Daniel Groves

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Paper Maps in the Digital Age

Published: 10 April 2016 · Tags: technology, opinion, navigation

Are we becoming too reliant on digital mapping in the wilderness?

Anyone who spends a significant amount of time out in the UK’s wild places will probably have observed the smartphone take over. This is, I guess, to be expected in the digital age where most people are permanently online; but it’s not the presence of these devices that’s the problem, it’s the way they’re used. The presence in itself could be considered a good thing is it improves individuals safety and reduces the workload of our Mountain Rescue teams and our NHS staff. The problem is more to do with people’s reliance on these devices.

Many people have stopped carrying real maps – paper maps – when they’re heading into remote and wild regions. I can understand why; it’s all too convenient to pull your phone out of your pocket and hit the location button to see exactly where you are, and with the press of any other button have the technology plan your route for you. Your supposed to be enjoying some downtime, why would you want to think about what the best route is, or where you’re going?

The problem is these digital devices are riddled with problems. They’re battery powered and batteries fail frequently; in cold conditions charge drops quickly, and when your beloved phone is constantly seeking for a signal the battery will drain faster then normal. Add using the GPS receiver frequently, downloading maps over a data connection and have the screen running frequently and you’ve got a good recipe for the battery to be flat long before you get home.

Yes, you can charge your phone on the go with a portable battery, but this further increases your reliance on technology, increases the points of failure1 (ever had a cable break on you before?), and still has the issue with going flat (although this is much less likely).

We all know that electronics and water are about as incompatible as you can get2, and if there’s one thing our wild places regularly attract it’s rain; the conditions also tend to change fast, which makes them rather unpredictable. This wet will eventually find it’s way into your devices, which makes them more prone to failure. You can get watertight cases which still allow your phones touchscreen to work, which is throughly recommended, but they can never be completely relied upon.

As time goes on electronics seem to get more and more delicate. Your iPhone is an intricate device and, despite the build quality, it won’t bounce and keep working like your old Nokia 3310 did. What’s more likely is your screen will smash, or the device will irreparably break — either of these could leave you stranded without an adequate backup map.

Failures can be external to the device, too. Your phone cannot download more mapping data when you’ve got no reception, and GPS signals frequently get blocked by bad weather, mountains, or military exercises. All of these variables are completely outside of your control, which only makes them harder to manage.

Now what do you do?

You may have noticed while reading this that none of these faults will with a paper map and compass. This isn’t to say that they’re without fault, they’re certainly not, but they’re a lot safer in remote places than their electronic counterparts. Thanks to waterproof maps such as those by ordnance survey you don’t even need to bother a map bag anymore if you don’t want to, although a map bag3 with a tether will help to mitigate the risk of your map blowing away.

Maps have their own limitations: if you’re covering a lot of ground and need multiple maps they become cumbersome and heavy, they’re a fixed scale, and you can’t easily move the visible section of map showing in your map bag. These are all manageable though, and none of them leave you stranded without the ability to navigate.

It is no good, however, carrying a map and compass unless you know how to use them. Maps themselves are pretty easy, and most of us can already read them after browsing the key to get a basic understanding of the different icons and lines. A compass can seem intimidating for some though, although it needn’t be. It’s true that a compass will have a steeper learning curve, and may take a little practice to get used to, but with some basic knowledge a map and compass will help you navigate away from danger when all of your electronics have failed you.

They’re not perfect, and do have their limitations. I understand the frustration of maps — I regularly use a GPS as a primary navigation aid when out on my bike — however, maps can be dropped, sat on, trampled on, and drowned — but they’ll still do their job. Just don’t let your map blow away.

  1. I still think it’s smart for backpackers to carry these batteries. Most modern phones will only last a few days at the most, so being able to top-off the battery each night is a must.

  2. Yes, I know matter and anti-mater are less compatible, but that’s beside the point.

  3. I’d throughly recommend the Ortlieb map bag.