Are paper maps are better than GPS?

why do we still buy paper maps
maps are better than GPS

Maps have served us well but in the age of smartphones their days are numbered. Surely? So why is it then that many people will argue that maps are better than GPS devices?


Maps have a very close relationship with stationery. I think you’d be stretching it to define maps as being stationery, but they are close enough. And as with stationery, the arrival of the digital age would have had many people seeing the demise of paper maps in favour of us all navigating on electronic GPS devices. And yet the paper map survives and arguably is even thriving – the Ordnance Survey has actually seen sales of paper maps rise in recent years, reintroducing their OS Road Maps due to this demand.

Stationery and maps

As with stationery, the digital age has undoubtedly changed the way we use maps. With the phone in your hand acting as an incredibly powerful means of navigating from A to B, the role of the paper map has changed. Likewise the need to write a letter has been reduced to a niche pursuit when you can send an email or message. But that is exactly the role that stationery does now occupy in our lives today. It serves a specialist role of keeping us in touch with the world, a tactile and emotional means of communicating. It is no longer practical to write a lots of letters, but to handwrite one letter can stand out as incredibly powerful. Stationery works now when it is a pleasure to use, when it offers something that an electronic means can’t.

The pleasure of maps

Paper maps also offer a pleasure that you simply can’t find with an electronic map. For a start, an unfolded OS Landranger (1:50,000) map gives you a 40x40km (1,600 sq km) area on a map 90x90cm across. I can get the same OS map on my iPhone to display only 3.5 x 6.5km (22.75 sq km). This gives you a sense of your position in the world, seeing not just what where you are but where you’ve been and where you could go. A GPS map allows you to see where you are, to get from A to B. GPS deals in the practical here and now. Paper maps allow you to dream.

maps are better than GPS - ordnance survey ign michelin

The unreliability of GPS

Paper maps are also reliable. I can speak from recent experience on this, having planned out a Stationery Walk on Google Maps to follow only to struggle with phone data connection, unable to know where the next stop was. I wished I had taken a paper map with the route and notes annotated on it – no signal issues, no battery worries, and easy to add notes as I went along. A record of the trip. Next time!

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The language of maps

Paper maps are also a hidden form of language, one you glean more from the more you learn. And each map has its own language. So if you want to plan a trip around Britain you can learn the language of an OS Landranger map (scale 1:50,000) and translate that fairly easily to their Explorer series (scale 1:25,000). However if you then try and plan a trip to France you can broadly make use of local maps, but the detailed language is different on a Michelin map of France, let alone an IGN map.

What this allows you though is to learn and apply – the more you know the more rewarding your trip will be. There is something quite magical about plotting a route on an OS map using contours and landmarks, and then it becoming a reality in the field. By contrast, a GPS planned trip will be largely devoid of such pleasures, rather it will be a trip designed in the hidden brain of a computer and delivered as a finished article to you.

The reality – paper and digital maps together

Now before you point out that paper maps and GPS are not a black-and-white matter, that it is not a case of using one or the other, then yes, that is true. Maps exist in both forms and the likelihood is that trips are planned using a combination of both. I myself use a mix of paper and digital where possible. I might use a paper map or even the OS maps on Bing to plan out routes (a form of dreaming) yet I will use websites like Komoot and Strava to plot routes that they recommend to get from A to B, or even A to B then C and arrive at D. This makes use of their knowledge to seek out better roads. I may well then refine it using a paper map to seek out something I can see that the computer can’t. It may be going via an interesting looking series of roads or landscape, or just avoiding a town I don’t like the look of. I am using my applied knowledge of maps and its language of symbols to enhance what a computer can offer. And maybe this is how we will find a balance in future, accepting what can and can’t be done by hand.

So are paper maps better than GPS? I would argue that neither is better as both offer something the other can’t provide. They work best when used together. The skill of reading a map remains as essential as ever if you want to get the most out of a map, and a world without paper maps seems as unlikely as ever now. Just don’t overlook what role GPS and digital mapping can provide to enhance your enjoyment of paper maps.

If you are suitably inspired by paper maps you can buy a great selection of maps online. My favourite maps have to be the Ordnance Survey, from the 1:250,000 Road series through to the 1:25,000 Explorer series. At the moment you can get 10% off if you sign up for their newsletter. Click here for more on this

The best map shop I know of is still Stanfords, where you can find a map for almost any purpose in any part of the world. From road atlases of France to walking maps of the Faroe Islands, they really have it all – click here to see more

1 Comment
  1. Maps especially useful for the hill and mountain walker/climber – a broader view of surrounding features, “get off” alternatives. I have some disintegrating early OS 1″ to mile, that tell a story when re-read. Bring back memories of routes followed. Even older, historic, maps even more exciting for armchair explorers!

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