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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 


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

Death by GPS

Ever been misled by your GPS?

For some, a GPS fiasco is simply an annoyance but in other cases, it can be a lot more serious.

Search, and rescue teams call it Death by GPS. It happens when a well-meaning driver follows poor directions from a GPS device and ends up in serious trouble. Despite the grisly name, not every victim dies from following bad directions from their GPS. But the name is a reminder of how high the stakes can be when you trust technology more than your own eyes and instincts. Here are some tragic stories from people who trusted their GPS more than their own commonsense.

Driving a major highway in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

GPS blamed in RVer’s death

An Indiana couple, Ronnie and Bev Barker went missing along with their motorhome on a trip from Oregon to Arizona. The couple were lost and stranded in the desert hills of Nevada. As more details come into focus regarding the Barker’s tragic final trip together, it became clear the couple’s GPS is taking some of the blame for the tragic outcome.

When searchers found the Barker’s motorhome on April 6, 2022, it was abandoned, stuck in the sand on a desert road. The family’s toad car, a Kia, was gone, presumably used by the couple after the motorhome got stuck. Searchers then worked on following the intermittent tracks left on the dusty roadway. After a couple of hours, they heard a car horn. It was signaling out “SOS.” The Barkers were found.

Burr Trail in Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beverly Barker was sitting in the front seat of the Kia following some of the last instructions her husband, Ronnie, had given. With their cell phones out of range he had told her to keep tooting the horn. Three short, three long, three short. Repeat.

Bev Barker was airlifted to a Reno hospital and was able to physically recover in a fairly short time. She was able to speak to the details of their disastrous trip. On March 27, 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 Ronnie nor Bev had any qualms about following the instructions it gave. One post by a family member suggests that a setting on the GPS allowed for off-highway direction. His feeling was this was where the problem really set in.

Country road in Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Barkers continued on, following the GPS’ directions. After her rescue, Bev Barker commented that the couple had seen other vehicles including at least one motorhome and so felt comfortable with where they were headed. That is, apparently, until the motorhome got stranded in sand that night. With no cell service, Ronnie and Bev decided their best course of action was to get up the next morning disconnect the toad car and use it to go find help to get the motorhome freed from the sand.

The next morning, March 28 they got into the Kia and headed off down the road in what they hoped was the direction that would get them help. Instead, just about two miles from the motorhome their toad car, too, got stuck in sand—and they were still out of cell phone range.

What followed were several agonizing days. Neither Ronnie nor Bev was in particularly good health. Ronnie was a cancer survivor and both he and Bev were diabetics and Bev is limited to the use of a wheelchair or walker. They hadn’t thought to take blankets or food or water with them when they left the motorhome. 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.

Driving the Piano Bridge in central Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Carolina man dead after following GPS to defunct bridge

The Hickory Bridge had been inoperative for about nine years and any barricades had been washed away. A North Carolina man is dead after his GPS led him to the defunct bridge that dropped off into a creek on September 30, 2022.

Phillip Paxson, a 47-year-old father of two girls had been driving his Jeep at night from his oldest daughter’s birthday party in Hickory when his GPS led him to a bridge that has been inoperative since heavy flooding in July 2013 destroyed it.

Driving a covered bridge in Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“It was a dark and rainy night and he was following his GPS which led him down a concrete road to a bridge that dropped off into a river,” Paxson’s mother-in-law, Linda McPhee Koenig said in a Facebook post. “The bridge had been destroyed (nine) years ago and never repaired. It lacked any barriers or warning signs to prevent the death of a 47 year old father of two daughters. He will be greatly missed by his family and friends. It was a totally preventable accident. We are grieving his death.”

Authorities with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol responded to reports of an overturned vehicle in a creek near 24th Street Place Northeast—a private road—in Catawba County, according to WCNC.

Old train depot in Fort Langley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

GPS blamed for sending driver onto train tracks

Occupants were able to get out and train slowed down before train hit.

Stuck on the tracks with the train coming—it’s a hackneyed Hollywood cliffhanger but a scene that a driver and his passenger lived through in Walnut Grove, British Columbia in January 2022.

According to the report from the Township of Langley Fire Department, it was just before 8 p.m. The driver was following the directions from the GPS which apparently steered him down the railway tracks instead of the 96th Avenue roadway near 217 A Street. The car became stuck on the tracks.

