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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 We want to share news and images with our readers in real time from the backcountry. Will there be a device—and the required satellite bandwidth—that lets BACKPACKER stream geo-referenced content from the bottom of the Grand Canyon?

Peter To some degree, this partially exists with the SPOT satellite messenger. It won’t take too much more to bring that to the next level, to upload photos or videos in real time into the cloud. I think that’s going to happen within the next few years.

BP Is there anything that’s going to be lost with the adoption of modern mapping technology?

Larry Yes, the traditional topographic map is a handcrafted product that’s part scientific document and part work of art. That artistic component helps the human brain absorb huge amounts of information very quickly. For now, you can’t automate that skill.

BP Let’s talk about on-the-ground navigation. Do you prefer latitude/longitude or UTM?

Tom UTM. Actually both, but UTM is preferred by search-and-rescue teams, fire departments, biologists, and archeologists. Because 1,000 meters is 1,000 meters whether you’re going north, south, east, or west—but a degree of latitude or longitude is not the same distance everywhere on the Earth’s surface. For actually finding out where you are on the Earth’s surface, UTM is much better. 

I’m a lat/long guy, because that’s the standard Google deals with.

BP Compass or GPS?

All GPS…
Tom …but with a compass as backup.

BP What map is hanging on your wall?

Tom I have Point Reyes and Lake Tahoe USGS quads.

Mine is a Pennsylvania Stream Map, one of the old ones. It shows where the wild trout are. Not many people have that one.

I have a world map with pins where I’ve traveled.

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