Are Paper Maps Obsolete?

Candice Gaukel Andrews July 31, 2012 93

Some places just seem to call for paper maps, where a yellow highlighter can trace and remind you of  your rambles.

Interstate rest stops are some of my favorite places when it comes to getting ideas for new adventures. Inside their doors are racks filled with printed brochures and colorful maps that promise excitement just down the road. It’s a banner day when I can replace my old, well-worn, highway map with a brand-new, up-to-date one, indicating where freshly laid blacktop can now take me and previously unheard-of natural areas have been set aside—and where the “blank spots” still exist.

According to a recent article in the Associated Press, however, paper maps supplied by government agencies and private businesses may soon be displaced by our own GPS units and the built-in navigation technology on our smartphones. You and I could soon walk into a rest stop on I-94, let’s say, and find nothing inside but bathrooms and canteen machines.

But is there still a value to paper maps that our electronic devices haven’t yet been able to duplicate?

Hearing voices

It’s on the “blue highways” that you’re likely to encounter the things you didn’t plan on.

According to the July 22, 2012, Associated Press article, a drop in map printing began around 2003, when affordable GPS units became popular Christmas presents. Public demand started to go down; and today, with transportation departments around the country facing limited budgets, paper maps are often the first things on the chopping block. Some states have opted to print new maps every two years rather than every year, others have decided to publish them every five years and some have done away with them altogether.

I understand this thinking. Tough decisions have to be made in these economic times. It makes sense to cut the services that are thought will be least missed.

But that GPS Lady who verbally gives you directions is only concerned about getting you from here to there in the quickest, most efficient way possible. She cares nothing for the “blue highways,” as writer William Least Heat-Moon calls them—the small, forgotten, out-of-the-way roads (which were drawn in blue on the old-time Rand McNally road atlas) where you’re likely to encounter the things you didn’t plan on: a remote nature reserve, an encounter with a bear or even a great diner that serves an exceptional piece of pie.

GPS Lady doesn’t understand when you don’t follow her instructions and reprimands you with a stern word of “recalculating” when you venture off her chosen route.

Keeping a paper record

I’m not against technology. I think those who go into the wilderness unprepared cost the rest of us a lot of money. But by never taking a wrong turn or never feeling that heart-pounding thump when you believe for a moment that you’re totally lost in a strange land takes away from how we’ll experience adventure in the future. Adventure will no longer be in the journey but solely in the destination.

GPS Lady may not understand when—and why—you veer.

Besides, keeping marked-up maps of where you’ve been creates a permanent record of your wanderings. There are places in the world that just call for paper maps, where you can take a yellow highlighter and trace your rambles—the highlands of Scotland, national parks or state forests come to mind. Twenty or even 10 years from now, long after your current GPS unit and smartphone have become extinct, the paper trail of your travels—drawn in neon ink—may be the only tangible chronicle of your past adventures.

Paper maps never lose their power source or fail to work because of unreliable service. And they don’t admonish you when you veer.

Do you think paper maps are becoming obsolete?

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,



  1. Simon H. September 4, 2012 at 3:39 am - Reply

    GPS never says “if you turn off the main highway and take this little sideroad and drive east for 3 miles you will come to a really cute village with a 200 year old church and a traditional pub”. So I guess it’s fine if you just want the shortest/fastest route, but not if you are using it as more than just a way to get from A to B. And my house, on a corner on a narrow lane was hit by a lorry when the driver used GPS and didn’t seem to notice that the lane was too small for his vehicle….

  2. Laura M. Ellerby September 4, 2012 at 3:38 am - Reply

    I’m a “paper” girl myself. I like the feel, smell and visual appeal of paper.

    Especially when one is in rural areas, paper can be considerably more thorough and reliable. Actually, dependence on GPS devices alone can be deadly. A man and his SUV were recently found in my state months after the man went missing in the winter when he was navigating back roads in the mountains. His GPS device didn’t help him at all; in fact, it may have even contributed to his taking a wrong turn and getting lost.

  3. Tony Kingham September 3, 2012 at 5:22 am - Reply

    GPS is a great tool, I wouldn’t be without one. But they don’t give you the wider picture that you have with a map, the lie-of the land, best route, avoiding obstacles etc. for cross country navigation. For me the best thing they do is confirm your current location!

  4. Deanna Beacham September 3, 2012 at 2:04 am - Reply

    I have to have my paper maps. They give me a visual picture of where I am in relationship to other places, and they don’t need a battery charge. If production costs mean paying for them as an option, I don’t mind.

