Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Map Skills in the Digital Age

A Guest blog by Past President Neil Van Dyke

There was an interesting piece on National Public Radio recently about map making in the digital age.  While the discussion was quite broad reaching in scope, there was some very interesting commentary that related directly to search and rescue.  One of the points was that the younger generation in large part has no experience with the use of paper maps.  Their map and navigational world revolves around Google maps or other apps on their computer or smart phone. To this generation one navigates by asking their phone how to get from point A to point B then watching their progress, whether they are travelling by vehicle or on foot.  We increasing see this in the backcountry.  This past summer while on patrol one ranger I work with encountered a young man with an iPad slung around his neck which he was using for his map. I was personally involved in about a half a dozen incidents this year where people got lost while trying to navigate using their phone.  

Some of the issues these folks encountered:
-One party thought a blue line on the map was a trail, when in fact it was a stream. (This would have been obvious to anybody familiar with reading a standard USGS map.) They lost the trail, a search was initiated and they spent an uncomfortable night out in the woods.
-A solo hiker was navigating using his phone when the battery went dead.  He had no other map. He also spent a cold night in the woods and needed to be “rescued” and escorted out of the backcountry.
-Two different hikers got “lost” on or near the same trail which was not shown on the mapping app. We were able to talk them back onto the trail and convince them to turn around and retrace their route back out.
The problems associated with using electronic maps seem self evident to us old timers who grew up on paper maps and a compass:
- Batteries can quickly go dead, or even if not quickly then inevitably! This is especially true in cold weather. 
- Much mapping software requires cell coverage - obviously an issue in many remote areas.
-Most  electronic maps have incomplete (or non-existent)  trail data on them.
- Phones and other electronic devices are susceptible to damage or other operational issues in inclement weather.

So what’s to be done?   I wish there was a magic bullet on this one, but if there is I’m not sure what it is.  Some thoughts:
  1.          Incorporate this topic into any public education efforts that we are involved with. Point out that sometimes  paper trail maps and a compass will be one’s best friend in the backcountry. They often have the most relevant information, don’t need an internet connection, and the batteries never go dead!
  2.        As rescuers we need to be up to speed with how to use this technology to our advantage.  This can be a whole new topic, but every SAR team should know at least how to instruct somebody who is “lost” on how to text them their location from the mapping app. This has been a great tool for us on numerous occasions.

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on this!

Neil is team leader for Stowe (Vermont) Mountain Rescue, works as a seasonal backcountry ranger in New York’s Adirondack Park, and is a Past President of the Mountain Rescue Association


  1. I happen to have experience at both ends of this issue. On one hand - I grew up reading paper topos. When I hike/scramble in the Pacific Northwest I always carry a paper topo, compass with adjustable declination and a mechanical altimeter. On the other hand - I am a software developer.

    One of my projects is Gmap4 which is an enhanced Google map viewer. Gmap4 is a browser app, not a native app. It works in most browsers on most devices as long as the browser is online. One of the map views (“t4 Topo High”) displays the highest resolution topo maps available online. This project is part of my way to "pay it forward". Translation: Gmap4 is free for non-commercial use.

    Would Gmap4 be useful to a SAR group to help ‘lost’ people self-rescue? I have an idea on this point and certainly welcome thoughts from others.

    Assume someone that is lost but otherwise OK is able to send a text/email/phone call with their latitude longitude. What if all they need is a good map and someone to point them in the right direction? Here is a sample link that SAR could send back that will (1) start Gmap4 in the browser of the lost person’s phone, (2) display the high resolution topo maps and (3) center the map at the location that was provided:,-72.841673&t=t4&symbol=prs

    Now let’s take it a step further.

    What if the map link that SAR sends back also displays a line or series of symbols that would lead the lost party to safety? Could some lost people self-rescue with that kind of help?

    If anyone involved with SAR has a different idea for how Gmap4 might be useful for that purpose I would enjoy hearing about it. You can contact me through the homepage.

    The Gmap4 homepage has a FAQ, examples, quick start info (in the Help file), a contact page and more to quickly get you up to speed.

    Gmap4 default map:

    Gmap4 homepage:

    Joseph Elfelt, the Gmap4 guy
    Redmond, WA

  2. I grew up using paper maps and compass. As a youngster in the Boy Scouts the idea of always having a map and compass was ingrained deep into your soul. However, after years of experience with mapping and with SAR I am pretty much in the camp that digital maps are actually superior to paper maps. The only except to this is in regards to the battery life of the device, but having the battery die on the device would be no different than someone losing a paper map and I am sure many of us have been involved in searches where the subject lost the map.

    A obvious advantage you mentioned without realizing it was an advantage in that when the people got lost using their digital maps is that they were able to CALL for assistance. I haven't seen a paper map yet that allows you to use it to make a call. This is also the reason we are finding people at higher elevations as they search for cellphone service to make the 911 call.

    Along with the CALL for help also comes coordinates from the internal GPS of most devices. We don't even need to worry if the subject can read or understand the coordinates as they are transmitted directly from the device.

    I guess one question to ask is "where do you think paper maps come from?" Is each one hand drawn...NO. Even the paper maps that everyone uses are printed from digital maps. So this leads to my last and probably most important point. In your original BLOG you stated that papers maps are better because they have more information. This is actually not true unless the map produces remove information from the map after they have printed it (don't know why they would do that). Now some map produces but more information than others so while Google may not show a trail on their map, the state park that offered their map as a downloadable pdf probably would show the trails.

    Actually as soon as a paper map is printed it is out of date. Once it is printed you can no longer officially update the map. In my area of the world the printed USGS topo maps have not been updated since the 1970's. There certainly has been a lot of changes in the terrain since the 70's but none of it is reflected on the map. One BIG advantage of digital maps is that they can constantly be updated. Now geospatial data can be downloaded from an enormous number of sources and used to update maps. When a state builds a new road somewhere they can submit that information direction the geospatial data repositories like the USGS NATIONAL MAP ( Or if a park puts in a new trail they can quickly add it to their map that can be downloaded from their website.

    So while the battery is an issue (I carry an portable charger -, digital maps offer a lot of unique advantages.

    My suggestion is we find ways to educate the public on using digital maps. The proverbial "snowball" rolling down the hill has gotten too big and there is no stopping it now. Instead lets carve a path for it to make sure it goes in the right place.

    Don Ferguson
    Integrated Geospatial Tools for Search and Rescue
    Morganton, WV