Map Making: An Interview with Pete Fleszar

Topographic Map

These days it seems like there are two kinds of backpackers and hikers: those who love maps and those who prefer a GPS or just go without.

I fall into the map lover category.

As a kid, I can remember getting National Geographic Magazine and the maps of the world they used to distribute. The walls of my room were plastered with them and I would study them for hours. My dad would bring these big pieces of tracing paper home from work and he would tack them over the maps so I could trace them. I felt great peace doing this.

I found another person who share's my love of maps this year on the same thread in the Whiteblaze.net discussion forum by the name of Pete Flezar. Pete and I had expressed the view that all AT hikers should bring maps with them, but if I recall, we were the minority on that particular thread.

However, recognizing a kindred spirit, we took our discussion offline and I found out that Pete is very involved in volunteer map making and trail stewardship, and he's patiently helped me understand how maps are made today. If you're interested in learning about this process and how you can get involved, read on.

Philip: Can you provide us with a brief bio about yourself.

Pete: Grew up in New York State near Syracuse, first backpacked on Finger Lakes Trail and in the Adirondacks, engineer by trade on community water and sewer projects in the greener economy of south-central Pennsylvania.

Philip: You mentioned that you've been a trail maintainer. Where have you done that, doing what, and with what organizations.

Pete: I volunteer to care for assigned sections of the Mid State and Appalachian trails. I started doing trail work on weekends with Keystone Trails Association as a way to see new areas of my adopted home state. My interest in the concept of what’s now called the Great Eastern Trail led me into broader scope volunteer efforts, planning and executing new trail routes. I’ve also fallen into maintaining web sites for two A.T.-maintaing clubs, the Standing Stone Trail club, and for the moment the Great Eastern Trail as well. I’m a board member of Great Eastern Trail Association and past board member of Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club.

Philip: How did you get started as a map maker and what outdoor trail organizations or groups have you worked with in that capacity?

Pete: I had the opportunity to relearn GIS as a collateral duty at work. I began using the software for planning purposes. I first moved into sharing maps with the public as updates to older published maps. The first entire long trail I mapped for hiker use was the 70 mile Standing Stone Trail, which had a guide but no maps. I’ve since worked on a professionally printed map of Mid State Trail and now finishing a second.

Philip: What has your role been on some of those projects, and how are those projects generally structured? For example, number of people, duration of project, and skills required to participate, different roles, etc.

Pete: For the maps I’ve been involved with so far I’ve been doing pretty much all the computer work. Many others have been involved in collecting data, in checking/proofing, and for the professionally printed map the printer’s folks had to do some work too.

Philip: Can you list some maps that you contributed too? (I'm happy to publish hyperlinks, including those to an organization store.)

Pete: Some examples are the Standing Stone Trail maps for free download at http://www.hike-sst.org/sst-maps.htm and the professionally printed map of the heart of Mid State Trail at http://www.hike-mst.org/ecom/map307310.htm

Philip: Do you work on mapping projects where you are mapping a region from scratch or are you are modifying and updating and existing body of observations? If you are updating data, where did the original data come from and how was it collected? What kinds of data points get collected on these projects – for example, roads, streams, land ownership borders, etc.

Pete: On the projects I’ve worked on, we are constrained by starting from freely available data as there is no budget for purchasing data for reuse from commercial providers. Unfortunately this means we need to do a good bit of wheel reinvention for the “basemap” information such as roads, streams, and land ownership borders. Many states have a GIS information clearinghouse with links to such data but often it needs to be touched up from direct observation in areas where the planning level accuracy of the data is not sufficient for a hiking map. Consistency across clearinghouse boundaries isn’t always the best. The most frustrating thing to deal with is contour lines, followed closely by road names and classification. The most unique attribute of a trail map is the main trail so we try very hard to have an accurate location. I check data desk digitized from old hand drawn maps against volunteer-acquired GPS tracks (hopefully at least two) against data shared with mapping partners against high resolution air photos (like what you see on Google Earth).

Philip: How long does it take to make a map, say of a 200 miles trail? How often are they updated?

Pete: For the Mid State Trail, the maps have historically been updated and reprinted after the old ones sold out. The MST’s transition from hand drawn larger scale smaller map sheets to color computerized smaller scale larger map sheets will probably take six to eight years. Each 75 mile or so chunk of this 300+ mile trail seems to be taking one-and-a-half to two years to complete. If the maps are online, we can update them as soon as information changes. Finger Lakes Trail Conference has a nice system where they print on demand, so if you order maps from the staffed office you get the latest version of each 15 mile or so section. The organizations that just post to the Web site can change as fast as the volunteer mapmaker and the volunteer webmaster can get to it.

Philip: Are there distinct stages in the lifecycle of map creation? Can you summarize each one?

Pete: The workflow that I’ve been using is initial data gathering and checking in a sandbox ArcMap file at whatever scale it needs to be for the moment’s checking task, then setting up another ArcMap file at the desired map scale with desired map symbols, having it checked by others, revisions in ArcMap, exporting to Adobe Illustrator for stylistic improvements, checking by others, then either web publishing or sending to printer, if to a printer final proof checking before printing.

Philip: How are these data points collected or checked? Is there actual field work involved? If so how is the data recorded and compiled?

Pete: At the sandbox stage I’m comparing a lot of data from different sources on the screen. It can get pretty bewildering at times as I turn different sources or “layers” on and off. If there is a written guide description I check that too for clues to resolve discrepancies. It certainly helps if I’ve hiked the section myself, whether or not I was collecting GPS data at the time. I remember one area that just didn’t match up regardless of what I did on the screen so that became my priority for next weekend’s hike with the GPS. A frequent challenge is the resolution of data into a format I can use in the GIS. I wound up buying a couple of programs like GPSbabel to get the data switched among formats. One fellow was using a GPS receiver that I had to use three different programs on before I could make sense of his data. Fortunately the GPS data saving formats seem to be converging on .gpx so now usually I only have to convert once.

