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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Have you ever noticed how incomplete and out of date digital maps are when it comes to hiking trails?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.

USGS Randolph Trails - 2015
USGS Randolph, NH – 2015
USGS Randolph Trails 1925
USGS Randolph, NH 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.

The Conundrum

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.

Updated 2017.

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  1. Have you tried looking at OSM data?

    It seems to show most of the trails of the paper maps (at least for this example)

    • The list of trails shown is INCOMPLETE. It’s even worse. If you go south and cross route 2 into the northern presidentials, none of the trail names are listed (which you really need to know if you hike there).

      Nope, the USGS is chucking out all road and trail information in the new maps series and not updating the old information, which is out of date in my neck of the woods (New England). You really can only rely on old pdfs of the paper USGS maps to navigate and at your own risk.

  2. Does this include CalTopo? I brought up the same location and saw the trails.

    • The default maps that you see in Caltopo are the old USGS maps that are over 50 years old. The new national map series that’s coming out now from the USGS has NO TRAILS or ROADS on it. And while the old maps are pretty good, they really are out of date.

  3. About 4-5 years ago I discovered the USGS site and was excited to download the latest map from anywhere in the US… until I opened them up and started looking at them. The digital maps from that time were in the form of layered PDFs, and the different layers (contours, vegetation, roads, etc.) could be turned on or off. The trouble was, there were absolutely no trails at all.
    I contacted the USGS to tell them about the omission, and the reply was, “we know, we’re not putting trails on the maps, we might get to it in a couple of years”.

  4. Yeah, I agree that for most hiking in the NE, a GPS is nearly worthless. There was a recent article on Backpacking Light that showed just how inadequate they are. A 5 day trip turned into an 11 day mess.

    I have hiked areas where GPS doesn’t work, or if it does, cannot spot you due to mountains (reflections.) Not knowing where I am within 5 miles is worse than useless. It will often lead you off cliffs, in the opposite direction, et al. There is simply no good substitute for a paper map and compass.

    If you have to carry them anyway, then why carry a GPS, too? While it is a neat gadget, it isn’t really anything that is reliable enough to keep you on-track. Many of the so called phone GPS’s rely on getting cell service. If you have only one tower that works only sometimes, these are also pretty bad. At least electrons cost little and weigh nothing. In cities or larger towns, they work well. In the woods, they do not. Hell, over half the time I cannot really get a signal. I bring one anyway, but it is more to call the wife for supply drops, arrange pick-ups and let her know I am OK. Things I never had to do, before cell phones. I guess I look silly tramping around on a mountain holding my cell phone up in the air hoping to get more than one bar….I just hope I don’t make a misstep!

    • Yeah, many of the newer maps are the same brand, missing trails, logging roads, access ways for canoes, etc. Perhaps, some company will enlist the aid of all the hikers using them to update them in a single location. If someone does 1000miles per year, he would be a likely candidate for an update consultant. Maybe he could be paid with discounts on gear. Anyway, updated maps, getting and keeping them up to date, are a real problem. Trails change, enough that every year some natural event reshapes a few routes.

  5. Is there any project like Open Street Maps for hiking? There is no way it could be as big but I bet local outdoors groups would be willing to have mapping events.

    • Via Gaia one of the map sources is OpenHikingMap, copyrighted by OpenStreetMap. It has the same trails as the old USGS map above, but no trail names. But trail location is much more important than trail name.

  6. On second thought, it might be easier for hikers could piggy back off on the already developed infrastructure, web application, editing UI, of OpenStreetMaps (OSM). I’m fairly certain that you can export files (in our case trails) as shp or kml files which could then be used with a GPS or mapping app. Just a thought. If folks are interested, I would be happy to ask the guy who runs the occasional OSM mapping event in my department.

  7. On my phone I have both Backcountry Navigator and Google Maps. I’ve been doing lots of day hikes around San Diego in the last few months. I’ve discovered that BN is pretty much worthless. Whereas Google Maps does have all the local trails marked. Just yesterday, I use Google to sort out my location a couple of times. While topographic is nice, it’s not really needed. What is important is knowing where you are with respect to where you are going. As long as you are on trail, worries about unexpected cliffs is unnecessary.

