In Praise of Paper Maps

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Person Holding Pen Leaning on Map Near Cup

According to the National Day Calendar website, April 5 is National Read a Road Map Day. To prepare us for this holiday, today I’ll share with you my ideas about why GPS isn’t enough, make suggestions about what maps to use depending on where you’re going, and give you tips on where to find help if you need to brush up on your map reading skills.

When did everyone become dependent on GPS and a computerized voice telling us when to turn left?

My dad was a salesman during the early years of my life. When he went out looking for clients, he used paper maps to find them. When I was very young, we moved to a major metro area. My dad had not a single paper map, but an entire large, thick book that showed each neighborhood, each street, each back alley. The book was laid out with some mysterious logic I still fail to understand which involved flipping to a whole new page in mid trip. How did my father possibly read that map while driving? I can only assume he studied the map and planned his trip before getting into the driver’s seat and stopped in a parking lot to consult the map any time he had to confirm his route or start over and figure out new directions.

In 1998 I found myself at a music festival with a need to get back to my home base sooner than planned. I didn’t have a car and didn’t drive. I was facing a multi-day Greyhound bus adventure, but a friend of a friend of a friend pointed me in the direction of a woman who was headed to the same city as I was. She had an open passenger seat and room in the back of her pickup for my gear. After she accepted me as her passenger, I found she also had a TripTik Travel Planner from AAA. Does anyone remember these customized booklets that AAA members could request from the local office? AAA members could get request directions to a specific destination and the local office would provide turn-by-turn instructions. I spent a lot of time holding that booklet from AAA, as I was immediately promoted from passenger to navigator.

(True confession: I still managed to send us off in the wrong direction, despite the turn-by-turn instructions in my hand. In my defense, we were in the outskirts of Chicago, and the proliferation of road signs had me befuddled. Luckily the driver quickly saw the error of my ways and got us back on track ASAP.)

I can’t remember exactly when I learned about MapQuest. Perhaps it was in the very early years of the 2000s when I got my first laptop. Maybe it was before that, and I’d use my computer at work or go to the public library to get my directions via the World Wide Web. I do remember finding directions online and either printing them or writing each step out by hand. MapQuest let me down multiple times (including on so many occasions on a single trip to Missouri that I grew convinced that no employee of MapQuest had ever driven one mile in the Show Me State), until I swore to never use that website again. Now I’m a Google Maps gal.

The first time I heard a talking GPS navigator was 2009. The parents of the

White Android Smartphone Inside Vehicle

guy who was then my boyfriend flew into the major city where we lived and rented a car because the guy and I didn’t have one. The car’s talking navigation system seemed to be more trouble to me than it was worth. We asked it to take us to tacos; instead it took us in circles as we tried to find a taco stand that apparently didn’t exist. I feared we would be directed to drive off a cliff or through a river.

Until I met The Man, I never let the navigation lady in Google Maps talk to me. I’d get directions from Google Maps, then write them out on a piece of paper I’d clip somewhere on my dash so I could refer to the instructions as I drove. I soon agreed with The Man that listening to the Google lady is easier than writing everything out, but it sure is a wrench in my system when she decides to send me on a wild goose chase. (I call them “wild Google chases.”) Why does the GPS lady get confused? Doesn’t her job require her to be omniscient?

And yet, I often wonder how our society got around before Google Maps or other GPS technology. When I think hard, I remember as a teenager having to ask friends how to get to their houses before my mother drove me over. Invitations to birthday parties often included small hand-drawn maps. Vacationers used road maps and those AAA TripTik booklets (if they were so fortunate as to be AAA members–my family never was). When folks got lost, they’d stop at a gas station and ask the worker for help.

Yes, I do appreciate GPS technology. I use it often. I’ve made friends with the Google Maps lady who guides me from inside my phone. (I call her Megan.) But for goodness sake, no matter how convenient GPS technology is, don’t forget your paper maps and don’t forget how to use them.

There are a few types of paper maps that you may need during your travels. Be sure to get the right map for the job!

(I’m going to assume you’re traveling in the U.S.A. since that’s where I’m writing from. I’ve you’re traveling in a country other than the U.S.A., I‘d love for you to leave a comment describing how your use of maps is different from the suggestions I’m giving here.)

Map of the World Book Laid Open on Brown Wooden Surface

For your day-to-day driving on the interstate and highways, use a decent road atlas. Rand McNally makes a good one. You can buy these bound sets of maps at bookstores or even Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart also sells a Rand McNally road atlas that shows the location of every Wal-Mart store in the U.S. This atlas would be a great investment for anyone who plans to spend a significant number of nights in Wal-Mart parking lots.SimplyRVing made a YouTube video all about this Wal-Mart atlas and how it can help you on the road.

