Why maps beat GPS every time


Just a few of our large collection...looking forward to re-using my maps of Paris and London this year!
Just a few of our large collection…looking forward to re-using my maps of Paris and London this year!

 By Caitlin Kelly

Call me old-fashioned, but how I love a paper map!

Laminated or not, a map offers so many specific details about where I’m headed, from elevation to campsites to the width of the road to the locations of airports, hospitals — even windmills!

I love the anticipation of reading a map and wondering how the landscape will resemble its contours.

On long road trips, I like having a sense of progression — yup, we passed that exit!

I treasure my battered paper map of Corsica, scene of one of the happiest weeks of my life, anywhere, ever. I had been fired from one magazine job and found a new one a week later, with a healthy raise. Score!

I had one week to enjoy, and knew exactly where I wanted to go, this island off of the southern coast of France, known for its rugged, hilly terrain. I decided to travel by mo-ped, with a top speed of 45 mph, making a circle tour through the Balagne, the northern bit. I used a Frommer’s or Fodor’s guidebook and booked my hotels in advance so all I had to do was get from one to the next.


Imagine driving through the maquis, that scrubby brush filled with sun-warmed herbs, your nostrils filled with its aroma, the sun on your back, winding down hairpin turns to the sea.

I love the details that maps offer -- like all the ferry routes marked here. My solo week in Corsica, July 1995, was one of the best of my life!
I love the details that maps offer — like all the ferry routes marked here. My solo week in Corsica, July 1995, was one of the best of my life!


While out there alone, I drove past the Deserts Des Agriates, one of the most eerie and desolate landscapes I’ve ever seen. I had no camera, but will never forget it.

I also love the physicality of maps, how they link us to every explorer before us, from Magellan to Lawrence of Arabia.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve used Mapquest for directions that somehow didn’t work; without a map, I’d have been toast as we don’t have or use GPS.

Imagine one of the Jason Bourne films, (my favorites!), with a robo-voiced GPS instead of him, as he always does in the car chase scenes, driving at top speed through a foreign city while trying to unfold and read an unwieldy map:

— Turn right, assassin to your immediate left!

— Duck!

— Now, duck again!

— Are you still alive?

Here’s a lovely piece about why one man also prefers maps to GPS:

Consider this, though: Using printed maps requires travelers to work together. You become a team. Driver and navigator. Your ability to get along and solve problems is tested in valuable, revealing ways. GPS removes that entire interpersonal dynamic. It encourages a passive form of journeying: sit back and drift, because the vaguely Australian-sounding computer lady will tell you to turn left in a quarter mile.

Driving by map, on the other hand, engages you actively with your surroundings. It makes you observe road signs, be in the moment. And that closer engagement, I’ve found, imprints the landscape more vividly and permanently on your mind. When I return home, I can unfold my maps and take myself back to a town or a stretch of highway.

Often I’ll buy a map months before the trip, and by studying it try to pull the opposite trick — to transport myself into the place I intend to visit. It builds anticipation. Eric Riback, a map publisher in upstate New York who writes a blog called Mapville, described this to me poetically as the “seeking, dreaming part of travel that you can do with a map.”


Do you still ever use paper maps?


One of the eeriest and most memorable sights of my life -- a lunar landscape I saw, alone in the rain, while traveling alone by mo-ped
One of the eeriest and most memorable sights of my life — a lunar landscape I saw, alone in the rain, while traveling alone by mo-ped

38 thoughts on “Why maps beat GPS every time

  1. I love maps! When my kids were small we did a fair bit of roadtripping in our province, and I had a road map of Manitoba on which I marked everywhere they had been with pink highlighter.

      1. themodernidiot

        Great gift!

        Digital just doesn’t cut it. However, thanks to digital I can cruise some of the old maps that I don’t have immediate access to.

  2. i love the beauty of maps, the muted colors, the lines, the sheer art of them. however – i am the absolute worst at finding my way anywhere, i seem to lack a spatial skills/directionality sense somehow. (i’ve even researched it to find out why, and have found a reason, along with others in the same boat). it is just not something that is going to change. my daughter even worked at a map store while in school in washington d.c., and loves them and uses them as you do. all that being said, the gps has been a godsend for me, and while it has steered me a bit off track at times, at least i arrive at my intended destination eventually, and for that i am grateful. i love the idea, the romance, the idea of using a map to find places meaningful, though i’ll have to keep that a fantasy, and envy you the ability to use them in that way. )

    1. Thanks for weighing in — and I know that some people have a lot of difficulty with direction. For whatever reason, I’m pretty good with it (can usually [w sun] even tell you what time of day it is without a clock.) I tend to not trust technology becs if it fails you — and you have no analog backup….?

      When I worked for the Daily News and got sent to some hellish NYC neighborhoods, I was very glad of my 5-borough map!

  3. I moved last fall and stuck my bag of maps SOMEWHERE… it’s been a summer of taking routes the GPS advised and afterwards we regretted! You have convinced me, once and for all, to find my missing maps!! Thank you!! xxoo

  4. The last time I used a paper map was in the Bahamas, as our GPS wasn’t working there. I did fine navigating most of the time, but once my Magellan-esque navigational skills failed and we found ourselves in a less-than-savory part of Nassau after nightfall. I’m embarrassed to say that I was pretty much terrified for the two-plus hours it took to get back to our cottage. I’m such a newbie traveler…

    I do like paper maps a lot though because you get a better idea of what surrounds you, as opposed to a GPS, which is like “turn here, turn there, go straight” in a very regimented fashion. (And that’s assuming the GPS is even correct.) Very robotic with limited opportunity for the kind of exploration you can have with a map.

