The Boulder Map Gallery has been a favorite store of mine over the years.
I’d buy my atlases and overview maps from this store.
The owner knew me well enough by face to greet me once by saying “Oh! It’s you again!”
Alas, the Boulder Map Gallery is closing.
A sign of the changing landscape for both consumer spending habits and what is considered an appropriate outdoor skill set.
On the consumer level, Amazon and similar have taken over maps sales. At least for the increasingly small amount of people who use maps for planning a trip or navigating when on the trip itself. Far easier to make a few mouse-clicks and have the maps arrive at your door two days later. For a busy professional or family person, even an hour round trip to go to a store, look at the selections and drive back home may be too much to withdraw from the time bank funds.
And for those who want more detailed maps, CalTopo and similar planning websites have become the planning tool of choice.
But on the outdoor skill level is where I see the largest reason why the store is no longer financialy feasible.
It is beyond that people just don’t use print maps, people just don’t use maps at all.
I once wrote that maps wouldn’t go away, how we use maps will change.
What I failed to mention is that fewer people are using any kind of maps.
- People don’t use maps to plan trips. Most outdoors people, from what I can tell, want a “plug and play” experience. Books, websites or an app that has the data listed, what campsites to use, water sources are known and what trail(s) to follow are described in detail. I was asked how I find all these unique places to hike, backpack and camp. Finding these places really is simple. A large part of it is looking over both electronic maps and my trusty backroad atlases. I see green spots on the map? Looks intriguing. I then use online maps or print maps to narrow down the area more. Then the trip is planned. A “plug and play” trip has its merits. And I certainly enjoyed my share of these trips! But if your major outdoor skill set is following a route laid out by others, then your outdoor skill set is very narrow in focus. And you will be missing out on some great places and experiences. You’ll be doing to the exact same places that everyone else is using. And seeing the same crowds of people.
- People don’t know how to read maps. Of course, difficult to plan a trip using maps if maps can’t be read. Imagine how long an auto parts store would stay open if there was no market for people who change their own oil, service their own batteries, or change a headlight. As fewer people know how to use a map, less call for a specialty map stores. REI stocks some maps, but it is not their main income stream. Ditto for Amazon and similar. They can afford to sell something that is a convenience for their customers. Map reading is a skill most people don’t acquire even if they are active outdoors. It is not hard. There are some excellent resources available to learn this skill. But it seems less of a desired skill set.
- Because of GPS and smart devices, people don’t feel the need to know how to read a map. Besides many online guides with pre-defined trips, many areas now have “plug and play” resources that can be downloaded straight into a smart device. Load up an app, follow the directions and off you go. No need to actually do traditional planning for a backcountry trip! But, here’s the thing: Devices can fail. Or you’ll need to see what is beyond the narrow corridor. Or you’ll want to plan a trip. Even if an electronic device is still used, you still need to know how to read a map. And, at least in my experience, for broad overviews, a print map is far superior in the field versus a 5″ phone screen.
Maps are very useful and knowing how to read one is a skill that should be known by all outdoor users. Otherwise, your options for trips will be narrow. And who wants to be in such a small box?
I don’t see the issue as electronic vs. traditional tools. I see the problem as many outdoors people just don’t see the value in using maps or even other tools to plan and execute a trip.
Which is a shame.
I again refer to a favorite article of mine. Electronic tools, print maps, GPS-enabled devices, and a compass all have their places in an outdoor person’s toolkit. It is not that one tool is superior to another. It is being a well-rounded outdoor user and applying the tools for the best use in a given situation.
As Chris Townsend stated:
To conclude: good navigational skills are of course essential in the hills and wild places. And the key one of these is being able to read a map, whether it’s on paper or on a screen.
Based on map stores closing and map sales declining, it seems this essential outdoor skill set is going to the wayside among many outdoor users.
Don’t be like the many.
Use a map, plan your own trips when possible, and really enjoy all that the backcountry has to offer.