Are Paper Maps Better?

Posted by James Viars on

“Paper or plastic?” That's a question we used to hear quite a bit at the grocery checkout. Nowadays, not so much.

But what about “Paper or electronic?” In today's battery driven world, it's very easy to pick up an electronic replacement for anything historically paper, especially maps. Paper maps have quickly become supplanted by the ever present Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS is found in our smart phones, cars, boats, and an impossible number of other devices.

GPS is a marvelous technology. With GPS, you will almost instantly know your position anywhere on the Earth and calculate in a matter of seconds a route to your destination. I personally have had a long love affair with GPS and its many uses. My first introduction with GPS was in the early 90s when the technology was hugely-huge in size and eye-wateringly expensive. Neither of which are true any more.

Printed maps, on the other hand, seem to be pushed to the wayside more and more. They aren't as sexy as a GPS. Nor do they make sounds. Can't really swipe up and down either. Depending on scale, long distance route planning is not possible either without several maps laying across the hood of your car.

However, printed maps become part of your destination and experience. Printed maps are fun to hang on your wall and push “I've been here” pins in them. Often times they are spotted with dirt and mud that illustrates that you have indeed been there and done that. Notes and doodles scribbled across the paper help make decisions. All of which help not only tell your story, but illustrate it as well.

Romanticism aside, printed maps have abilities that are near impossible to find with GPS. They are always on and never need batteries. Printed maps are very lightweight too. Depending on type of paper, your map could be waterproof as well. A major down side of GPS is that the screens are commonly only a few inches wide. A paper map like a USGS 7.5 Minute Topo-quad is about 22 inches wide by 30 inches tall! Unlike a GPS, you can lay these maps across the hood of your vehicle and have several other members of your group look at your map with ease.

Paper maps also allow you to see everything all at once (depending on the type of map, that is). One of my biggest gripes with the mapping type of GPS is that map layers are typically visble according to scale. Zoom in too far, you lose features like boundaries. Zoom too far out, small roads and trails disappear. With a paper map, the features built into the map are always there. No hassle of zooming in or out.

An even bigger advantage of scale with a paper map over a GPS is your ability to observe your entire local area is visible. This sounds a little like the problem with zoom levels, but it's a little bit more nuanced than that. For instance, if you are wanting to hike or drive a trail, a GPS may show you that trail and the geography immediately surrounding that area. But a good paper map such as the USGS Topos present the type of geography that makes your decisions a bit more balanced.

When you plan your route on this type of map, you have the ability to make your plan accordingly. What if there is the potential for run off in a ravine several miles away? Is your proposed campsite influenced by topography? These are just some of the questions that a proper printed map can answer for you that perhaps could be missed by a GPS.

All of this being said, I still use GPS. I have high praises for the GAIA app on my iPhone and have a (Garmin) GPS unit in my Wrangler as well. When you are driving, it's nice to glance up and see your position on a moving screen. But when I need good info, the paper maps are going to be rolled out so that I can see what I need to see, unimpeded.

Post Script:

I will concede that when planning my outdoor activities, I will normally consult with Google Maps first. The ability to switch between aerial and satellite imagery, along with a really good, shaded relief topographic map set, is bar none a great tool.

Edited 2/5/2021 Changed Lowrance to Garmin GPS in Wrangler. Changed title.