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.

>> DIG DEEPER

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

Why Paper Maps Matter in the Digital Age

Move aside Google maps, Apple maps, and GPS. People still love their paper maps.

Even if everything navigation is pointing in the direction of GPS, you’ll never tear some folks away from their paper maps.

As digital navigation tools continue to become regular fixtures in getting us to where we’re going, Google Maps is also looking at having an impact on establishing where we are. Google CEO Sundar Pichai blogged that, “one of the next frontiers for Maps will be to help the billions of people who live without a physical address get a digital one,” using latitude and longitude coordinates rather than a street address which he says would let more folks access things like banking and emergency services, receive personal mail and deliveries, and help others find and patronize their businesses.

Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The global digital map market appears to be going places. San Francisco market researcher Grand View Research estimated the global digital map market to be worth $5.6 billion in 2018. The firm expects the market to continue to expand at a compounded annual growth rate of 12.1 percent through 2025.

No signal? No problem. No battery required.

For her part, Kendra Ensor, the vice president of marketing at Rand McNally in Chicago, says about five years ago the company started to see an uptick in Road Atlas sales. “After all, a printed atlas doesn’t require batteries or a satellite or cell signal,” she says.

Fear of those dead batteries or spotty coverage is a key reason cited by many of the people who responded to USA Today on social media about why they still use paper maps. 

“When we were in Nebraska last year with all the flooding, a paper map would have been helpful when both Apple and Google Maps told us to go down a flooded road,” says Barb Gonzalez, a travel photographer and writer based in Bend, Oregon.

There’s a host of other reasons for printed maps, though, from carefully curated collections for historical or scholarly purposes to artistic displays to the accidental stockpile from recent travels.

David Rumsey’s collection of over 150,000 maps is housed at Stanford University. Over 30 years, he amassed atlases, wall maps, globes, school geographies, pocket maps, maritime charts dating from about 1550.

For community planners, real estate agents, and engineers, paper maps are just tools of the trade.  

“Suddenly we have these driving directions in our pockets and everybody seems to have forgotten that all these other maps exist even though they clearly use them on a regular basis,” says Daniel Huffman, a cartographer and an honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “I don’t think there is much of a separate case to be made for paper maps versus paper newspapers or paper books.”

Snake River at Twin Falls, Idaho © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Privacy: Paper maps tell no tales

To the extent that people fret about privacy, paper maps also won’t track you. 

Now, Apple emphasized privacy as part of its rollout for the latest iteration of Apple Maps: No sign-on is required, for example, and data collected by Maps while using the app including search terms, navigation routing, and traffic information is hidden behind random identifiers.

When you navigate somewhere using Google Maps, your every movement is often tracked where it shows up inside Google’s somewhat controversial opt-in Location History feature. Those seeking more privacy can enable Incognito Mode which will stop Google from saving your Maps search and navigation activities to your Google Account. The downside is you’ll lose some personalization features around such things as restaurant recommendations and traffic updates.

Covered Bridge Scenic Byway, Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using paper maps to plan

There’s just something about unfolding a map and laying it flat on a table. It’s at the same time visceral and visual. You get the size, sweep, and perspective that’s typically lacking when you stare at a smallish screen or wait for the voice to tell you when to make the next turn. 

You may mark up that map as you pore over it for sites you might want to visit. It could be for a trip soon to be taken or it may represent the only manifestation of the dream of a trip yet to materialize beyond the map in your hand. 

“My dividing line: paper maps for planning and GPS in transit,” says Marty Levine in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Along Dike Road, Woodland, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For some people, a map is memory. It rekindles something else perhaps a cherished and tangible recollection of places they visited or once lived or it lives as a representation of ancestral ties like the birthplace of their parents or grandparents.

“My husband and I used a paper map to drive throughout Portugal during our honeymoon (in 2017),” says Andrea Schneider who lives in Austin. The couple highlighted their route in orange and yellow, to mark alternate days. 

