The Digital Map Conundrum
Have you ever noticed how incomplete and out of date digital maps are when it comes to hiking trails? At least on the free USGS maps you can download on the web and that come bundled with GPS devices or Smartphone navigation apps. In my neck of the woods, you still need to use the waterproof paper maps published by local cartographers because they’re far more up-to-date than digital maps.
With all of the advances in mapping technology and GPS navigation, It’s ironic that the historic USGS maps drawn before 1945 are far more accurate than the USGS’s current maps, at least when it comes to depicting hiking trail locations. Compare the two maps shown here, the top one from 2015 and the other from 1925.
The bottom USGS map corresponds closely to the up-to-date paper-based Randolph Mountain Club map that I used to snowshoe these trails a few weeks ago. Those same trails are not even shown on the bright green, USGS map published in 2015. WHAT GOOD IS THAT! Why such a dramatic loss of vital navigational information?
The reason for the reduction in mapping detail between then and now has been largely due to economic and technology factors. Before 1992, the USGS sent government employees to the field to survey map areas. Field crews located and classified cultural features, hiked wilderness trails, classified natural features such as streams and swamps, collected boundary information from state and local governments, and investigated geographic names by interviewing local residents. This field intelligence, including heavily annotated aerial photographs, was returned to regional mapping centers and compiled into maps, many drawn by hand. The process was slow and expensive and it took over 45 years to complete mapping the United States.
Today, the USGS has an automated map production process based on data stored in a GIS. However, many of the features traditionally captured by direct field observation are not in any public domain national database and cannot be easily merged with the USGS’ GIS data. Features such as fence lines, local parks, and recreational trails, property boundaries, pipelines, and power transmission lines are no longer included on USGS maps. While the speed in which new maps can be produced has increased greatly and the cost dropped, the completeness and quality of backcountry maps has actually decreased.
While digital maps and GPS have completely transformed automobile navigation, the same can’t be said for hiking maps or backcountry navigation. While companies like Google and TomTom have done an excellent job of mapping our roadway system using robots and survey vehicles, no one has been up to the task of mapping all of the hiking and multi-sport trails in the US and making them digitally available, even on a regional level.
Don’t get me wrong. GPS devices and smartphone apps are great for following routes that other people have hiked and posted GPX files for. But their utility as route planning tools before your trip or in the field is limited by the lack of accurate and complete hiking trail information they have access to. I’m sure the same holds true for mountain biking trails, ski trails, and snowmobile trails.
In the absence of a national source or clearing house for recreation trail information, you can expect publishers to create regional or trail specific map overlays that you can use on digital devices. This is already happening with the sale of destination specific maps from within smartphone navigation apps.
But if your goal is to hike and explore places and regions not overrun by mobs (like the AT, PCT, JMT, etc), you’re probably going to have to resort to old school tools and paper maps to figure out where to go. I’d much rather hike with one of the USGS maps that has older trail data (since trails rarely disappear once cut) on it than the new ones that don’t have any trails displayed.
It seems that map-making technology and automation have eliminated important information from our backcountry maps, not made them more useful or accurate. Hence the Digital Map Conundrum.
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