  8. The OSM data can be updated by local hikers. There’s no need to develop some OSM-like service for hiking, when OSM is just the right tool for the job. Regarding this specific area, for example, you can log the trails yourself and update for other hikers. Croudsourcing it seems like the best bet, since I don’t think you can rely on the USGS to come around and do it anytime soon.
    It’s not easy exporting trail data from OSM to a gpx/kml file, but I created a simple web service that does the gpx option. I’m working on the kml as well.
    I also made a different app that creates offline map files along a trail. But their quality will depend on the source’s quality.

  9. Gaia slows the trail on the open hiking map tab.

  10. Phillip, You make some very good points. Getting back into hiking and working on my map and compass skills has me considering these very same questions. There are some piecemeal ways in which the issues you raise are being addressed. For example, All Trails allows you to download the GPX file of other users who have recorded a track, thus giving you some approximate trail information. You might also look into CalTopo’s MapBuilder Topo and shared maps as an option as well.

  11. Commercial hiking maps (Trail Illustrated series) for example are *mainly* up-to-date. But, they don’t always have the details needed nor do they cover all the areas needed.

    CalTopo is starting to do “open source” mapping essentially. I think that, or similar. is the future as I do not see the govt supplying any funds for USGS work as they did in the past. We’ll see how the open source solution works in the months and years ahead.

  12. I mostly use the Caltopo maps via Hillmap and crosscheck with sat and terrain views in the splitscreen. I had no idea the new maps actually have less information. Very disappointing.

  13. An issue I also have with the new USGS series is that the topo lines seem to be generated by computing and averaging intermediate elevations between the known elevations in the point cloud of satellite secured elevation data. In craggy places with lots of cliffs, the topography gets smoothed by the process, whereas the older maps have more accurate contouring in those areas. You’ll rarely see contour lines stacked on top of each other in the newer maps.

    The mountains of Big Bend have some really wild cliffs and the newer maps make the terrain look much less forbidding, although the trail and designated camping area placement is generally more accurate on them because some trails and campsites have been relocated. When hiking there, I prefer my older maps because they show the terrain more clearly and they also have trails that aren’t on the newer ones. The NPS took some trails to delicate areas off the maps to preserve those places from overuse.

    As far as BackCountry Navigator is concerned, there’s a wealth of options for map sources to download, so if one doesn’t have what you need, you might find it in another source. I generally use the CalTopo and satellite views along with paper maps when I’m traveling in the outdoors. I did spring for the Accuterra module (which costs a bit extra) but wasn’t too impressed with Accuterra’s maps, which are generated from the averaged elevation data, although some trail info is there. I also like to go online and download posted GPS tracks to use when I’m hiking a new area. I can import it into BCN and do a little bit of virtual hiking there before I hit the trail. I use the satellite imagery quite often, especially in the desert.

    To me, it’s a situation where proper trip planning can’t be taken lightly. It’s important to make use of as many resources you can get your hands on and then not rely on only one thing, especially if it’s electronic. A couple weeks ago, the motherboards of my Surface Pro 3 and Galaxy Note 4 failed three days apart and, of course, the warranties had just expired on both. I’ve never had a motherboard failure or dead battery on a paper map, although I have broken a compass or two.

  14. That’s illuminating, about the old maps from usgs. While one should always have a paper map and make the phone or GPS device secondary especially for serious trips, most people usually assume that the usgs newer maps are best .

  15. As someone who much prefers the trails less traveled these days, I have to say that buying paper maps directly from the trail conservancy/DOC/BLM, etc is always the way to go. If for no other reason, someone you talk to in the office can also give you an idea of updates, trail reroutes, etc. I don’t go digital on maps. Technology fails in the field – my knowledge of orienteering rarely lets me down!

  16. USGS does accept volunteer map updates: . I did this in the pre-digital era, and they were very glad to have the help.

    • Yes, but the effort you cite is to document important community buildings – such as police stations, schools, hospitals, post offices, prisons, cemeteries, and fire stations and not hiking trails or backcountry roads.

  17. Be sure to check out the historic usgs maps too. They show trails that have been abandoned over the years and not maintained. If traveling cross country, they help with route finding. On the usgs site.

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