The rise of do-it-yourself mapping services like has me wondering about the livelihood of people like Tom Harrison, who divides his time between walking all the great trails of California and creating basically the best maps of those trails on the market. (Disclosure: a few years back Harrison paid me $100 to advertise his maps for three months here mostly because he was charmed that I asked him; his maps sell themselves so he didn’t need the help; nor, I imagine, did he get much from my feeble foray into online marketing.)

Buy the best hiking maps
I tracked down all the top-quality maps for Bay Area trails and compiled them in my online map store. If you buy one from Amazon, I get a few nickels to buy more maps.

But to get back to the point: Are any of these online mapping sites of any use for hikers? I found out the other day when creating my Henry Coe hike map (an advertisement for hiring a professional if there ever was one) that mapmaking done even half-right is tedious, painstaking and best left to those who have climbed the illustration-software staircase (which always seems 100 floors high and keeps adding stories).

A map done right needs all the following:

  • Not just the trails I’ve hiked, but all the trails nearby.
  • Those little red numbers indicating miles between trail junctions.
  • That little arrow thingy showing declination (true north vs. magnetic north).
  • Springs, lakes, ponds, creeks, rivers.
  • Other points of interest and attractions.
  • Some way to convey elevation, whether by contour lines or shaded relief

How many of your average GPS-mash-up maps have more than a couple of these requirements?

Having said this, the GPS mash-ups do something a professional map can’t: allow regular folks to say “here’s where I went” and draw it on an approximation of a map, encouraging others to go there too. Everytrail in particular also allows you to keep a log of your travels across multiple venues and attach photographs, making little GPS-enabled photo albums. Neat, but not cartography.

I find myself stopping by and buying the $1 PDF maps quite often if I’m going to new parks in the Santa Cruz mountains. They fill a niche because the San Mateo Parks Department has great trails but lousy trail maps, and some of the state parks down by Santa Cruz aren’t staffed except on the weekends, so it’s impossible to buy a map on days when the gate kiosk is unstaffed. These have all the requirements listed above; the e-commerce software gets a bit cranky at times but nothing I haven’t been able to work out.

The GPS mash-up maps are a function of their medium: cool on a computer screen, not so cool on an actual trail. You wouldn’t want to be lost in the woods with a 72dpi printout as your only hope of getting unlost. Especially if starts to rain.

(So check this out: Ol’ Mr. Harrison is not so old school after all: some of his maps are available as iPhone apps.)