The driver and one passenger tried to push the vehicle off the tracks. Then, as a train approached tried flagging down the engineer. They were seen, but not in time.

Fort Langley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The train operator tried slowing the train but there wasn’t enough track,” said Assistant Fire Chief Andy Hewitson. Both of the vehicle occupants were able to get clear of the collision. The train hit the car at slow speed and pushed it for almost the length of a soccer field before getting fully stopped.

In deference to the car’s driver, Hewitson noted it was dark and 96th Avenue and the railway right-of-way intersect at an odd angle at that location. A lagging GPS could obviously create issues, he noted.

“Technology is great but it might not always give you the right directions,” said Hewitson.

Nobody was injured although the early model vehicle will likely be a write-off, he said.

Driving a rural road in the Midwest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to avoid becoming a victim of “Death by GPS”

These Death by GPS stories are terrible but hopefully will help raise awareness around this issue. The advice for avoiding Death by GPS is simple: Trust your gut. If a road seems unsafe, go back. Search and rescue teams also recommend having paper maps that clearly mark passable and maintained roads. GPS directions are helpful to have but traditional paper maps might help save your life.

Most death-by-GPS incidents do not involve actual deaths—or even serious injuries. They are accidents or accidental journeys brought about by an uncritical acceptance of turn-by-turn commands: the Japanese tourists in Australia who drove their car into the ocean while attempting to reach North Stradbroke Island from the mainland; the man who drove his BMW down a narrow path in a village in Yorkshire, England, and nearly over a cliff; the woman in Bellevue, Washington, who drove her car into a lake that their GPS said was a road; the Swedish couple who asked GPS to guide them to the Mediterranean island of Capri but instead arrived at the Italian industrial town of Carpi; the elderly woman in Belgium who tried to use GPS to guide her to her home, 90 miles away but instead drove hundreds of miles to Zagreb only realizing her mistake when she noticed the street signs were in Croatian.

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These types of mishaps often elicit sheer bafflement. The local Italian tourist official noted that although “Capri is an island,” the unfortunate Swedes “did not even wonder why they didn’t cross any bridge or take any boat;” the first responders in Bellevue were amazed that the women “wouldn’t question driving into a puddle that doesn’t seem to end.”

 For their part, the victims often couch their experiences in language that attributes to GPS a peculiar sort of agency. GPS “told us we could drive down there,” one of the Japanese tourists explained. “It kept saying it would navigate us a road.” The BMW driver echoed these words, almost verbatim: “It kept insisting the path was a road.”

Driving a country lane in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Something is happening to us. Anyone who has driven a car through an unfamiliar place can attest to how easy it is to let GPS do all the work. We have come to depend on GPS, a technology that, in theory, makes it impossible to get lost. Not only are we still getting lost we may actually be losing a part of ourselves.

Worth Pondering…


I Did What My GPS Told Me: When GPS Replaces Common Sense

GPS is useful tool for navigation but it shouldn’t be followed blindly

The last thing you want in your travels is to turn down the wrong road onto what could be a dangerous route.

When a highway closes or you’re just looking for possible routes, it’s natural to consult a GPS or navigation app. But drivers need to apply common sense to a computer’s suggestions, starting with not taking RVs, buses, and other vehicles that aren’t up to the task down unpaved roads.

A recent snowfall blankets Pony Express RV Park, Salt Lake City, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since Arizona State Highway 64 closed due to heavy snow between Grand Canyon Village and Grand Canyon National Park’s east entrance, a large tour bus, a smaller bus, and at least two passenger vehicles carrying tourists have gotten stuck on a forest road heading east from US 180 between Valle and Flagstaff toward US 89, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT).

Moki Dugway (Utah) is not recommended for RV travel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While tow trucks were able to free the other vehicles and head them back to US 180, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, with help from an ADOT snowplow, had to rescue 45 people from the tour bus as a recent snowstorm moved in. The driver of the bus, which was bound for Page, said his GPS unit recommended taking the forest road.

