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The Future of Maps

Four cutting-edge cartographers--from Google's explorer-in-residence to Tom Harrison himself--help us chart the course of the next revolution in wilderness mapping.

Imagine maps that change as fast as conditions on the ground. That’s just one of the revolutions envisioned by today’s leading cartographers and navigation experts, who joined BACKPACKER for a roundtable discussion led by map editor Kris Wagner and editor-in-chief Jonathan Dorn.

Peter Birch Explorer-in-residence at Google and director of the company’s Geo group
Tom Harrison Established Tom Harrison Maps 23 years ago, specializing in maps of California parks and recreation areas  
Larry Moore A USGS cartographer since 1981 and current manager of the US Topo project
Fred Zahradnik Since 2007,’s expert on GPS products, services, and trends

BP Next things first: What will trail maps look like 10 years from now?

Peter The map of the future will be something that shows the information that you’re most interested in—at that moment. If you want to go mountain biking this weekend, you’ll get a map that shows exactly—and only—what you need for that task. Instead of a “one map fits all” approach, you’ll get something that’s unique, current, and customized.

They’ll be what I like to call “living maps”—connected, with images, video, and personalization . And as GPS becomes a built-in commodity for an array of electronic devices, these maps will know your location.

BP Is there a risk of putting too much info on a map?

Tom Absolutely. Making a successful map is about knowing what to leave off. The standard USGS 7.5-minute quad has a lot of information for different reasons. For instance, the USGS often includes data like county boundaries and land grants. But most hikers don’t care about land grants or townships. With recreation maps, you also need to consider your customer. Maybe some want bicycle routes, but not everyone. You can make a map visually too busy. It’s a subjective thing to strike that balance, and that’s where the art comes in.
Peter This problem is very similar to web search. You have this vast amount of information out there, and you’re trying to figure out what the most relevant piece is. I think that we’re going to get a lot of really interesting signals [as we see how people use Google Earth and other web-based mapping tools]. For example, if you’ve recently done a mountain-bike ride, you might want to know other people who have done that ride—and what other rides they’ve done. And you might want to show those rides on a map. With the web, we have so many extra pieces of information to manage. The big challenge: How do we know what’s relevant?

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