At night, they’d review the spectacular high-speed toll roads and many tunnels they’d gone through and plot the next day’s route. Schneider says the map gave them a deeper insight into the country’s typography and highway system.

“This old-school approach to an international road trip was more interesting, reliable, and fun than depending upon Google Maps,” she says. 

The map is currently tucked away in a box with other mementos from the Portugal trip and Schneider says she plans to frame it one of these days.

“It’s a lovely keepsake and souvenir that can’t really be recreated via a GPS.”

Pinto Bridge in Fayette County, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In this rapidly evolving digital world, paper maps add a sense of permanence. Roads and streets change for sure and no printed map can typically keep up with that pace of change. But printed maps aren’t just about plotting where you may be heading next. They’re as much about where you have been.

How do you use paper maps?

>> DIG DEEPER

Worth Pondering…

It finally happened. I got the GPS lady so confused, she said, “In one-quarter mile, make a legal stop and ask directions.”

—Robert Breault

15 Essential Items You Should Pack When Visiting a National Park

From food to clothing to personal items, here’s what to bring to stay safe and comfortable during your next park visit

National parks give people the opportunity to learn about and explore nature up close. However, visitors often forget these stunning destinations are more than tourist attractions. They’re also wild landscapes with animals, rugged terrains, and intense weather conditions that can all be dangerous if not respected and properly prepared for. 

Weather, region, and elevation are important to consider when packing for a national park trip. Weather can be unpredictable any time of year, so be sure to check the forecast and pack accordingly.

If a trip to a national park is on your road trip itinerary, here are a few items that you should pack to be prepared for weather conditions, hiking trails, pesky bugs, and unexpected situations.

Food and gear

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Water and snacks

Whether you’re exploring for an hour or an entire day, you should always bring water and food or healthy snacks along for your journey. Pack foods that will keep you moving such as nuts and trail mix, fruits and veggies. And you shouldn’t expect these items to be readily available at a moment’s notice. While some parks have food and drinks for sale in certain areas, others have limited (if any) shops or restaurants. You should always stay hydrated and pack enough food to keep yourself fueled throughout the day. 

2. Backpack or waterproof bag

Even for short park trips, you’ll want to bring a backpack or waterproof bag to keep your belongings safe and distribute weight evenly on your back which is especially important when you’re hiking. And if you’re hiking through water or in a rainy environment, a waterproof backpack can help ensure your gear stays dry. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Phone charger

Don’t plan on being close to power outlets or other areas where you can charge your phone. Bring a portable or solar charger with you if there’s an emergency and you need to reach out for help. If you’re visiting isolated areas of a park with no cell phone service, you should consider packing some type of GPS beacon for safety. This allows you to reach emergency responders without a cell phone signal.

4. Park map

When you enter the park, grab a map to carry with you during your visit. While maps on your phone and hiking apps are helpful when your phone is charged and there’s cell service, if you’re unable to use your phone, a paper map can help you find attractions and navigate trails. Plus, these can be fun souvenirs to keep track of park visits and the trails you’ve hiked.  

5. Sunscreen

Sunscreen is important year-round. Even on cloudy days, sunscreen will protect you from the sun’s harmful UV rays. Not only does sunscreen help prevent damage to your skin, it also protects from painful, irritating burns that can put a damper on any outdoor activity. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Bug spray

Insect repellent is another essential for your packing list. You’ll want to avoid pesky bugs throughout your hiking adventure. Protecting yourself from constant bug bites is key to an enjoyable park experience, from mosquitoes and ticks to biting flies and gnats. Before your visit, research the types of bugs you can expect to encounter and purchase repellents for those specific insects. Not all repellents are made the same, so it’s important to have one on hand that’s formulated to deter the environment you’re visiting. 

7. First aid kit

Be prepared for cuts, scrapes, and blisters with a small first aid kit. Keep a larger one in your RV.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Photo equipment

Of course, you will want to document your trip to the national parks you visit. While you can simply rely on your phone to capture some of the most memorable moments, once you get to the top of that beautiful peak where the sun is setting over the distant horizon, you might wish you had brought along your tripod and D-SLR camera to help you better capture the beauty before you. Some basic photo equipment and a good camera bag won´t add much weight to any pack and will allow you to save for the ages your memories.