Related Article: Top 8 Tips for Planning a Road Trip this Thanksgiving and throughout the Holiday Season

A recent snowfall at Angel Lake RV Park in Wells, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office receives many calls throughout the year from motorists who get stuck following suggested alternate routes onto unpaved roads. It’s a big concern for ADOT during the winter when snowstorms can cause sudden and prolonged highway closures.

Burr Trail (Utah) is not an RV friendly route © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Sticking to the main highways is a driver’s best bet, especially during snowstorms,” said Audra Merrick, district engineer for ADOT’s North Central District.

“Our snowplow crews are out clearing these roads around the clock along with patrols from the Department of Public Safety and ADOT’s motor-assist vehicles. Don’t follow an alternate route that’s not regularly plowed during winter storms.”

Moki Dugway (Utah) is not recommended for RV travel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earlier, a Pennsylvania family wanting to see Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim got stranded following forest roads suggested as an alternate route to State Route 67 which closes for the winter along with park facilities. A woman suffered frostbite walking 26 miles trying to get help while her husband eventually was able to call rescuers by climbing high enough to get a cell phone signal.

Related Article: 7 Driving Tips You Should Know

A recent snowfall blankets Pony Express RV Park, Salt Lake City, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sgt. Aaron Dick, the search-and-rescue coordinator for the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, said if a suggested road becomes rough or difficult to navigate the best thing to do is turn around. Motorists also can prevent problems by understanding the settings on their GPS units or navigation apps, starting with making sure they are ranking alternate routes by “shortest time” rather than “shortest distance.”

Piano Bridge Road (Fayette County, Texas) is not for RVs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The dramatic story of a British Columbia couple who made a tragic wrong turn on their trip to Las Vegas also offers a startling reminder of the need for road travelers to make plans and preparations before heading out on the road.

Albert and Rita Chretien were traveling from their home in Penticton, British Columbia, to a trade show in Las Vegas when their 2000 Chevrolet Astro ran into trouble on a logging road in Elko County in March 2011.

Covered Bridges Scenic Byway (Ohio) is not for high-profile vehicles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rita was rescued on the verge of starvation in early May after spending seven weeks alone in the wilderness. She told investigators she hasn’t seen Albert since he left with the GPS to try to find a state highway.

She had survived on a tablespoon of trail mix, a single fish oil pill, and one hard candy a day.

Recent snowfall at Angel Lake RV Park in Wells, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

She reportedly lost as much as 30 pounds during the 49-day ordeal, and family members and doctors agree she faced the prospect of death had she waited much longer to be found.

Related Article: Raise Your RV IQ with These Tips

Authorities shed new light onto the tragedy in November 2012 after elk hunters discovered Albert’s body in a secluded area west from where he set off.

Piano Bridge Road (Fayette County, Texas) is not for RVs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Albert had hiked nearly 9 miles on his winding route and was within 6 miles of the community of Mountain City when the battery in the GPS he was using probably burned out and his path began to angle too far north. Had he been able to keep his bearings, there’s a slim chance he might have made it to a highway and then into town.

As an added precaution, always carry an emergency survival kit in your vehicle.

Snow falls at Diamond Groove RV Campground in Spruce Groove, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, if you travel in a big rig such as a Class A motorhome or fifth-wheel trailer and rely on a car GPS you could be in for double-trouble. One driver recently learned this the hard way when he tried to take his 30-foot vehicle over Engineer Pass, a rugged mountain road in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and became stuck near the top of the pass. Blindly following his car GPS, the driver did not realize this high mountain pass (sitting at 12,800 feet) is a difficult, narrow road that is typically traversed by 4-wheel drive high clearance vehicles.  Engineer Pass is part of the scenic high country Alpine Loop which connects Silverton to Ouray and Lake City through the San Juan Mountains.

Moki Dugway (Utah) is not recommended for RV travel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s why it’s wise to travel with an RV-specific GPS to navigate safely based on your vehicle dimensions. You can input your vehicle’s height, length, and weight as well as fuel information like whether or not you’re carrying propane. This will not only help you avoid steep mountain roads but also low clearance bridges, bridge weight limits, and tunnels with propane restrictions.

Related Article: 5 Tips for Safe RV Travel

Remember, Safety First, and Happy RVing!

Worth Pondering…

The only aspect of our travels that is interesting to others is a disaster.

—Martha Gellman