With so many apps and devices offering portable topographic maps today (including our own app!), it’s easy to imagine paper maps going the way of the Dodo. Yes, smartphones and GPS devices are convenient for navigating backcountry trails, but paper maps still have many advantages over digital topographic info. Here are the top five reasons you shouldn’t ditch your folding trail maps just yet.

1. Printed maps work without batteries. For any trip lasting more than a few hours, it can be risky to rely on a battery-powered mapping device like a smartphone or GPS. Even if you plan a short day hike, getting lost can mean an extended trip where a map becomes even more crucial. Save your batteries for making emergency calls instead.

2. Waterproof maps are a lifesaver. Any quality folding topo map will be printed on waterproof, tearproof paper that can stand up to nasty conditions on the trail. Sure, some GPS units are fairly rugged and waterproof cases are available for cell phones, but why take the risk?

3. Printed maps typically offer better-quality information compared to digital maps. The cost to distribute paper maps is much higher than “digital ink,” so printed map makers often put a lot of effort into producing highly-accurate products. Many of the digital map products available are either crowd sourced, or hastily assembled in large-volume operations using outdated government data.

In contrast, many folding maps are produced and verified on the ground by outdoor enthusiasts just like you and me. These guys and gals are serious about helping others find the best trails and points of interest, so having one of their maps in your pack is like bringing along a guide with deep, local knowledge.

4. Large folding topo maps are much easier to read than digital maps on tiny screens. No, this has little to do with being old or having poor eyesight. Instead, the point is printed map users don’t have to endlessly pan and zoom to go from viewing trail details to seeing an overview of how the trails fits into the overall geography. This can save time on the trail, and it also allows the user to more easily plan complex routes.

5. Cell data coverage can be spotty. Many apps allow you to download maps for areas of interest before you leave network coverage–but of course that requires planning ahead. Standalone GPS users can run into the same issue, as many devices don’t have maps loaded by default; users will often need to grab specific map data beforehand due to device storage constraints. With a paper map, you know exactly what you have when you head out the door.

6. Ok, I said there were 5 reasons, so this one is really just a pro tip. Many backpackers who carry paper maps actually use them for fire starters after completing a section of trail (think AT thru-hikers who don’t need section info for previous sections). Try using your GPS to start a fire, and you’ll just end up with a melty mess.

We still think folding topo maps have an important place in any hiker’s pack, so we’re now offering select folding topo maps for sale in the Tripleblaze online store. Digital maps like the ones Tripleblaze offers are certainly more convenient in terms of instant delivery and overall coverage (plus they can be printed from home too), but for truly epic hikes, you won’t catch us on the trail without a folding topo map!

Your turn: Do you use either digital or printed topo maps exclusively when hiking? Tell us why or why not!

# Comments

  • Greg Heil

    Anytime I’m in unfamiliar territory, I definitely carry a map with me!

  • JohnH

    I always carry a map, sometimes two… there is something about being “lost” that makes you want to never do it again.

  • mtbikerchick

    We always have printed maps and trail descriptions with us on backpacking trips and even at some of the local hiking spots I try to always have a printed map with me. You just never know when you might need it!

  • AJ Heil

    It’s tough to consistently depend on technology to produce… The difficulties of reliable power and reception are always too uncertain to maintain complete confidence in devices. Maps, although seemingly expensive sometimes, provide an awesome resource that is usually beyond what any tech-unit can provide for a given area.

    Hoping to have maps for all backcountry trips — Frontcountry trips usually have bail points where maps are not always needed, but can still be useful!

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