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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.

BP Accuracy is a concern to our readers, both in the user-generated map content out there and in trail maps based on USGS topos. Many topos haven’t been updated for decades, and some are no longer suitable for navigation, like quads for Alaska that haven’t kept up with changes to treeline elevation. Is there a plan to update USGS topos?

Larry The USGS is not updating the current series. However, we are designing a new product that has the same basic quadrangle design, but instead of being a printed, paper map, it’s a digital product in layered GeoPDF format . One of the layers is orthoimagery at one-meter resolution. [Ed note: Orthoimagery uses highly detailed aerial images that you can use for advanced navigation, but which can be updated faster and more often than traditional cartography. Find 17,000 GeoPDFs at]

We’ve had a lot of requests for putting the entire John Muir Trail on the iPhone. My first reaction was: Are you crazy? We have 13 maps between Yosemite and Mt. Whitney. I mean, it’s 220 miles—you won’t have enough battery power! But people said, “Oh no, don’t worry about it. We have solar chargers.” The number of people who are using PDAs and iPhones in the wilderness just astounds us. So we’re going that way.

That’s a good decision, I think, because we see more and more people using electronic and paper together. Most backpackers wouldn’t rely solely on an electronic device, but really want that GPS along for accuracy. I think we’re headed for a long period of combined use.

BP OK, so maps of the future will need power. What other inventions do we need?

Tom A flat, rollable, maybe even foldable piece of very thin plastic with pixels embedded in it. There are some prototypes for The New York Times, and I’d like to see one for maps—in color, with the ability to download updates. Our paper and plastic maps last for a year or two before we print them again, and one of the rules of commercial cartography is that the first map off the press is already out of date. Things happen—a road gets closed, a campground changes—and it would be great if we could get this information and update it to a living map.

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