  5. Jonathan DeLise August 28, 2012 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    I don’t find any joy in a digitized map. On paper ones (I try to find a basic plastic bag to plop the maps into in the event of a rainy season/humid weather), I pleasingly mark my daily routes, random spots, favorite eats, and can easily show the map to someone in case he/she can help me/I can help him/her. You can do all of this with a smart phone/PDA, but a paper map 1)is more cheaply replaced should a pickpocket find you and 2)doesn’t require batteries/charging.

  6. Barbara August 28, 2012 at 7:24 am - Reply

    Electronics are crutches not substitutes for maps. Knowing how to read a map is essential. Planning where you’re going is fun…you can see possible destinations A, B, C. Maps give you the big picture, not little bits of pictures that have to be strung together to make sense.

    People today are dependent on the GPS and complaisant about its usefulness. Not very long ago, (most) travelers knew they had to plan their trips. Now, they’re unprepared to put themselves back on track. By the way, how many of you have maps in your cars?

    Close your eyes (not if you’re driving), and consider GPS systems. The information is uploaded into the GPS from a source that you have no control over–that no credible source has control over. Depending on a GPS for directions is like trusting any other electronic source of information. Wikipedia, for example: the information in the articles may not be accurate depending on the qualifications, knowledge, and writing ability of the authors of the articles. However, once published, people accept this incorrect information as fact until an expert takes the time to correct the errors.

    Raise your hand (only one if you’re driving) if your GPS has led you to the mountains instead of the beach! Ah, 100% of you have been led astray.

    And don’t you hate that nasty voice, “Recalculating….”

  7. Peter W. August 27, 2012 at 5:40 am - Reply

    In the last 7 months I bought a lot of maps from different companies. Sorry for gps, but 4 out of 6 were new publishers on the international markets, and as I see their offer, they will stay in business for a lot of future years.

  8. Elaine August 27, 2012 at 5:39 am - Reply

    I love my GPS and use it all the time, however, I do like a paper map when I am traveling far. It gives me a context for where I am and where I am going. Otherwise that sense is limited to the little screen of the GPS and there is no sense of place!

  9. Scott C. August 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    Paper maps won’t become completely obsolete but perhaps their delivery method will change (maybe more towards print on demand, or custom views versus mass printing). The form factor of mobile devices can’t offer the same overview. However, we’ll start seeing more apps that download and store map data for disconnected use. Ultimately though, paper maps won’t die for the same reason that paper hasn’t – sometimes low-tech is the best way to go. It’s also bad to assume everyone has a GPS anyway. I still grab tourist and park maps wherever I go to use alongside my cool GPS tech. You can find one of the best instances of blending old and new tech at .

  10. Earl 'Bud' Reaves August 23, 2012 at 8:14 am - Reply

    Paper maps don’t need batteries , and it’s hard to orient my Silva compass on a laptop. Never been sold on digital compasses.

  11. Linda August 21, 2012 at 7:13 am - Reply

    I hope they don’t become obsolete, I too love looking at them and remembering the places I have been and the wonderful things I have seen.

  12. Kareemah August 21, 2012 at 6:24 am - Reply

    I LOVE PAPER MAPS! I cannot have a travel experience without the romance (I guess) of scrolling through the map book, instead of an impersonal electronic device talking to me ?? It feels more real, you get to experience so much more of a place by seeing all the possibilities, all the history, the back roads you could take instead of the shortest straightest route. I will be using and buying paper maps for very many years to come. I sincerely hope it does not ever become obsolete. Besides, it’s perhaps a greener option 🙂 no batteries required. And even though its paper, lasts very much longer than electronic devices it seems 🙂 And the more aged and weary, the more character and stories our maps hold 🙂

  13. Steve M. August 20, 2012 at 7:54 am - Reply

    The electronics are great, but you should always have a back-up plan. There is always going to be a little ‘old school’ in me. Maybe it’s the color of my hair, but I feel there is an importance in learning the combination of non-electronic and electronic. Whether we are talking photography – f stop/shutter speed and darkroom experience vs. all auto digital cameras or whether we are discussing map and compass vs. GPS there is a value and excitement in experiencing the steps that have brought us to the present. The knowledge of both makes you much more prepared for anything.