If you’re planning your travels ahead of time, you can order an atlas online or through a local, independent bookstore. (Believe me, an independent bookstore will appreciate your business!) An atlas will show you the main roads to get you from town to town. The maps often show rest stops and campgrounds, as well as state and federal public land. Many of them also show basic maps of major cities and the most popular National Parks. If you purchase an atlas that covers all of North America, you’ll get maps of Canada and Mexico too.

If you’re only traveling in one state or region and you don’t have the space

Two People In Vehicle Looking At The Map

(or money) for an atlas, you can probably get by with one or more state maps. You can sometimes find state maps in bookstores or Wal-Mart stores, and you can certainly buy them online. However, state maps are typically available for free at visitor centers or by mail if you contact the state’s tourism office ahead of time. I was recently in the visitor center in Deming, NM where there were free maps available for New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Texas.

(If you want to request free paper maps and other tourist information, the USATourist.com website offers a page with links to all the tourism offices in the USA.)

Sometimes a stand-alone state map will be more detailed than a state map in an atlas. It may show you county roads and tourists attractions. A state map may also include basic maps of major cities within the state.

If you want to explore a state thoroughly, especially if you want to boondock for free on public land, you may want to invest in an atlas or atlas and gazetteer for the state you are exploring.  These bound maps of individual states break the entire state into blocks, then enlarges each block to show not just county roads but also forest service roads, old mines, campgrounds, public land, historic sites, hunting zones, and more. Having a state atlas or atlas and gazetteer combo is a good plan if you want to find free camping areas that are off the beaten path. The two most popular brands are DeLorme and Benchmark.

Photo of Gray Concrete Road in the Middle of Jungle during Daylight

If you’re going to spend some time in a National Forest or BLM area (especially a popular one), you may be able to get a map from the local ranger station. These maps will show Forest Service roads, natural attractions and landmarks, and campgrounds. These maps will also save you from buying a gazetteer if you don’t really need it because you’ll be boondocking primarily in one part of the state. (The map of the National Forest I worked in for four seasons cost $20, but the ranger station may have free handouts that will get you where you want to go. Don’t be afraid to ask for freebies.)

On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time in an urban area, you may want to get a good map of the city where you are based. Gas stations or Wal-Mart stores may have city maps, or you can order them before you hit town, if you’re the type to plan ahead. If you get to a city and need a free map of the area, try the local chamber of commerce. You don’t have to say you live in your van (if doing so makes you uncomfortable) when you explain you’re new to the area and need some help finding your way around. You could also go to the public library and print out some maps of the city that show the parts of town you plan to frequent.

Once you have your map, don’t just stick it in the pocket behind your seat and forget about it. Get that baby out and study it! Trust me, the best time to pull out your map is not when you are already lost.

If you’re using GPS to get to your destination, compare the route the

Person Holding Map of Usa

computer gives you to your map. Does what the GPS tell you make sense? Some camp host friends punched “Sequoia National Park” into their GPS, and after following the instructions given, found themselves turning down what seemed to be a dry riverbed. Oops! Had they consulted a map before the trip, they would have seen there was no reason to leave the pavement to get where they were going.

I’ve had Google Maps send me on wild Google chases even in cities and towns. Once when on the interstate, driving through the metro Los Angeles area, the Google Maps lady routed The Man onto Sunset Boulevard. Why? Why? Why? Google Maps often sent me on strange, roundabout routes through Porterville, CA. In any case, using a paper map to get familiar with an area before a trip can help do away with this type of nonsense. Simply being familiar with street names and the lay of the land can help make recovery a little easier if the GPS starts spewing incorrect information.

If you’ve never learned to read a road map or your skills are rusty, no shame! You can find lots of map-reading help on the internet. The Beginner Driver’s Guide will give you an informative overview of what different components of a map mean and how to use them. wikiHow has a thorough two-part article on “How to Read a Map,” including how to understand a map’s layout and how to use a map to get where you’re going. If you’d rather watch a video, there are several on YouTube dedicated to teaching folks how to read maps.

However you go about sharpening your map-reading skills, do it before you get on the road. Trying to interpret an unfamiliar map while trying to drive and read street signs is no easy task and could be a recipe for disaster.

GPS is quite helpful in getting you where you’re going, but it shouldn’t be the only tool in your navigation toolbox. Make sure you have the correct paper map for the particular journey you’re on, and know how to use it so you can reach your destination with less worry and stress.

As always, Blaize Sun takes no responsibility for your safety and well-being. Only you are responsible for your safety and well-being. Do your research and decide for yourself your best course of action.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/activity-adventure-blur-business-297642/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/smartphone-car-technology-phone-33488/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/map-maps-american-book-32307/, https://www.pexels.com/photo/photo-of-gray-concrete-road-in-the-middle-of-jungle-during-daylight-775199/, and https://www.pexels.com/photo/blur-close-up-fingers-focus-590133/.

