Maps are dead? Long live maps!

Every-so-often, some “wise” internet sage will say maps are obsolete.

That their time has passed.

That using the map is going the way of the slide rule, party lines and BlackBerries.

Sorry keyboard aficionados.. From Uttblogs.

I do not agree with this sentiment about maps for various reasons.

Maps will be with us and used as long as people explore, recreate or plan trips into the outdoors.

Simply put: Maps will not go away. How we procure and make use of the maps will change however.


Trip researched and plotted out with CalTopo. Maps then printed out for navigation while in the field. The old and new ways of using maps combined for one trip.

Smartphone apps are very useful. Android and iPhone based platforms have built-in GPS units that are as good as any consumer grade handheld GPS for navigation purposes.

Obviously smartphones are more versatile than a stand alone GPS, too.


Near Cloud Peak while using Backcountry Navigator

But guess what? You are still using a map when you use Backcountry Navigator or similar.

The GPS helps solve the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot factor quite well; it still does not tell you that going straight will take you into some potentially nasty terrain. The map will always need to be read and interpreted correctly. This fact is especially true if a person is not on a more well-known trail that is well-defined and has the resources to go with it. (AT,PCT, JMT, etc. etc. etc.)

Beyond reading the maps for navigation and planning purposes, even with an electronic device, what maps we use will change.

The benchmark for detailed maps in the United States has long been the USGS 7.5′ quads.  These maps have excellent detail needed for cross-country travel or even exploring obscure areas. And they cover everywhere.

The problem? These maps have not been updated in any meaningful way since the early 1990s. Or even earlier. The terrain features may be stable for the most part, but new roads, trails and other landmarks such as designated campsites will not be on these maps. And sometimes old landmarks that are long gone will be on the maps, too.


AOL was king about this time. Along with acid washed jeans, Drakkar cologne and IROCs.

These maps will become less accurate with each passing year.

Commercial hiking maps are available to fill the gap. And are useful for on-trail jaunts, giving wider overviews and backpacking in popular areas.  But these maps often lack finer details and do not cover obscure areas.

So what are the future of maps? Various commercial maps for sure. But also open source maps. People like you and I will take the government produced quads or similar, update them and share them on various platforms…or even sell them if someone has an entrepreneurial bent.

We’ll be able to use these maps both in electronic form and in traditional printed form if we print them ourselves.

Which brings up the next point: Printed maps aren’t going away anytime soon either. 

Since I am lazy, I’ll just quote what I wrote before:

Of course, using a mobile device has limitations. I like the wider view of  printed maps at times  (presumably a lightweight tablet in the future would remedy that somewhat), a map is more robust, does not require batteries , does not fail in very cold or very hot weather and I treat a map a lot more rough than the mobile device. And since the device is dependent upon satellite coverage, some heavy tree cover or using in a narrow canyon could make device use problematic. And a mobile device, and possible accessories,  are some more pieces of crap to potentially make a simple activity less simple.  … An electronic navigation app is  undeniably a useful tool for certain situations. As with any tool, the key is to make  proper use of the device and having the skill set to make effective use of the information obtained from the device, too.

A recent addendum to what I what I wrote above is that satellite coverage is also dependent on the largess of the United States government. There was going to be a temporary GPS outage (June 2016) in California that was kiboshed only a few hours ago as of this writing. 

A map, be it electronic or printed, would not be affected by this outage of course.

For pre-trip planning, a large monitor is how I often plan my more obscure trips with CalTopo. However, I still will put a Trails Illustrated or similar on the living room floor as well if it is handier. The larger view of a TI map trumps the monitor by far.

And my handy Benchmark Atlas is how I figure out the backcountry road situation before the trip (and often in the field). Of course, I do use the Google satellite view in conjunction with the atlas quite a bit, too. Google satellite view does not work so well once on the trip, however.

A printed map is better when using a compass while orientating oneself while using those wide views from the map, of course.

In the end, both a printed map and the electronic equivalents have their places in the field and for planning. But maps aren’t going away. Far from it. We’ll always need maps. How we use and procure these maps are simply evolving.

Much like books, maps may become more common and handier in electronic form in many ways. I have over 50 books on my tablet. A lot easier to move, store and take with me when I travel. But they are still books.   And, like books, sometimes a print format is superior for maps.  I’d hate to look at John Fielder photos on even a large tablet versus a coffee table book.  And I’d hate to plan a long loop by scrolling back and forth on a monitor.

And in the field? The GPS enabled phone with an electronic map will tell me exactly where I am. But the larger printed map is a lot easier to read and tell me where I want to go versus the five-inch screen of my phone.


The Devil Duck likes the wide views of maps, too!

To quote well-known Scottish outdoor author Chris Townsend:

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.

Both the electronic and traditional navigation aids have their place.

A wise backcountry traveler will know how to use both.

Chris Townsend has what I think is the best overview of electronic vs traditional navigation methods in an article on his website. It is written in his usual pragmatic, thorough and even-handed manner.  I strongly suggest reading the article.

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Devin Quince
Devin Quince
7 years ago

Not sure if you saw this, but it is timely. I have run in to more than one person who wanted blindly follow their GPS off a cliff.

Hiker Box
7 years ago

I think this is one area where traveling on trail vs. off trail creates distinctions not obvious to the beginner. If you’re using a GPS to tell you where on the trail you are – all’s well and you can follow it to the next point of interest down the trail. If this is your only experience navigating in the backcountry the need to read topographic lines isn’t readily apparent. You may go so far as to ditch paper maps completely, relying entirely on your phone since it’s work for so long and nothings gone wrong (say 2650 or 2180… Read more »

Another Kevin
7 years ago

Yes, yes, yes! You know that I’m a bushwhacko myself… and that I never go out without a paper map of where I’m going. But more and more often, the paper map is one that I printed myself… and includes data that I captured. Thanks for mentioning open-source maps! I could wish you’d encouraged hikers more strongly to contribute to them, rather than just looking at them. You correctly observe that the first Bush administration eviscerated the USGS, and it’s unlikely ever to restart. (We have better maps of Afghanistan than we have of our own country!) The commercial outfits… Read more »