TIP: Remember to bring backup batteries and extra memory cards for your camera.

Clothing

9. Hiking boots or comfortable shoes

Come prepared with hiking shoes or boots that are durable and comfortable enough to wear for the duration of your visit. Unless you’re simply driving through the park, you’ll likely be on your feet most of the time. Flip flops, open-toed shoes, and other casual footwear aren’t recommended even if you’re not hiking. You should also consider bringing an extra pair of shoes if you’re walking through wet areas or hiking trails like Zion’s Narrows which requires you to submerse your feet in water for most of the journey. 

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Layers

Elevation change, desert landscapes, cold fronts, and other factors make temperatures fluctuate significantly. Pack an extra warm layer to keep on hand for unexpected temperature drops. This could be anything from a jacket to a thermal shirt depending on where you visit and during what season. While it may not make sense when hiking in the heat during the day, if you become lost or stranded outside after the sun sets, an extra layer could become a vital piece of gear.  

11. Protective hat

Aside from shielding your eyes from glare, a good protective hat will have a brim wide enough to protect your nose, ears, and neck from sunburn. If the temperature is cold, you’ll likely want to wear a beanie or other winter hat to stay warm and protect your head from the sun. In warm or mild climates, you should wear a brimmed or billed hat for sun and bug protection. Hats can be an easy way to prevent ticks and other bugs from disturbing your visit. 

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Change of clothes

Bring along a change of clothes or store them in your car or a park storage locker (if available). When you’re out in nature, you and your clothes may get wet, muddy, sweaty, or all of the above. Having a spare set of clothes, especially dry socks and shoes can keep you comfortable and your day on track, no matter where you’re headed next. 

Personal items

13. Identification

Keep some form of identification with you especially if you’re traveling solo. If you sustain an injury or become unresponsive, this will help emergency responders identify you and potentially notify your loved ones of the situation. Be sure to store it in a protective case or wallet along with other important personal belongings.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Credit/debit cards

Many parks are going cashless. The idea is that by freeing national park staff from handling and processing cash they can spend more time improving visitor experiences and making park upgrades. So far this year, more than a dozen national park units have opted to go cash-free including Mount Rainier, Badlands, and Crater Lake. That’s on top of various other NPS units including certain monuments, historic sites, lakeshores, and recreation areas which no longer accept cash.

15. Medications

If you take any prescribed medications, keep them with you when possible. From hikes taking longer than expected to long lines at the park entrance, even well-planned itineraries can encounter an obstacle. Having your medications on your person helps keep you safe and provides peace of mind.

Worth Pondering…

I encourage everybody to hop on Google and type in national park in whatever state they live in and see the beauty that lies in their own backyard. It’s that simple.

—Jordan Fisher, American actor and musician

Why People Are Ditching GPS for Paper Maps

Paper maps are making a comeback. Here’s why it’s smart to get one.

With GPS in our cars and on our smartphones, gone are the days of massive paper maps directing us where to go—or so we thought. Those old foldable maps are actually making a comeback, not just among the older generations that grew up with them.

The Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency of Great Britain, saw a 144 percent increase in sales in 2020 compared to the year before, a spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal. And AAA said it produced 123 percent more maps in 2022 than in 2021, a boost the organization noted is being driven by millennials and Gen Zers.

Louisiana Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Northern New Jersey, Stephanie Kivett Ohnegian keeps an atlas in her car because “there are places where the GPS signal doesn’t work” or “the routing is ridiculous.”

In Portland, Oregon, Kimberly Davis has paper maps in her earthquake go bag—just in case.

And in Newport Beach, California, Christine McCullough has another practical reason for keeping the once-ubiquitous thick, spiral-bound Thomas Guides in her car. As the kids prepare for their driving tests, her edict is no phones.