About Blaize Sun

My name is Blaize Sun. Maybe that's the name my family gave me; maybe it's not. In any case, that's the name I'm using here and now. I've been a rubber tramp for nearly a decade.I like to see places I've never seen before, and I like to visit the places I love again and again. For most of my years on the road, my primary residence was my van. For almost half of the time I was a van dweller, I was going it alone. Now my (male) partner and I (a woman) have a travel trailer we can pull with our truck. We have a little piece of property, and when we're not traveling, we park our little camper there. I was a work camper in a remote National Forest recreation area on a mountain for four seasons. I was a camp host and parking lot attendant for two seasons and wrote a book about my experiences called Confessions of a Work Camper: Tales from the Woods. During the last two seasons as a work camper on that mountain, I was a clerk in a campground store. I'm also a house and pet sitter, and I pick up odd jobs when I can. I'm primarily a writer, but I also create beautiful little collages; hand make hemp jewelry and warm, colorful winter hats; and use my creative and artistic skills to decorate my life and brighten the lives of others. My goal (for my writing and my life) is to be real. I don't like fake, and I don't want to share fake. I want to share my authentic thoughts and feelings. I want to give others space and permission to share their authentic selves. Sometimes I think the best way to support others is to leave them alone and allow them to be. I am more than just a rubber tramp artist. I'm fat. I'm funny. I'm flawed. I try to be kind. I'm often grouchy. I am awed by the stars in the dark desert night. I hope my writing moves people. If my writing makes someone laugh or cry or feel angry or happy or troubled or comforted, I have done my job. If my writing makes someone think and question and try a little harder, I've done my job. If my writing opens a door for someone, changes a life, I have done my job well. I hope you enjoy my blog posts, my word and pictures, the work I've done to express myself in a way others will understand. I hope you appreciate the time and energy I put into each post. I hope you will click the like button each time you like what you have read. I hope you will share posts with the people in your life. I hope you'll leave a comment and share your authentic self with me and this blog's other readers. Thank you for reading.  A writer without readers is very sad indeed.

6 Responses »

  1. A map person I have been, I am now AND will always be. I’ve used GPS / yes it works but never felt secured / like going with blind faith. Also technology and I are not the best of friends WINK At 69 guess I’m “old school minded”, but it works for me. I don’t mind using maps ( actually enjoy looking up different routes ) or stopping for directions ( a big help ) because I don’t want to drive around for hours lost. I want to get there and enjoy where I need to go.
    I do feel for the next generations coming up because of technology we are going to be so dependent of it on all levels and if it does crash some day everyone will be lost. Glad I won’t be around to see that happen.

    • Kodey, I feel the same way about GPS, like I’m blindly trusting something I shouldn’t necessarily put all my faith in.

      A friend of mine says the satellites that power the GPS are going to stop working as time passes and new ones are not being sent up. I have not researched this, but my friend is a smart guy and not prone to conspiracy theories or hyperbole. If we lose the satellites and GPS stops working, a lot of young people will be in big trouble until they can learn to use a map.

  2. hey maps are cool, from buried treasure maps to cute handdrawn maps from friends to storebought ones and freebee ones. I remember when the place I wanted to go was awkwardly at the edge of a map or off the map. or using old maps and seeing roads that weren’t on the map. it’s been a while since I used a real detailed storebought paper map. when Ming and I were going to Joshua Tree recently, I knew we’d lose cellphone reception, out in the desert, so I wrote out the directions. here in Vegas lots of freeway construction is going on. the off-ramp closest to our house is closed, but googlemaps doesn’t know it, so people relying on googlemaps panic as they pass the closed exit and they’re forced to venture deep into the heart of Vegas where they didn’t intend to go. I was taking a Lyft and the driver didn’t know that off-ramp was closed, but Lyft had calculated how long the trip would take and how much she’d get paid based on the off-ramp being open, so that was a pain. sometimes googlemaps is so wrong, I feel like it’s intentionally playing tricks, like how did it get that wrong.

    • I hear what you are saying about Google Maps playing tricks! That Google lady is so wrong sometimes!

      Yeah, it’s really frustrating when Google doesn’t know your exit is closed or road construction is going on. If Google doesn’t know, how could anyone else? A lot of people like Google BECAUSE it’s supposed to know about road closures and such and detour the driver around the mess. What is the driver to do when Google doesn’t know what’s going on?

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I always enjoy your comments and insights.

  3. I use all of them – paper, Google maps and GPS. A few days ago I was looking for a route over the mountains in Angeles National Forest and found Route 39 on Google maps going from the outskirts of LA north all the way to Route 2. After checking around a bit I found that Route 39 as a through route has been closed for forty years! Too many landslides and no plans to reopen it but it looks like hikers and cyclists still use it.

    • Karen, I think the most successful navigators, like you, have all their bases covered by using a variety of old and new navigation systems. I also think your story is a good example of the importance of pre-planning a route before starting a trip.

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your experience. .

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