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.


  1. At home I use Maptech's US Boating Charts which gives me all of the NOAA charts and all of the Corps of Engineers River Charts. I can also buy or download most other electronic BSB Raster charts and view them within the program. Thus I have the west coast of Canada as well.

    I plot my expedition, layout routes and make marks on the map for known camps, and possible, as well as mail drops, etc. I print these on to legal paper, in color and then annotate them with close up chart/Google earth/map cut outs of camps, landings, launches, etc. On Avery labels I type up and print out annotations regarding the same plus currents, hazards, things to see, etc. I then laminate them into a legal size lamination pouch and make the annotated chart waterproof. I will do this for the foreseeable future since a drop of salt water will take out an unprotected computer driven device.

    However, I do take along my IPhone and my Kindle Fire and both have NOAA charts and if necessary topo maps downloaded and stored on the device eliminating the need for internet access.

    IPhone - I use two different apps as chart viewers. MotionX GPS is a fine training app allowing me to download 100% of NOAA's charts for free and to track my time, distance and view my location live via GPS on the NOAA chart. On the water I disable the SIM card and turn off everything but the GPS to maximize battery life and then allow the program to run background with the screen off. Long crossings are more comfortable knowing I can check in to see if I am making headway or if the winds and currents are altering my course or pushing me backwards. I have found that my phone does not need any special handling for my usual 20 mile training paddles unless I spend a significant amount of time on the beach or holed up waiting, then the battery may become an issue.

    IPhone - expeditioning I use the Delorme Inreach and have it paired with my IPhone. It comes with the Earthmate app which performs nearly the same function as MotionX but within a different format. This is good for this use but not as good for my daily training paddles. Inreach also allows me to text back and forth with home as I like. This is a very nice feature. I no longer carry an EPIRB, just the Inreach.

    Both of these apps use live route tracking and allow planning and preplotting courses. Both allow me to record tracks and automatically check in and post my location every ten minutes or so. The Inreach does so anywhere in the world the MotionX needs internet connection via Wi-Fi or Cell.

    Since I sometimes use my IPhone on the water I use a Lifeproof case inside of an Overboard waterproof bag. I have about 100 days with this arrangement and it has worked fine. I usually wear the phone attached to my PFD in moderate or better days where I might need to view it and in my deck bag if conditions are worse than moderate.

    More in another comment.

    Mark Sherman

  2. Kindle Fire - I use the Earth NC Marine app. Because the Fire does not have a GPS I use this app as a chart viewer only. It is nice to have the larger screen to view charts in the tent or on the beach plotting the next day’s paddle. It also allows me to paddle off my printed charts if I need to, that has never happened but still. . .

    I also download available kindle books for reading and if available planning books.

    You should spend a little time reviewing the available apps for nautical charting. They are powerful, full featured and cheap. They changed my training and I now paddle a routine 5 mph/20 mile training day 3 to 4 days per week (except Feb I get too COLD and cranky).

    I will continue to use paper charts for many reasons but I will also use the electronic charts.

    I should say Maptech has an much more expensive chart viewer program called Chart Navigator ($249) which is also bundled with NOAA charts but includes programming which allows viewing Vector charts (the US Boating Charts ($99) are Raster charts only). The difference is Raster charts are physical charts which are drawn to a particular scale and then scanned into a BSB digital format. Vector charts and never actually physical unless you print them out and they may be scaled to your demands.

    There are benefits and problems with each but the cost difference and my 45 years of using Raster charts left me comfortable with using Rasters.

    I hope this was worth reading.

    Mark Sherman