  14. Peter August 20, 2012 at 7:07 am - Reply

    Paper maps will never die! Even in the most remote areas (but also locally) of our globe, signals for gps may be (and for economical reasons, stay) absent, so for everyone’s safety; TAKE a map with you; so: if there is a demand, someone will present (the map(s)) !

  15. Scott M. August 20, 2012 at 7:06 am - Reply

    Just finished two weeks hiking in the Rockies. Used the paper maps as much, if not more often than the gps, for all the reasons already mentioned.

  16. Subodh August 19, 2012 at 5:20 pm - Reply

    I think the paper maps are still useful in many (I think most ) of the cases.

  17. George Steele August 19, 2012 at 5:17 pm - Reply

    If you’re going in to the back country a map and compass and knowledge in how to use them are essential – GPS or not. Batteries die, batteries leak, electronics short out or malfunction – a map and a good compass will get you where you need to go.

  18. Michael R. August 15, 2012 at 5:13 am - Reply

    I would not like to get lost in the bush and have my phone battery or gps battery run out. Nothing beats a map and compass for reliability.

  19. Michael August 14, 2012 at 8:41 am - Reply

    Whether professionally necessary or not, I personally love paper maps. Recently tracked down a cartographic store in my area and found that their business had dropped off so much in recent years that they were planning to open a carwash on their property in order to subsidize the map sales.

  20. Robert J. Johnson, PG August 13, 2012 at 11:30 am - Reply

    Not anytime soon.

  21. Scott August 12, 2012 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    Paper maps will never be obsolete! There are always going to be times and situations where electronic means will not work. Think about these people who can’t seem to drive even a few miles down the road without GPS. You could also be in a mountainous or desert terrain where there is no internet. Also, during war the only thing you can rely on is your trusty paper map in your hands. Also, during vacation or flight planning nothing is more fun than spreading all of your papers out on the living room floor. Also, people LIKE maps for displaying and showing people stuff and for explaining to someone directions on how to get some place.

  22. Eileen T. August 12, 2012 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Having recently moved to a new state where I did not know my way around I started out depending on my GPS. But it led me astray many times, sent me the long way around on numerous occasions, and just plain got me lost. I have learned to have a paper map as back-up and to show me the minor roads that I might use. Paper maps are also much more helpful in getting the larger picture of an area or region. A GPS screen is rather small and I have needed to know what lies between me and my final destination several times. A paper map will do this, especially if you are travelling through many states.

  23. Dean August 11, 2012 at 7:02 am - Reply

    I think for back country hiking GPS maps would work but in cities I still prefer a one page photocopied map that can be stuffed in my back pocket and looks (somewhat) discreet when you get lost yet again and need to pull it out.

  24. Andy August 8, 2012 at 11:08 am - Reply

    You can’t beat a large map on a table when planning a walk, drive or whatever.

  25. Patricia F. August 8, 2012 at 11:07 am - Reply

    I depend on paper maps to get an idea of the “larger picture”. They also give me an idea of nearby towns in the event I need to detour. I like to know what rivers and mountains I’m crossing. I also like to know what I will likely be running in to in advance. I like my GPS but I always have my paper maps handy. I wouldn’t leave home without them.

  26. Judy August 7, 2012 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    I would never go out in a remote, or even secluded, area of wilderness without a hard-copy map. Gadgets are fun, but too many things can go wrong with electronically powered devices and GPS signal issues. Depending on them 100% can be dangerous, even deadly.

  27. Husein A. August 7, 2012 at 9:44 am - Reply

    I prefer using the Gps when travelling especially when I am alone. It is safer as I am paying attention to the road and not a map and also I believe that it makes driving more fuel efficient. This is because GPS gives you a heads up 1km before you turn so you can start coasting to a stop instead of braking. However, on some occasions they have malfunctioned and therefore I keep a copy of map book as a back up.

  28. Stijn Meysen August 7, 2012 at 8:34 am - Reply

    Some things should not be digitalized. Just came back from a Canada trip (truly amazing) and we only used paper maps, both for driving and hiking, so useful in some more remote areas with no power fuse. Every city in Canada has their own small donwtown maps, handy if you do not want to use the local internet network. Go visit Maptown in Calgary and you will be inspired too :

  29. Diana J. August 7, 2012 at 8:32 am - Reply

    I love my maps for travel planning, use the GPS only sporadically and mostly in urban areas. I have been traveling for many years in some out of the way places and have gotten lost a few times – but I also happened upon some wonderful sights that way. GPS is wonderful if you are on a schedule and need to make sure you reach your destination at certain time, but getting somewhat lost can be a great adventure and introduce you to some amazing areas.

