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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.

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Peter Birch’s map of attempts on Mt. Ritter.


Peter Birch. (Jamie Kripke)


Tom Harrison.

Larry Moore.

Larry Moore.


Fred Zahradnik. (Kreg Ulery)

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?

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.

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.

BP Are any spots on the planet still terra incognita?

Fred I’ve heard about biologists finding places—using Google Earth—that looked like they weren’t explored. They pinpointed certain parts of the globe and were able to explore them electronically first; then they went there and found new species.

That was in Mozambique. One of the magical things about Google Earth is that there’s all this data available—satellite imagery that’s been gathered over the years that no one looks at. Some government agency, somewhere, sometime, commissioned this one shot to be taken, and it was never looked at again. This has created a new hobby for some people: looking at cool stuff on the globe. People discover things all the time—an ancient fish trap off the coast of Wales, Roman ruins, and so on.

BP You could argue that people around the world are more involved with maps than ever before and that today’s tools are democratizing mapmaking.

Larry That’s a good point. With the original 7.5-minute topo series, the government did all the work, soup to nuts. We acquired new aerial photography, we sent our employees out to do field surveys. That’s extremely expensive and very slow. That kind of business model just isn’t going to fly today.

I agree. We’re entering an era of the citizen cartographer where you don’t have to be an authoritative government agency to produce a map. There are people all over the world who are out there hiking, gathering local knowledge, sharing their experiences.

BP Which brings us back to reliability. Democracy, personalization tools, and local beta are great, but how do you create trust in crowd-sourced information?

Tom This is pretty important. Even with very current U.S. Forest Service maps, I’ll often look and I think, “Wait, no, that road isn’t there, and I know that because I was just there last year.” Part of the problem with making maps, especially in big government agencies, is that the people making the maps don’t have the time and resources to go out, on the ground, and look. And so you have citizen cartographers who go out and say, “No, that map is wrong.” In the long run, that will build the trust.

I think the best solution is having systems that allow a lot of people to give feedback. If one person adds a road that should be there, that’s one thing. But if 10 people add roads and those people have made other edits that have been approved by a community of users, you start to get this web of trust. With Google’s My Maps tool, you can edit maps and collaborate online. You can say, “Hey, my 10 friends went and did this hike and we all have photos and stories. Here’s a collaborative map where we can all go in and simultaneously edit and add stuff.” That builds a lot of confidence.

BP So if you’re a budding citizen cartographer, where should you start?

Tom One low-tech option is to scan a USGS quad and bring it into Adobe Acrobat, which lets you draw things, add notes, and import multimedia files. The second way I’d recommend is to use a program like Maptech’s Terrain Navigator.

Another approach is to get a handheld GPS like a Garmin Dakota or Colorado, and learn the software that comes with it. There are also good online services that help you put your data together without arcane transfer protocols, then give you a link to share with others hikers. And you can go into a tool like Google’s My Maps and draw your own route without ever having been there, then export that file into a device that you can take into the field.

BP Have you done that, Peter?

Yes, in fact, for the last two years, I’ve attempted to get up Mt. Ritter [in California’s Sierra Nevada] using a track I drew. The first time, I had my GPS and got off the route. There wasn’t snow where I thought there would be snow, and—long story short—I didn’t make the summit. Next year, I went back. This time, a storm came in and we had to turn around. So now I have a map that’s actually a 3D Google Earth view with all three routes overlaid. I intend to add another one this season that goes to the summit.

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