Georgia Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Few folks would dismiss the fact that GPS for all its imperfections can be a godsend when we’ve lost our way—assuming it wasn’t GPS that sent us wildly off course in the first place. The same goes for Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze. And those apps are constantly evolving, too. 

Apple just delivered a redesigned Apple Maps experience with what the company insists is faster and more accurate navigation and more comprehensive views of roads, buildings, parks, airports, malls, and so on. 

Apple unveiled a new Look Around feature that is similar to Google’s Street View leveraging high-resolution photographs to let you see what major cities look like. 

Arkansas Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As part of its 15th birthday, Google is rolling out a refreshed look of Google Maps on iOS and Android devices and adding such new features as the ability for some transit riders to determine whether their bus or train is likely to be on the warmer or colder side.

GPS receivers are great for navigation and getting to where you want to go. Though apps like Google Maps are surely convenient there are a few downfalls to digital navigation, the first being that a smartphone battery can die. In a survival situation, paper maps provide a reliable backup to GPS receivers, smartphones, or tablets.

Alabama Welcome Center

The apps are also driven by artificial intelligence and satellite imagery to take you to your destination in the fastest way possible meaning you may miss out on scenic views and the expertise of a cartographer-drawn map.

Over-reliance on GPS has eroded our spatial awareness. You become more focused on your phone and less on your overall surroundings. When you follow directions from GPS apps or navigation systems, you don’t gain a full understanding of your environment. Instead, you become dependent on technology.

Despite its convenience, GPS receivers make us less aware of our surroundings. The broader scale and greater details in paper maps give us an advantage in geographic perception.

Florida Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where does that leave printed maps?

“Do they still make, even sell, paper maps?” That question from retired New York marketing executive Michael Lissauer is emblematic of our daily reliance on digital navigation.  “Other than in a history class, Europe before World War II, who needs a paper map?” 

It may surprise Lissauer and others that the answer to the question is yes. They’re actually on the rise. U.S. sales of print maps and road atlases had have had a five-year compound annual growth rate of 10 percent, according to the NPD BookScan. For context, in 2019, the travel maps and atlases category sold 666,000 units with year-over-year sales up 7 percent.

New Mexico Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tony Rodono owns and runs The Map Shop. “We’ve had a retail location in Charlotte, North Carolina for about 30 years and every day we get somebody walking in saying, ‘How in the world can you stay in business?’”

Not only is The Map Shop still in business but it is also moving to a bigger facility partly to manufacture three-dimensional raised relief maps that are vacuum-formed over a mold to help people get a better representation of an area’s topography. 

A few of The Map Shop’s older generation customers are skeptical of GPS, he finds. “They have a flip phone that’s tucked away with their map in their glove box for emergencies,” he says. But he’s seeing fewer and fewer customers who fit that description.

Tour Texas Information Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Members of AAA can still walk into a local branch and request a TripTik, the spiral-bound notebooks filled with fold-out maps tracking the route to their final destination. An AAA agent would highlight the route with a marker and point out sightseeing spots, restaurants, perhaps places to spend the night. You’d typically walk out with tour books as well.

As a signpost of the digital age, people nowadays can order TripTiks which first surfaced in 1937, online or through the AAA app and create a digital version.

Dave Arland still frequents an AAA branch before a big car trip. The Indiana public relations executive insists, “Nothing beats the high-resolution printed map! Plus printed maps don’t have an attitude like Siri, Google, or others!”

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I am a paper girl all the way,” says Cindi Gildard, a bookkeeper at Chase Leavitt in Portland, Maine. “I’m not a navigator. I wouldn’t know how to use a GPS if there was one in my vehicle.”

Instead, Gildard relies on the Maine Atlas and Gazetteer which she says is awesome and shows “old little dirt roads and where bridges were washed out.” The Gazetteer uses dotted lines, she adds, to indicate areas in the backcountry where you need four-wheel drive. 

>> DIG DEEPER

Worth Pondering…

It finally happened. I got the GPS lady so confused, she said, “In one-quarter mile, make a legal stop and ask directions.

—Robert Breault