    1. Scary!! Glad you are OK….

      You make a great point. This is why I dislike GPS. With a map I have a much larger context for where I am (hello, highway exits?) I also know it cannot fail me in any technical sense.

      I think knowing how to navigate is a fairly essential life skill.

      1. I completely agree, which is why I have made an effort to cultivate it instead of relying on GPS. I do use GPS quite a bit but I also know how to read a map. To me, it’s like knowing basic arithmetic or knowing how to find information in a library. A lot of people might consider that knowledge obsolete but I personally like to have some parts of my brain that aren’t entirely dependent on a computer to function!

      2. Wow. That’s so true. I imagine there is a whole generation (likely several by now) who just use tech as their default choice. I get it but I prefer it as an add-on.

        I also like to not stare a screen ALL THE TIME! 🙂

  5. I love maps, and don’t have a GPS. I find maps beautiful and suggestive of adventure!

    I also think that using maps requires some mental function (which I think is good) rather than just blindly following instructions

    1. What is it with maps?! I find them so alluring, too.

      I also hate having a bossy woman in the car — beyond me! — when we go off on road trips and my husband chooses GPS. 🙂

  6. I still have maps from when I traveled Europe, in 1984. They’re my treasure, my time capsule. I imagine roads have changed since then and that’s also the beauty of maps. They chart history. I rely on GPS when I’m on the road, because I usually travel alone, but I still buy maps. Especially city maps. I purchased a lovely map of New York when I was there in 2007. It mapped the location of museums and art galleries. Loved it. Unfortunately I don’t have it anymore, but when I go back to New York I’ll be looking for a replacement.

  7. I have the fondest memories of my father reading maps on vacation in the car. I remember the sound of them, the crinkle. And I remember feeling like we were always in good hands. I’ll take my father’s strong hands and that crinkle over the dumb blonde in my nav system anytime:). At least, she sounds like a dumb blonde.

  8. I love paper maps. There’s something so deliciously tangible about them, and every fold, every corner. every crease normally has a story to tell. Also you can mark them with stuff – the raggedy map of Mexico City I have in my mother’s cupboard in Singapore has a million stories (mostly of the many silly things I did) to tell just trying to get me around the city.

    Then again, I do disclaim this with the fact that I have never owned a phone in which Google Maps works, so I cannot speak of being able to get somewhere when I need to. I have observed that when I am out walking aimlessly, my wayfinding is faultless. Give me a precise destination and a timeframe in which to find it, and you can guarantee that I’ll get lost, map or no map, even with specific instruction.

    I think maybe it’s just me 🙂

    But yes, maps. Delicious, visual representations of a world that never seems so impossible when you can trace a route with your eyes, imagination, a finger, or thumbtacks and string.

    Love them.

  9. While I like using GPS for when I’m literally lost in a strange, new place, maps far outweigh GPS because it gives the opportunity to not miss interesting stops. That’s how I learned about Bighorn, about Whitefish Dunes, and about Mukilteo, WA. I hope maps can bring me to beautiful new places in other countries some day. 😊

  10. A child of the iPhone generation, it’s always refreshing for me to travel (as I have been doing these last few weeks) without cell service and have to navigate with a paper map. Although I find it sometimes an embarrassing badge of tourism, I learn cities much better and as you said bond with my fellow travelers when I have to pay attention to where I am rather than blindly following directions.

      1. I’m doing well! Finally getting to travel again so I’ve gotten back to regular blogging.

        And true, although the effort it takes to know where I am can sometimes be a bit of a challenge! Although well worth it.

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  12. This is so fascinating, as usual. I can see that having GPS on our phones can be very handy, though I can’t actually work mine (I think I may have pressed the wrong button and deleted the functionality). Recently I’ve started sticking maps to the wall of my writing room: the map I had when I backpacked around Ireland in the 1990s (at some point I had to sticky-tape the creases because it was getting fragile), another when I caught the train from Vancouver to Toronto and then a friend and I toured around Quebec and the Maritime States, and two others maps – one of south-east Western Australia where I lived for a couple of years, one of Launceston in Tasmania where I bunked down to write for a month. I’m not sure why exactly I’ve started putting maps on my walls, but I do like staring at them as I write – I think it’s something about hoping that the lines on the maps will help me find my way into and through and out of whatever it is that I’m writing. Needless to say, the maps will be staying on the wall for some time.

    1. You have been around! 🙂

      I love that you know my country a bit — and the train from YVR to YYZ (airport codes, y’know) — is very cool indeed. So often, it’s tourists who see so much more of our country than we do. You might enjoy today’s NYT travel story about an area of Newfoundland, which we keep meaning to get to….but so many competing spots beckon as well. I’m glad you saw PQ and the Maritimes, both of which are well worth it.

      I also like the very basic idea that maps, literally, orient us. Man (and woman) has been using them for millenia.

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