Philip: What kinds of data can be obtained from different sources (I assume it's a patch-quilt of sources) and how do you decide which data sets are fresher or more trustworthy than others if they have conflicting data points?

Pete: Although there’s no exact answer, usually I can resolve issues by looking at data with a background of high-resolution air photos. I have called people in the neighborhood out to go look at road signs before, though. I’ve definitely been tripped up before on inaccuracies that showed up in the finished map.

Philip: What kinds of aesthetic or technical decisions go into deciding what to include on a map that would be used, say by a backpacker? I imagine there are trade-offs between detail and readability, or between information with a high confidence factor or low.

Pete: A map must lie flat to be functional, because you need to make the round earth much smaller and flatter to fit into your pocket. I’m not a natural artist, I’m just often the person who’s most committed to seeing that there is a reasonably usable map, so I struggle mightily with these issues. In addition to the tradeoffs you mention there is also a need to conform to land management concerns – for instance, deleting the farm lane on neighboring posted land that looks just so great to make a loop hike. One example of a trade-off between detail and readability is the effect of scale and contour interval. In one area the old map was at 1:24,000 scale and 20 foot contour interval and many users said that was too crowded and jumbled and there were too many maps to carry. The next map was 1:50,000 scale with a 50 meter contour interval and users said that was much clearer but they had much less sense of elevation gain and loss along the trail.

Philip: What kind of impact has technology had on the map-making process. Has it enhanced certain areas of the "art" or eliminated a lot of the drudge work?

Pete: I never knew the “old” way of making color maps so I can’t speak to the drudge parts of the printing process. Re-creating the basemap for our maps probably adds a good bit of drudgery. In many ways it would have been much easier to take pen and white-out to a USGS 7.5’ quadrangle map. Trouble is that way doesn’t really yield the clarity and sharpness today’s hikers expect.

Philip: Are there many new maps being made today? Are there map makers that you particularly respect, and why? 

Pete: I think nearly every map is being re-made with current technology so this is a very active time for map making. One big question is, is it worth the effort? Many of the posters on WhiteBlaze.net, for example, seem to not want to even carry a map. In addition, we are nearing the time when GPS receivers may be sufficiently readable and reliable that they will be used for on-trail navigation instead of a paper map. That begs the next question of what non-profit hiking organizations, which make much more money from maps than memberships or contributions (hikers are cheap folks), will do for a source of revenue. But to return to the question, I really don’t know many other map makers since I’ve been out in the wilderness, probably re-inventing many wheels, and not aware of even an Internet much less a real forum to exchange best practices. I have met a few folks who have been helpful but really do feel somewhat detached.

Philip: How many maps do you own and which are your favorites? What makes you like one map over another?

Pete: I have two four-drawer file cabinets full of hiking maps, a long shelf of guides, and another long shelf of atlases that don’t fit upright. Of all those the map that stands out in my memory is the current version of Vermont’s Long Trail map that has an entire 270 miles on one sheet, still is clear enough to use successfully for dayhiking, but also has enough area around the trail so you know how to drive to the trailhead and have some idea what you’re looking at from the trail.. Fitting the intended purpose so well is why I like that map especially.

Philip: Do you need volunteers for a current mapping project, and if so what qualifications should people have and who should they contact?

Pete: Anyone willing to hike with their own GPS receiver, with a computer and Internet connection, can contribute to mapping and planning initiatives. While I personally may be involved only in an area from Alabama to upper New York state, I might be able to redirect inquiries from other areas. tioga@hike-mst.org

Philip: Do you have any other questions or points that you'd like to make that I've left out?

Pete: I’d like to acknowledge the general support of several groups to these mapping and planning projects. This would have been impossible without ESRI providing ArcMap to our non-profit organization at a greatly reduced cost through the ECP grant program. Garmin supported the Mid State Trail data gathering at a critical time by giving us four of their fine 60CSx GPS receivers. A now-discontinued program of American Hiking Society enabled me to obtain the pricey program Adobe Illustrator to bridge the gap from planning-level to publishable maps. We have also found county planning and state natural resource agencies to be especially helpful, and several state GIS clearinghouses are also vital. Also it would be a great help to trail volunteers if someone would support an Internet forum or gathering for volunteer trail maintainers and mappers. Volunteer work is too precious to waste on wheel reinvention, so if AHS or perhaps a trans-regional entity like ATC could make a place for these discussions on websites or meetings we can all learn to make the best use of our most limited resource – our time.

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3 Responses to Map Making: An Interview with Pete Fleszar

  1. Chris (i-cjw.com) November 17, 2008 at 1:43 am #

    A fascinating interview. As a map junkie, it was great to read some of the behind-the-scenes. We take our maps for granted so often (and I've been known to complain like heck about mine), but when you read stats like it taking a year and a half to produce a 75 mile stretch then it really sinks home how much work and effort go into making them. A timely reminder of the debt we owe to the map makers.

  2. Earlylite November 17, 2008 at 3:51 am #

    I think it also shows us what a debt of gratitude we own to all of the volunteers who contribute to the map making process. I'm now more determined than ever to help out, even if it means I have to learn how to use a GPS.

  3. Victor September 22, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    I love maps. The NG series were favorites of mine too.

    I must say that (in my opinion) anyone who makes a journey into the woods without a map and compass, is being foolish. A GPSr is a wonderful tool, and a great companion to either one, but not a replacement. I'm sure this argument has been made a million times.

    Following blazes is great, and certainly gets you from point A to point B pretty quickly; however, developing the skill to navigate cross country is invaluable. Data Books are awesome, but maps will save your life.

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