Why Paper Maps could be Perfect for Post-Pandemic Travel

Why Paper Maps could be Perfect for Post-Pandemic Travel
A 19th-century archival map of Mysore Photo Credit: Courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection

The time is right to bring back paper maps in a much bigger way as adventure and travel slowly pick up

Prannay Pathak
August 26 , 2020
10 Min Read

Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
— What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

—Elizabeth Bishop, The Map


A little while back, inspired by a solo trip that my team lead had taken to the Tibetan backpacker haven of McLeod Ganj (not her first, mind you), I decided to follow in her footsteps. She'd told me, "Don't get jealous, get even." I asked for a long leave and booked my tickets.

On the eve of the trip, as I wrapped up the day's work and walked up to her for necessary advice, she quickly produced a sheet of paper from the stack that would lie piled up next to her computer, and in an inspired frenzy, drew out a rudimentary paper map for me to follow.

I might have forgotten the map in my desk drawer but as I think about the utility of paper maps in the information colossus that is the digital age, I instantly go back to the functionality that the mental image of that scrap of paper afforded me over the next couple of days. That basic diagram, scrawled within a little under a couple of minutes, went a long way in finding my bearings and locating a local hippy village and to locate several unexplored hikes close by.

Read: #TheNewNormal: Plogging it Out in the Post-Covid-19 Era

With the ongoing pandemic, we’re faced with the sudden challenge of reinventing ourselves as travellers and inhabitants of the great outdoors. One of the demands of the COVID-19 era is immersive travel that lets one practise isolationism and engage with nature better. Bigger trekking expeditions, bushcraft and other forms of outdoor exploration are tipped to go up in the so-called post-pandemic phase. Using one’s time better and navigating an area better, would unquestionably be the skills of the day. As we utilise our time off-travel for new avenues, it could only pay to resume using good old paper maps.

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A post shared by The Scenic Route (@the___scenic___route) on Aug 21, 2020 at 10:58am PDT

Why, you might ask. Hasn’t the proliferation of smartphone navigation apps, especially new, revolutionary ones like What3Words, rendered paper maps mere museum artifacts? Well, the short answer is 'No'. For all their purported accuracy, digital maps are known to prove frustrating on occasions when one is out of the urban space. Also, it has been seen that digital maps needn’t necessarily be more accurate than paper ones, contrary to the claims of technochauvinism. The simplest answer for why digital maps aren’t entirely reliable could be that it’ll be a while before internet connectivity can be a ground reality even in the remotest nooks of the world. But the application and usability of the humble paper map needn’t be limited to its technological cousin’s failing. They go much further than that.

Read: Time Traveller: Sketch Maps of Masherbrum, K2

Broader Scope
Atlas maps such as this can help you orient yourself better to places you desperately dream about visiting
I have a fanatical obsession with maps and have possessed an unmitigated lust for atlases ever since I set eyes on one in school. As I grew up, I realised that latitudes and longitudes, and the various visual representations of getting from one place to another provided a nice, microcosmic precursor to the actual experience of travel. That’s what paper maps do—there’s a completeness to them throughout the time one looks at them unlike the area visible within the constraints of the screen at a time. The result? A broader scope of the destination one’s going to be visiting and exploring. You are oriented better directionally and in terms of distances, thanks to the simultaneity of the viewing experience. 

I often mind myself using the very same Google Maps to make a rough pencil map of the place I’m writing about. The basic drawing serves as a reference point to which I keep going back to and thinking in terms of. A paper map is not just a spatial scope of a place, but a temporal journey.

Read: 8 of the Most Picturesque Nature Walks in India

Help Create a Mental Map
The map-reading process, too, entails a set of steps that help to embed in the user’s mind the information encoded in the paper map. The folio-like folds divide the region one is looking at in almost equal zones, allotting places unique mental coordinates and creating a mental map of sorts in the mind through repetition and microlearning. What this means is better understanding of the area’s road network, uninhabitable zones, rivers, mountains, and places of interest. "When you're backpacking, a map is your essential guide, and there the paper map adds immensely to the orthodox travel feel, as you need to spot/mark points and the physical form of a map that matters. Let's not hijack the eternal physical map feel by the accessible soft forms. At least I wouldn't," says Abbas Tapadar, DU professor and a perennial adventurer. 

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Oh dog-eared, coffee-stained map, once a beloved object of daily use. Yesterday, pausing at a junction on the trail, a hiker approached, laughing, and said, “Maps! I remember maps!” And suddenly I saw myself as an old woman in line at the cash register, slowly searching her bag for a pen with which to write a check. Oh but truly, in the space of the afternoon, dozens—many with screen in hand—asked, “Does this go to the meadow?” “Which way back to the parking lot?”

A post shared by Julie (@joules50) on Aug 4, 2020 at 10:17am PDT

Many contend that as against digital navigation, which is more suited to acquiring surface information, printed maps are the better bet for deeper immersion into a place’s geography and overall terrain. As we look to pursue mindful travel now more than ever, paper maps can facilitate our minds to visualise these journeys that will take place over longer time frames, more cognitively, and to retain information better. That’s part of the reason why the fantastically-inclined among us are suckers for fantasy maps—they act as paratext to the narratives and fictional worlds that generations have loved from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones.

Better to Look and Wealth of Detail
Moreover, unlike the largely drab and uniform layout of Google Maps, the most widely used navigation app, paper maps can actually aid better consumption and retention of information due to more imaginative designs and layouts, more colours and rich detailing. Reading The Great Hedge of India, Roy Moxham’s book about the 19th-century 2,300-mile-long customs barrier in the country, I learned how archival copies from centuries ago can help understand how boundaries were drawn in the said era. Comparisons can be relatively easily made between geological and other maps of the same place.

In India, paper maps for bushcraft and trekking can be got from bookstores and map publication outlets throughout the country. State tourism departments also have dedicated tourist map books with coordinates-based navigation. For instance, Jammu and Kashmir Tourism provides detailed but easy-to-read topographic maps for treks to be done in the state.

A paper map of Singapore from my collection
One could even use digital resources such as to locate the area coverage needed, edit the map as needed, and download it immediately. Topo maps can be fun to read since they allow you to gauge the elevation of the terrain from a basic, 2-D layout, thanks to contour lines, shading and colours. You can gain a working knowledge of these in just about an hour on the internet. There is no dearth of information on reading the legend and the use of a compass either. Learning to read a paper map, as an exercise, is also necessary training in being a self-sufficient and better-informed traveller. Which is precisely what the times ask of us.

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