  30. Alexandre August 7, 2012 at 4:39 am - Reply

    A gps can’t give your the topography, the curve and the split of the hill you’re climbing!

    A map can’t be out of order…

  31. D.S. August 7, 2012 at 4:38 am - Reply

    I don’t own a GPS. That doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re useful. My wife and I usually rely on a combination of looking at Google Maps ahead of time and paper maps. Though our state did slash the budget and made a much inferior map to the one we had which was falling apart (and charged us much more for it). Using these, we get to find our way together, as a team. And, I think there will probably always be marketing maps, printed by chambers of commerce.

  32. Dale August 6, 2012 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    By no means are paper maps obsolete. Aside from using them for planning road trips, I use them extensively in the class room and also as a basis for developing games.

  33. Phillip Tureck - FRGS August 6, 2012 at 6:21 pm - Reply

    I used GPS in our last Canada trip and it saved a lot of time however GPS has quirks and does not always take the logical route. In the UK it may take you sometimes a questionable route as opposed to the way you know you should go, very strange.

    When I travel abroad however I like to have a map, it gives clearly defined routes and also provides the opportunity to visit some interesting places not always seen on the GPS route A to B. So for me maps are still great to have.

  34. Laura D. August 6, 2012 at 10:53 am - Reply

    I love GPS, but the screens can be too small. Those big paper maps can open up some possibilities that you might miss on a small screen. The paper map is big enough to notice special features that weren’t on your pre-determined route, such as a scenic overlook or a spur trail. Going off your pre-determined route is a big part of the adventure! Also, when all else fails, you paper maps make good kindling. GPS units, not so much.

  35. Shawn August 6, 2012 at 10:20 am - Reply

    Along with Karl, I am sure hoping not… Have you ever tried planning an across the state trip on a GPS??? Recently having traveled north from Portland, Oregon to our home in La Quinta, CA, we thrilled to choose new routes based on national parks, topographical interest points and towns not yet visited… This would have taken days to do on a 3×4 screen… For me it would be like playing chess only capable of looking at one square at a time.

  36. Peter B. August 6, 2012 at 7:59 am - Reply

    Love my GPS but always have a paper map as backup!

  37. Robbie August 6, 2012 at 4:52 am - Reply

    Beware technology. In the UK we are blessed with excellent high quality maps produced by the Ordnance Survey. Last week I was navigating with one of these around the wild area of Letterewe in the Highlands of Scotland. I was approached by someone with a GPS (but without a map) asking me the way. His pre-programmed route suggested he turned left but looking at the landscape he could see no path. A quick look at the map showed there was indeed a path which was just not apparent from where we stood. Maps of all sorts are indeed works of art, they are full of vicarious adventure, provide incredible satisfaction when navigating well and are important for our safety when outdoors too.

  38. Burr August 6, 2012 at 4:51 am - Reply

    yes, maps are works of art, something collectible, to be cherished, and to tell the stories of…

  39. Steve August 6, 2012 at 4:50 am - Reply

    Electronic maps are wonderfully utilitarian, but on occasion I cherish the aesthetics of a well-done map that I can hold in my hands. Maps can be exquisite works of art to be held, fondled, and cherished. I can curl up for hours with a decent map, adventuring from afar.

  40. Robert Magill August 6, 2012 at 4:49 am - Reply

    Interesting questions although and easy one to answer for me – Nothing will replace a good map and a compass. The only time they fail is due to operator error. I never lost reception on a map due to cloud cover or closed canopy forest.

    • carrie August 10, 2012 at 8:57 am - Reply

      I agree, only operator error makes a map and compass fail. In central Pa, there are a lot of pages where no signal can be obtained, due to geography, canopy cover, or what not. Batteries don’t run out on maps, and they still work when dropped. There is often more detail on a good map than what you can find with a GPS unit, especially names of valleys and ridges, streams, and trails. Nothing beats a good map!

  41. K.J.B. August 6, 2012 at 4:48 am - Reply

    Gosh, I hope not. The detail, artistry and detail can’t easily be replicated on a smartphone screen. Have you ever visited the NGS Cartography Dept.? It will inspire you.

  42. Daniele August 5, 2012 at 10:25 am - Reply

    For hiking, trekking and stuff like these, PAPER MAPS forever!!

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