Offline Maps: Can They Make You Smarter And Friendlier?

MikeachimTravel11 Comments

girl reading a map

Paper maps make us more human. Let’s not ditch them just yet.

Thanks to the astounding boom in GPS-assisted mapping gadgets, we can instantly know exactly where we are in the world to within a few metres. And we do this by being told, by a machine that does all the work for us. A sign of progress if ever there was one, right? Smart travel is all about embracing new technology, and we’d have to be idiots to ignore the benefits of online mapping software — so should that be the standard for getting around, and should we be tossing our “old-school” paper & static, offline maps in the bin because we don’t have a use for them anymore?

Here are 7 reasons why that might be a really bad idea.

Nb. I’m calling paper maps “analog” for the purposes of this article. You know it’s a blurry definition at best, yeah? (Like the way you can get Ordnance Survey Landranger on Multi-Map apps.) But in general, if a machine doesn’t do the bulk of the work, we’re calling it analog. 



If geography is prose, maps are iconography.

Lennart Meri

As an archaeology student on excavations in the UK, I resented the drawing. No — I hated the drawing. We were taking heaps of photos, so why did we have to draw everything as well? The answer is simple: archaeology isn’t just about gathering data, it’s about interpreting it. A photograph captures pretty much everything. Even in the hands of a pro, a camera is a device designed to capture the bulk of the light hitting it in one gulp. In contrast, a drawing selects. It sifts through the raw data to emphasize, highlight and ultimately present an argument. And it’s the same with maps.

(More of the implications of that a little later).



You know the argument that Google search is making us stupid? How about cutting & pasting that argument into the realm of digital mapping? (EDIT: this study seems to confirm it.) Is this generation the last that will truly know how to read a map? The President of the British Cartographic Society has already expressed her concern — and since map-reading is a mental exercise, do we run the risk of dumbing down our brains by relying on machines to tell us where in the world we are?



A year or so back, I visited the British Museum in London while an exhibition was running. The topic? The History Of Maps. Laid out in glass cases were some of the world’s most famous cartographic marvels — some impossible complicated, as intricate as illuminated manuscripts, some riots of colour to the point of being garish . . . and all of them beautiful.

Maps aren’t just educational. They’re educational art.



How about a London Underground style guide to France’s wine regions? And hey, when was the last time Google Earth was this much fun?

‘Nuff said.



Visit the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus and you’ll notice a curious thing: the maps show different things, depending on where you bought them. For the last couple of decades, the EU-recognised Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the Turkish-occupied north of the island have been engaged in a cold war of naming conventions. Take the capital. A Republic-bought map will probably call it Lefkosia, its name during early Hellenic times — but pick up a map in the Turkish side and it’s called Nicosia, the name given to it by 12th-Century Lusignan crusaders. Two names, one place — and scale that down to villages and streets and you have a very confusing situation, especially when your map doesn’t reflect the names on street signs . . .

Maps are a human attempt to remodel reality — and in doing so, they tell a story about the people behind them. They’re cultural archaeology. Pick up a map in another country, and you’re holding something that reflects the way the inhabitants of that country see themselves. In other words, exactly the kind of insight a travel writer is searching for.



One of the most basic connections a human being can make with another is to ask for directions. It’s a staple technique for breaking the ice when you travel. (“Excuse me — where am I on here?”) And it’s harder to do that with a digital map — not that you would, of course, because a digital map will probably tell you exactly where you are. And in doing so, it’ll prevent you making new friends.

No fun at all.



Oh, the hypocrisy of arguing against digital maps on a website. But we’ve all felt gadget block — the feeling of being distanced from the world by a mechanical middle-man. And when digital maps are running on devices that connect you with a world of online distractions . . . well, you’re doomed. (That’s why productivity-honing services like StayFocusd are so popular). Do you really want to ditch your adventurous plans for the day because you’re stuck on a level of Plants vs Zombies 2?

Further reading:

Originally at

Images: Odense Bys MuseerDe Long WineTeryKatsCraig MouldingCaveman Chuck Coker,ancawonkaLemsipmatt and BinaryApe.

  • I love maps. I miss all the Scouts-like adventures we had to do as part of field work for the Geography classes in middle school…

    • Exactly that. That’s what maps feel like to me when I unfold them. My memories of scrambling across the North York Moors, doing my D of E (, taking compass-bearings and eyeing the rain-darkening sky nervously…*good* memories.

  • Hi Mike, thanks for this very interesting post. I like maps too especially the old, historical ones with calligraphic scripts and interesting diagrams. I also like to buy foreign maps and keep them to remind me of my travels.

    When I go to foreign lands, I prefer to break the ice by looking lost rather than use my phone….!

    In Berlin though, I’m a girl of technology and use the internet to get the quickest route, details of delay, and the nearest outlet to where I want to go.

    • Thanks, Victoria!

      >>”When I go to foreign lands, I prefer to break the ice by looking lost rather than use my phone….!”

      Totally believe in that approach. :) See point 4, “Invite, Don’t Drag”, here:

      But when you’re in a hurry or on a deadline, there’s no beating digital maps for sheer utility. I wrote this post back in 2011 and reading it back now, I worried that it would sound like I’m anti-digital. Ain’t so. I use digital maps all the time. They are the fastest way to get from A to B, no doubt about it.

      But the problem with going fast is how much you miss along the way…

  • Pal

    Oh, maps!

    I’m a firm believer that my life would’ve been completely different without them. I “travelled” with the world atlas even before I could read, or actually, I believe that’s pretty much how I learned to read. On top of it, I’m grown up in communist-era Eastern Europe when travelling was almost totally restricted for us, so escaping with the maps was always the best way of daydreaming myself away… Thus, number 8: Maps for daydreaming.

    Now some 25 years later, broke and stuck in a “challenging” project that restricts my travelling, I guess I just have to dig up some maps from an old box. ‘Cause yes, Google maps just isn’t the same. Nice post.

  • I love this! I took an Introduction to GIS class in my senior year of college and I learned so much. I had no idea maps were so political, and learning to create them taught was invaluable. It really is an art form.

  • I didn’t realize how terrible I’d become at reading maps until the Mongol Rally this past summer when I was forced to use one. I have zero sense of direction and it was frustrating at first, but eventually I began to really enjoy laying the giant pieces of paper across my lap in the passenger seat and just getting lost in them, even when we knew where we were on the road. Maps can be intimidating to the always lost soul like me — but they’re also romantic and beautiful and everything you’ve just said. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Ha ha ha, so true! I always say, think about all possibilities! No batter, no network, no 3G….

  • Peter

    I tell my friends “GPS, GPS I don’t need no stinking GPS” (replace GPS with badges).
    Seriously, my travel for work puts me in new cities where I need to learn them like a native.
    A paper map is the only way to get the big picture of how everything is laid out and works together.
    When I travel for fun I study the map first and then put it away. Once I venture forth I go based on the general direction I want to go using the sun, topography and what looks interesting as my guide.

  • Britany Robinson

    I adore maps and my walls are covered in them, but I have to admit — I’m terrible at reading them! Perhaps it’s time to work on that.

    • Same. And the shocking thing is, I used to be able to read them. I passed this in my teens: A component of it is mapreading in the wild. I’ve forgotten just about EVERYTHING. So this feels like an opportunity to catch up.