Why We Still Need Paper Maps

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Don't underestimate the value of a paper map to help you get your bearings in a new place. 271 EAK MOTO/Shutterstock

Whether you use a GPS device in your car or Google Maps on your smartphone, few of us travel anymore without digital help. And why not? After all, why plot your travel route on an old-school map when a high-tech system not only computes the best itinerary from Point A to Point B in seconds but coaches you through each step of the journey?

Sounds ideal, but don't fold up your paper maps just yet. For one thing, GPS isn't as reliable or accurate as you might think. What's more, science is beginning to discover that people who rely exclusively on navigational technologies may be missing out on the low-tech benefits of printed maps, which include boosting the brain's navigational abilities and enhancing your sense of place during travel.

The Rise of GPS Navigation

Cartographers have been mapping the world in 2-D for thousands of years, advancing from clay tablets to parchment paper to mass-produced printed atlases. With the rise of digital technology, though, paper maps have gradually given way to satellite-aided travel.

The result? Production of hard-copy maps by U.S. government agencies and venerable mapmakers like Rand McNally has slowed considerably. Others like the California Automobile Association have halted production altogether.

And not without reason. Paper maps do have disadvantages compared to their digital counterparts.

Drawbacks include:

  • They quickly become outdated as cities and landscapes change, requiring users to continually purchase updated versions.
  • Paper maps are easily damaged from exposure to water, poor weather conditions and other physical forces.
  • They tend to focus on smaller geographic areas, so you need more than one map if you're traveling across large regions.
  • It's hard to look at a paper map when you're hurtling down the highway at 65 mph.
  • Then, of course, there are the numerous advantages of GPS:
  • No need to understand complex map symbols or painstakingly plot out your route.
  • You're less likely to get lost because GPS literally announces turn-by-turn directions in real time.
  • GPS automatically updates itself and alerts you to traffic jams, rerouting if necessary.

Benefits of Using Paper Maps

plotting route on map
Printed maps give you a big-picture view of where you're going and, unlike GPS systems, allow you to plot your own scenic route with leeway to wander. Stefan Andrej Shambora/Flickr

But even with GPS's many pluses, physical maps still offer a few advantages that technology can't. For one thing, studying a map allows you to get a holistic view of where you're going, including the roads, forests, towns, historic sites, rivers, mountains and cities you'll encounter along the way. You simply don't get that from a small GPS screen that reveals little more than your next exit.

They're Better for Orientation

As Katherine Martinko notes on Treehugger, a paper map is a must-have for her travels, providing context for a particular locale and a big-picture sense of her surroundings.

"It allows me to orient myself before I've even set foot in the street," she writes. "I learn where I am in relation to the rest of the city, the names of the neighborhoods, the major streets and the directions in which they run, the transit lines. I figure out where the rivers and waterfronts are, where the subway stations are, how I can get to the best walking and cycling routes."

They're Just Plain Pretty

1883 map of Pacific railroads
Older maps offer a glimpse of history and how geographic areas change over time, like this 1883 map showing several Pacific railroads in the U.S. Rand, McNally and Co./Wikimedia Commons

According to Betsy Mason, author of "All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey," maps can be far more than just navigational aids. Many older maps are gorgeous, offering a lovely feast for the eyes, she notes in an interview with PBS NewsHour. Plus, they can take you back in time, providing a glimpse of history and how places transform across the ages.

Maps even occasionally prompt important discoveries, such as when geologists compared maps of damage from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake with maps of the geology underlying these areas. They quickly noticed a correlation between the type of rock and sediment beneath buildings and their likelihood of collapsing.

As Mason explains: "Maps can take you places that you wouldn't think to go. You can see a beautiful map, and it pulls you in — you want to look at it. Then you find you learned something about history, or your city or some scientific discovery that you had no idea was based on a map."

They Enhance the Travel Experience

Even more important, though, is what may be lost as we increasingly forgo printed maps, including our ability to envision places and use our cognitive spatial skills to maneuver through the physical world.

Research by Toru Ishikawa and colleagues at the University of Tokyo found that study subjects who navigated a city on foot using GPS spent 30 percent more time looking at their device than those who used a paper map. They also had a poorer recollection of surrounding scenery (20 percent lower scene recognition memory) and tended to stick to the suggested route more than paper map users, who frequently meandered off course looking at sights. In other words, GPS users didn't see or experience as much during their travels. Instead they tended to stare at their screens and follow directions, never gaining a full view of where they were going or developing a deep familiarity with the place they visited.

Also problematic is the fact that GPS signals are easily lost if your smartphone battery dies or you hit a pocket of spotty cell coverage.

Even more troubling, orbiting satellites that power GPS devices are vulnerable to cyberattacks and technical glitches. In 2016, for example, a software bug threw off the timing of satellites by a few microseconds, causing hours of hassles with GPS devices on Earth that couldn't lock with them.

They're Always Right

Navigating by GPS
GPS systems offer many advantages that printed maps don't, but they're also notoriously unreliable and error-prone. Mohamed14247/Wikimedia Commons

Consider also that GPS is sometimes just plain wrong, particularly in remote regions where good digital mapping is still unavailable. People who follow GPS commands without question have been known to drive into lakes, down walking paths and into desolate wilderness areas that their GPS devices insisted were roads. Such over-confidence in the infallibility of satellite navigation has even occasionally turned fatal, earning it the name "death by GPS."

The Bottom Line

Go ahead and use your GPS, but also carry a paper map or atlas as a handy backup. It will enhance your travel experiences, and could even be a life-saver.

Which is exactly what the professionals do. As several truck drivers note in this online forum, the very best way to get around is via some combination of digital and paper navigation.