In the outdoors loving world, there are a number of topics that will raise eyebrows and maybe even a little heated discussion. Whenever you bring people with passion together there will always be different opinions and probably disagreements too. The subject of paper versus digital mapping is definitely one of those hot topics, and while I have no intention of turning my blog into a place where people argue, I do think the pros and cons of each are very interesting. And so as it’s National Map Reading Week I thought I’d post some of the reasons I think learning to read a map before heading out into the countryside is super important, and ultimately why I still carry a paper map when I go out even though I hardly use one.
I write this having recently completed the West Highland Way long distance hike from Milngavie to Fort William in Scotland, a 96 mile route along all kinds of well-trodden and waymarked trail. When planning my adventure north I got hold of the six Explorer Maps covering the full route, along with a guidebook that included mapping together with the expected written description. While I used the large paper maps to study and plan before I left home, and I had a copy of each day’s route and surrounding area to use just in case, I didn’t use the paper version of the map for that hike at any point during the seven days. I found that the OS Maps app, with the relevant areas downloaded and route information plumbed in so I didn’t use up my data allowance or struggle when there was no signal, was enough on its own.
Actually, apart from I think two occasions when a fork in the path lead us to consult the digital map to check if we should be heading left or right, just in case our gut feeling was wrong, I probably didn’t even need the phone maps either. I used them more than twice because they were there, in my hand, but not really for navigation purposes. The route was so easy to follow, so easy to navigate, we could just walk without worrying. The reason the app was useful was almost solely that it provided me with the answer to the “are we nearly there yet?” question. And that is a very important question when you’re on a 96 mile hike.
I can say with certainty that should the path have been less well-trodden, less well waymarked, or that I had done less research before heading north, I would have made more use of the maps. At least the digital map, anyway. We did use the guidebook itself, mainly to read the description of the next day before bed so we could dream about the views that were to come. Maybe this is one of the reasons some people suggested I shouldn’t bother with the West Highland Way at all; navigation is just too easy! (More on why I chose to hike it in another post shortly.)
In case it needs to be said at this point in the blog post, I absolutely one hundred percent recommend that if you are going to do the West Highland Way, or any other hike for that matter, that you go prepared with paper mapping in your bag, and arm yourself with the ability to use it properly. The point of this very long pre-amble is that I didn’t actually need a paper map on my long-distance hiking adventure, digital mapping can and does provide an excellent way to navigate, but it is not quite a total replacement.
So with all that in the back of your mind, here are some of the key things that make digital mapping useful but why we should still be using and carrying paper maps whenever we head out into the countryside on foot.
Why Digital Maps are Awesome
Mapping in Great Britain is awesome. This is almost solely down to the fabulous people at Ordnance Survey as, even if you choose another map provider for your digital or paper mapping, the chances are that you are making use of their data. Every year they walk and fly around the UK, updating layers and layers of information that is used by all kinds of organisations to help run their business and, mostly importantly to me, to create superbly detailed maps for hikers. I’d love to have a ride in their mapping aeroplane, it looks so cool!
From all that data we are blessed with great digital mapping, and while you might be using a paper map that was printed several years ago and so has inevitably become out of date, the digital version is updated at least every three months so you always have the most up to date version of where you are possible. Thanks to companies who make smartphones putting powerful technology in our pockets, we can have all that mapping with us as we walk. I personally use the OS Maps app, which I’ve had since it first became available. For around £20 a year I have access to all the Explorer and Landranger maps in print, which is significantly cheaper than buying them all, and means I have access to mapping wherever I find myself without having to head into a shop for a map before I go walking, providing one less barrier to spending time outdoors when I’m away from home. There are other options, of course, but this is the one I choose, and not just because I’m a GetOutside Champion!
