps cover less area, but this shouldn't be much of a problem since I won't be going that far. The chances of landing sooner than expected are higher here compared to flying familiar terrain, so I prefer a good hiking map over a good flying map. A detailed map comes in very handy when hiking my way up for a re-launch through a dense forest or steep terrain. Hiking up for a relaunch is often a more efficient choice for getting back to goal than hiking back. Especially when the day is still young and when hitch hiking is unlikely to work.
I usually don't take maps along when flying known terrain or when staying close to the point where I am launching from. I have to admit though that I made quite a few sub-optimal hikes without maps, while trying to find my way back through what I presumed to be known terrain. Leaving maps at home is sure to increase your knowledge of the area, the hard way. You are more likely to miss a path that leads straight to your goal for example, taking a detour of a few hours instead. A promising path that turns out to be a dead end after walking on it for over an hour, is another example that may be avoided by using maps rather than trusting on your local knowledge. Having the wrong maps with you is probably the worst option. One day I managed to end up in the middle of the French Alps, having detailed maps of the area 130 kilometers further south. I had planned to go to from Chalvet to Moustier via Dormillouse that day, but a stronger than expected south wind derailed this desire. After a battle of half an hour for the southern direction and net getting away from Dormillouse that much, I went for the more logical option and drifted with the wind over Écrins. Near Aiguilles d'Arves the conditions were degrading and rain had started to fall nearby. I didn't feel like landing in the windy Briançon valley below. I had just soared my way up above the still closed road to col de Galibier, in a breeze that approached trim speed. I assumed that the breeze in the more narrow part of the valley where I would be landing in now, would even be stronger. But I wasn't keen on landing on the mountain either, since I didn't have a map to find my way down. In the end, the latter option seemed to be the least risky. As usual, I had no problem finding my way down. I just felt a bit silly, carrying three excellent detailed hiking maps that were completely useless here. After this experience, I switched to using my favourite three 1:100.000 scale maps during most flights. Counting on my navigational skills and instincts, rather than a detailed map to get me back on track. And so far, they always have.
In the air
Not flying into other planes is a key responsibility of any pilot, paragliding pilots not excepted, despite some of us occasionally having a different opinion. This seems to arise from our habit of frequently flying in close proximity (thermalling, soaring in a narrow band, preparing and launching with dozens of other pilots in a small spot), where the safety margin perceived by one pilot does not necessarily correspond with that of the other. We are used to flying in situations that would be considered near misses by pilots flying regular aircraft. Having the responsibility of carrying millions of passengers safely through the air each day, commercial aviation has learned to keep a safe distance. This distance is mostly under supervision of air traffic control. We paragliding pilots don't require air traffic control and should not fly in the way of the ones who do. Besides adhering to the usual visual flight rules (VFR) such as not flying in clouds, we are also requested to stay out of places that are (temporarily) not meant for us. Controlled airspace, military zones, airways, ATMs, CTRs and restricted zones such as some nature reserves, are not visible in the sky. You will need a map to identify them.
Aeronautical maps will help you with that, but contain a lot of information that paragliding pilots don't need. More importantly, they often lack information that we would like to have, such as the presence of power lines, CATEX, aerial cableways and emergency landing fields. We don't need a map to identify a field for landing out of course, but it would be nice to know whether we could expect gliders landing out as well since it is one of their official emergency landing fields. The FFVV has assembled this kind of information and more on their glider map. Dedicated maps such as the glider map for the French Alps, are generally more useful than the regular aeronautical maps.
In order to save weight, I prefer to note the relevant information on my hiking maps and leave the aeronautical maps at home. Most of the controlled airspace information doesn't change that much over time, so this approach saves weight without throwing safety out of the window. Some of it does change however, so keep track of those changes. Most of the information, temporary restrictions being the most important thereof, finds its way to the websites of the French and Swiss free flying federations. The published information often concerns restrictions imposed by military exercises, 'important' government meetings, Tour de France, et cetera. Military exercises (and the consequential restrictions) have considerably increased over the last decade here in the south of France, up to a point where it is really starting to bug us now. The draconian measures surrounding the Tour de France on the other hand, have finally been tuned to reason last season (2010).
Checking temporary airspace restrictions should be easy, but it isn't. Not that the information is complicated, but the corresponding websites (France, Switzerland) are meant for pilots flying fixed destinations (airports) and altitudes. Over long distances, using motorised aircraft. The latter allows these pilots to have full control over their flightpath, which in turn allows them to be controlled by air-traffic controllers. The official airspace information sites are not adapted to pilots launching from out of nowhere and often landing in random places as well, after hopping from one spot to the other with large variations in altitude and ground speed. This means that information relevant to us, tends to be a bit hard to filter out of what is officially available. You need to know the code for the nearest airport in the region for example, or the code for the FIR you are flying in. The code for Nice airport is LFMN for example, and LFLB for Chambéry Aix-les-Bains. On the rare occasion that I happened to meet a paragliding pilot that knew these codes by heart, he turned out to be a commercial airline or fighter pilot as well. I have not encountered a female airline or fighter pilot yet, but the chances thereof seem a lot larger than meeting an ordinary paragliding pilot that uses these codes to find NOTAMs at the source.
And even if you do find NOTAMs for the area you are planning to fly in, their relevance is not always that obvious. Fortunately, the relevant information has mostly been filtered out by others in order to help us. The French free flying federation FFVL has a page with airspace info and there is a similar page for Switzerland. In addition to this, local flying clubs and schools often have information on airspace restrictions near their site. This means you usually can fly locally by consulting the local information, rather than an airspace map. By connecting the local rules from one site to the other, I have gradually expanded my knowledge of the overall airspace throughout the Alps. Be aware though that the only valid sources of aeronautical information are the official sites. In addition to this, the French free flight community doesn't have a habit of frequently updating the information once it has been posted. It can happen that you see faded or unreadable info on a panel, while the actual situation is different. A wrong emergency frequency is just one of the examples here.
Aeronautical maps tend to be a bit hard to read, since three dimensional information has been compressed in a two dimensional shape. Google Earth is a valuable tool for understanding airspace, showing you a three dimensional view thereof. Have a look at the Google Earth file for Switzerland for example, or find one for other countries. These files contain valuable information for planning a flight. Printing out the relevant airspace in a three dimensional view and noting the corresponding information on the back, saves weight while still giving you the information you need. The image shows one of the postcard sized printouts of the Swiss airspace that I have with me. These cards have about the size of a folded Swiss hiking map, so I can store them in such a map for protection. Overall, it adds just a few gram to the kit instead of a few hundred gram. Click on the image if you want to see a larger version of this card. Once again, please note that this is not the official info! Always check info like this for consistency with the official information. The altitude limits and other information written on the back of this card, is not visible here. Hopefully this motivates you to do your own homework. Verify for example, whether in any of the red areas on the card, the Swiss air force intends to show their citizens today that taxes are being well spent. The answer can be found under “Today's DABS” on the linked page. Check this information before you might enter such a restricted area. It is a lot safer than suddenly finding out you have a on-stage seat when they do have a show.
When in doubt, stay out! It is much safer to avoid an inactive military zone, believing that it has been activated, rather than the other way around. Avoid flying on the limits too, especially the vertical ones. A (sudden) change in pressure might get you into forbidden airspace. In front of a big Boeing trying to land for example. All those restrictions seem to limit your options at first sight. The positive side is that they force you to pilot in a disciplined manner and to look for alternative routes. Often this results in more challenging piloting, but also a more rewarding flight when everything works out fine.