Why Maps Are Better Than GPS

I like maps. Weather maps, zoo maps, amusement park maps, campus maps, maps that show where Major League Baseball fans live, maps that show how states have voted in Presidential elections, and the best hand-drawn American wall map.

However, I have a special fondness for road maps. As a kid I’d spend hours looking at the atlas my grandparents kept in their backseat, and I vividly remember looking at a map spread out on the hood of a car at a rest area somewhere out west with my dad, plotting the next turn on our trip to California.

When I was a little kid—probably only six or seven years old—with my mom’s help, I wrote a letter to every state and Canadian province and asked them to send me a road map. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Alabama, the first state to respond to my request. Most states sent me a map, some included other tourist information or a nice letter. I still have the maps, but anything else that came with them is long gone.

I’ve written before about how I don’t have a cell phone, so it’s probably not too much of a surprise that I don’t own a GPS, either. Perhaps this makes me a Luddite. (I had to look up that word the first time I heard it: “One who opposes the introduction of new technology.”) However, I don’t oppose new technology. I understand why people like cell phones and GPS. I can imagine a GPS really comes in handy when traveling in a city where detailed maps are hard to follow, or when traveling at night and signs are hard to read. It’s convenient, for sure.

But to someone who likes maps a GPS ruins all the fun!

Last year my wife and I took our family on a 5,400 mile road trip to California. We didn’t bring a GPS with us. Instead, tucked between my seat and the center console was the 2009 Rand McNally road atlas. Although I’d memorized the route we wanted to take thanks to hundreds of hours on Google Maps (more about that in a minute), whenever I had a question I consulted the atlas.

The advantage a paper map has over a GPS—besides actually holding the map in your hand, and the challenge of refolding a standard map—is that it allows you to see the area in context. If I want to look at a map of Illinois, I can unfold it and see the entire state at once. And then not only will I see whatever I’m looking for, but inevitably I’ll find some other interesting tidbit. Finding such things on a GPS is much more difficult.

Google Maps sort of provides the best of both worlds. Its ease of scrolling, zooming, switching from map to satellite view, and the incredible street view feature is a map lover’s fantasy. I’ve planned numerous vacations using Google Maps, and I’ve dreamed about dozens of others.

However, when I’m actually traveling I much prefer a paper map.

My love for maps has rubbed off on my kids, as well. We can’t go to any zoo, museum or park without them requesting a map of their own to study. On a long trip they still prefer to look at their electronics instead of a road atlas though.

Part of the reason that I love road maps in particular is because they’re completely logical, yet can lead to something magical.

If I want to drive from here to Tularosa, New Mexico, I’d have no idea how to get there. But with a map I can find Tularosa and all I have to do is follow the lines. Simple enough. Yet along the way I might encounter an old section of Route 66 in Illinois, dozens of flattened armadillos along the road in Missouri, an old gas station featured in the Pixar film Cars in Texas, or an old roadside motel in New Mexico.

Without maps we wouldn’t know how to get there from here, but we also wouldn’t know that there’s more than one way to go.

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