Using this digital mapping tool on both my iPhone and my desktop computer, I can plan my day hike, or even download one someone else has already created, and have my day out organised in no time at all. I can also import my own GPX files for challenge hikes to follow, for when I’m joining a group walk (or running one). If I’m in a National Park I can use the “snap” feature which means I can choose my start and end point and the system will work out the best path for me to walk along, making it even quicker. I can zoom in so I can read all the little numbers along the contour lines with ease (always a bit of a problem on the paper version!), and I can draw, remove and re-draw my route again without damaging the map surface.
Aside from the planning side of things, the most useful thing about digital mapping for me is that there is a little dot or arrow on the screen that shows me exactly where I am, right now. I’m well versed in finding my location on a map and reading back a grid reference, but getting out a paper map and locating myself on it takes a few moments, whereas it’s instant on my phone and my grid reference will be very accurate. Should I end up in difficulty on a hill and need to ask for help, using my app to locate me will provide a much less stressful way of doing it.
And then there are the extra features you get with digital mapping besides the obvious. The fact is that a paper map is just a map, and you need to have a certain set of skills to get the most from it. But digital mapping can do other things too, which can take map reading to another level without any additional effort from your own brain. You can fly around your prepared route in 3D, checking out the type of terrain, steepness of the climb, and whether there are any super craggy bits or worrying looking gullies you’ve missed during planning. My new favourite digital feature is the augmented reality layer in the OS Maps app that means I can hold my phone up to the scenery and it’ll tell me what I am looking at – I mean, I can do that on a paper map, but this is just way cooler!
Digital mapping is brilliant and it is so useful. I’m not sure how many things I’ve listed here that can be considered benefits – many. But it does have its flaws that mean that even though I would say when I’m actually out I will reach for my phone before the paper map in my pack, I will still have that paper map ready and available.
Why I Still Carry Paper Maps
There is one main reason I carry paper maps, even though I love the digital mapping tools: power. I think power pretty much encompass the whole argument for paper maps. And it’s a biggie.
Power is the key, isn’t it? I mean, the problem with modern phones or GPS devices is that they need it. Lots of it. Battery life is shocking on my iPhone at the best of times, and when I am out walking I am really asking a lot of it; it’s my phone, my camera, and my GPS device. Viewing maps uses battery. Using the GPS locator uses battery. And in what seems like no time at all, that battery runs low and means I no longer have access to any of the useful stuff. Digital mapping is pointless if your phone won’t switch on! Yes, you can carry a battery pack (and I generally do, this is a good small one that fits in your pocket, but even with that you run the risk of getting to a crucial point in your route and discovering your phone is dead and you don’t know which way down the hill to go. A map, a paper map, whether it’s a full Explorer Map or some carefully selected sections printed out from the computer, doesn’t require a battery to work. It only needs to exist.
And as long as you have the necessary skill to locate yourself on a map using the features around you, and work out which way you are facing using a compass, you don’t need anything else.
There are other reasons a paper map is great, too. I wrote about some of them over on this post, which you may also enjoy. Most of my other reasons are about using paper maps to feel inspired for a new adventure, or having something to remind me where I’ve been; a map on the shelf is like a photograph on the wall, the key to a memory of a great time in my life. There is also nothing quite like learning to read a map on a paper version – know how to read and use a paper map successfully and those digital maps will be a whole lot more useful.
The fact is that with all things considered, I am definitely a user – and lover – of both paper and digital maps. Day to day, I love to plan my routes on proper paper maps, and always have a paper version in my pack, along with a compass, as a back-up in case I need it. Paper maps inspire me to go in the first place and then provide a physical reminder of where I’ve been. But when I’m out and about I already have my phone in my hand and the ease of using my digital OS Maps just can’t be beaten. Assuming I have plenty of battery and I’ve remembered to download the section of map I need ahead of time, following a prepared route on my phone is extremely convenient.
So what do you think? Are you a paper map purist? Or do you rely on your phone for keeping you on the right path? Do you plan your routes online, or sit down with pencil and string to work out how far you can get before nightfall? At the end of the day it is all down to a combination of keeping safe and personal preference, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the paper versus digital debate. Comment below.
And if you’re not sure about how to use a compass, whether it’s a physical one or on your phone, there are some great guides here.