Why Paper Maps Matter in the Digital Age

Paper maps are the new dream boards for travel inspiration

Ever since Google Maps debuted on February 8, 2005, drivers have been using online navigation systems to get around. Gone are the days of printing a map from MapQuest or pulling out a massive paper map to navigate to your desired location—or so we thought.

Recently, there has been a surge in the purchase of paper maps, according to The Wall Street Journal. Some are likely purchasing the maps for their intended use of navigation but others, WSJ said, are buying the maps to hang on their wall.

A custom-designed map from a cartographer is being used more and more as a piece of art or as a way to inspire future travel. Tony Rodono, owner of Map Shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, confirmed that sales for maps have risen steadily by 20 to 30 percent year to year.

Burr Trail, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maps that are sold as art are often colorful and sometimes have a vintage vibe to them which has made them a popular decoration choice.

A video from Today referenced the coverage from The Wall Street Journal and cited a statistic from AAA which said that it made 123 percent more maps in 2022 compared to 2021. As another reason for the increase in map sales, Today said that many younger travelers are encouraging going off the beaten path and subsequently need maps.

Even if you don’t want to display a map in your home as art or inspiration, it might be a good idea to pick up a map for your car if you don’t have one. You never know when you could be traveling and your phone runs out of battery or you don’t have cellular service and need to navigate home.

Getting a paper map can save you stress and give you peace of mind that you have a tool in case you need it.

Fans say physical maps—though less efficient than digital options—enhance one’s journey. Among devotees are a surprising number of millennials and members of Generation Z.

Schnebly Hill Road, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mapping is a timeless science as well as an art that has been around since time immemorial. It has been used to identify places and find directions to destinations especially by early travelers and explorers.

In the 1880s, Iraqi archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam found a small carved tablet with an image of Babylon at its center surrounded by a vast salt sea. Historians consider this tablet roughly 2,500 years old, the earliest existing map of the world.

Even modern maps look quaint today when apps like Google Maps put practically every intersection in the world a click away. We rely heavily on this innovation. One 2022 survey by tire retailer United Tires found that in the 20 U.S. cities with the most cars per capita, 93 percent of drivers depend on GPS to get around.

There’s no arguing that Google Map is best for directions when driving some distance but when discovering what a new destination has to offer, printed maps can’t be beat. Google Maps have been recorded to be accurate almost 90 percent of the time.

But like with GPS, there’s always that 10 percent margin of error that might send a big surprise your way such as when someone is sent over a mountain pass that’s actually a rugged 4-wheel-drive-only road. Oops! Worst of all, when people look at these kinds of digital maps, they tend to believe they’re 100 percent accurate. Not a good idea.

Bush Highway, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As in the case of an Indiana couple, Ronnie and Bev Barker went missing along with their motorhome and Kia toad on a trip from Oregon to Arizona in April 2022. They had been heading south out of Coaldale, Nevada, a small community on U.S. Highway 95. Their motorhome’s GPS was their guidance system and neither had any qualms about following. With temperatures in the 20s by night it didn’t take long for Ronnie to fall seriously ill. Partly due to dehydration he finally passed away just two days before rescuers heard Bev’s repeated SOS horn toots and found the couple still together in their Kia.

Also in 2022 a North Carolina man died after his GPS led him to the defunct bridge that dropped off into a creek. The bridge had been inoperative for about nine years and any barricades had been washed away.

A man whose truck got stuck in snow while exploring the backcountry west of Kelowna, British Columbia needed to be rescued by helicopter last month (November 2023). Rescuers say the man was unharmed but the situation could have ended much worse and they are cautioning hikers and drivers about relying heavily on online maps that can be inaccurate.

Police said in a statement that the man was exploring the backcountry when his new four-by-four truck became stuck in the snow and he called 911. Since the driver couldn’t provide his co-ordinates, attempts to pinpoint his cellphone were unsuccessful. After locating the truck by air, a police helicopter landed in a clearing and hiked about 500 metres to rescue the driver and fly him out. 

The statement says search-and-rescue officials have seen “a noticeable increasing trend” of motorists relying on online maps to navigate forest service roads but those can be inaccurate and are not updated with current road conditions.

Paper maps can give you not only the bigger picture of where you are in relation to the community you are in but they also give the user the flavor and character of that community or destination.

Just think of how you approach a paper map. First you unfold it, then your eyes scan most of the surface area, then perhaps you zero in on some places of interest, then you might look at the key–you get the idea. It’s a whole process. And the fact that there’s a very tactile part of it, actually helps your brain to absorb the information more deeply.

Think of how you experience digital vs. paper maps. It’s kind of like comparing a fast-food meal to a fine dining experience. OK, I know I might be biased. But I have both. So the point is that both digital and paper serve a purpose.

Piano Bridge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Digital maps, while powerful, aren’t perfect navigational tools: Phone batteries die, cell signals fail. And though a smartphone can easily direct you to the quickest route taking it often means you’ll miss the best scenery. A paper map, more like those made by early humans, can provide a bigger picture. You can think of them less like comprehensive guides to reaching your destination and more like detailed portraits of areas of interest created by someone with deep, experiential knowledge. After all, while a satellite can highlight unpaved paths, cartographers actually walk down them.

Perhaps that’s why paper maps are regaining popularity. According to a spokesperson for Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency of Great Britain, “sales of custom-made maps exploded in 2020 with an increase of 144 percent compared with the year before. A year later, in 2021 there was a further 28 percent increase.” The AAA produced 123 percent more maps in 2022 than in 2021. A representative for the organization said enthusiasm for them is growing among millennials and members of Generation Z who account for half of its new members in the last three years.

The boom has trickled down. Tony Rodono, owner of the Map Shop, a retailer and cartography firm in Charlotte, North Carolina said sales are up a consistent 20 percent to 30 percent year over year. His customers, he added, aren’t just looking to maps for directions but as inspiration for future trips or even as art worth hanging.

Valley of the Gods, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indeed, many newer maps are more beautiful than useful. Delightful custom charts by Jen Urso of Steady Hand Maps in Phoenix, often foreground seemingly random details, like the best cactuses near her home. “There’s so much you can map,” she said. “It’s not just about streets.”

The bottom line: It’s a good idea to embrace both digital and paper maps, not only out of necessity, but also in order to enhance your map-reading experience and to increase your understanding.

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Worth Pondering…

I don’t want technology to take me so far that I don’t have to use my brain anymore. It’s like GPS taking over and losing your internal compass. It’s always got to be tactile, still organic.

—Andrew Bird