Monday, January 21, 2013

Is it the end of paper maps?

Several months ago I railed against the editors of backpacker magazine who claimed it was time to leave behind paper maps and just load all your data onto a tablet and access it that way. At the time I stated that there were so many problems with the thought process of the editors it was ridiculous. In the proceeding months though a number of things have changed.

I need to stress that when people ask me what I do with my cell phone when I am paddling I tell them this. It goes in a crush proof, and waterproof case, inside a dry bag. It is also turned off. If I need it I have it, but I don't want to be disturbed by it. I go to the outdoors to get away from people and contact. I don't want my phone to get in the way of that.

With that in mind I have also described electronic products I would like to see in the outdoors. One that is an electronic interface with a paper map, and another that provides a heads up display inside sunglasses. So I am not opposed to electronics.

But a tablet taking over for paper maps and charts is a very big step. A step that I thought might be underway when I saw the move that National Geographic maps has undertaken. They have done away with their TOPO! line of digital maps on DVD. I used TOPO! Alaska when planning and paddling the inside passage. You now buy this, and it gives you access to a website. The website is a combination of and National Geographic's wonderful TOPO! maps. Essentially you can scroll, zoom, or drag to anyplace in the US and create digital maps. You save them as a pdf and when you print them the edges get lat/long as well as a scale and declination on the bottom. You get to choose from several views. The two most useful are TOPO! (topographical maps that you can zoom in and out of to get the scale you want) and Satellite (think google earth). It was easy, the maps looked great, and paired with National Geographic adventure paper it makes it easy to plan paddling trips. But it got me thinking. If it was this easy to use and I could slide the maps onto my iPad, the editors of Backpacker may have been right. Simply put my iPad in something like this, and when the battery is dead I an charge it with something like this, or really on an expedition I would want this, and use it to charge camera batteries as well. If only they were waterproof.

The first flaw came when I realized that I didn't export the maps I had created to my tablet, I downloaded a free app. Which meant I had to recreate my original maps a second time. Then I realized the App was really made for iPhone, and was just expanded in size to fit the iPad screen which is a real waste of real estate. But the killer for me was that I didn't have the option for TOPO! on my iPad app. This is a deal killer. I only have the 'terrain' version and satellite. (Terrain is 'sort of' a topi but not quite.)

I suppose I could just create the pdf's on my computer and view them on the iPad as a photo, but this seems inelegant. It should work on the tablet the way it works on my computer. Very disappointing.

Now, I am sure someone is saying 'why not just use one of many 'maps' apps on your iPad while your paddling. The problem with that idea - in fact the problem with using your smartphone instead of a hand held GPS - is this. While my devices GPS works fine in the back country, if there isn't cell service I can't get to the internet. If I can't get to the internet I can't get map data to go along with the location information. So it is a bit useless.

So is it the end of the paper map. Not yet. But that time is coming, and it's not to far off.