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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
“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
- Death by GPS
- What Is Starlink for RVs? Is It Right for You?
- I Did What My GPS Told Me: When GPS Replaces Common Sense
- How to Travel Safely with a Big Rig
It finally happened. I got the GPS lady so confused, she said, “In one-quarter mile, make a legal stop and ask directions.