The Future of Outdoor Maps

Today, I want to share thoughts on the future of outdoor maps. It’s a good time for it, as map geeks around the world celebrated the 10th birthday of OpenStreetMap this weekend.

We strive to create and acquire the best outdoor maps for Gaia GPS. When Gaia GPS started in 2009, the best US map was the classic USGS topo map, and the best international topo maps were Andy Allan’s OpenStreetMap-based topos. Today, that is still largely true, but the state-of-the-art is rapidly changing.

Here’s how maps are evolving, for the US and internationally.

Classic USGS topos.

Classic USGS topos.

OSM-based OpenHikingMap topo.

OSM-based OpenHikingMap topo.

US Maps

The primary map source for most Gaia GPS users in the USA is the USGS topo map layer, based on USGS 7.5 minute quads. Thanks to the open data policies of the US government these maps are freely available in multiple formats. We rely on caltopo.com, who serves the best and most-up-to-date “quilt” of USGS topo maps to our knowledge.

While these maps have an amazing level of detail, they are starting to show their age. The series was officially completed in 1994, and some maps were last updated several decades ago. In 2009 the USGS released the first of its new topographic map series, US Topo, with the goal of each map being updated every 3 years. These new maps look like the familiar 7.5 minute quads, but many of them contain so little detail that they are not useful for backcountry navigation.

The National Map (AKA The Map Congress Sometimes Shuts Down)

The USGS has also launched a separate online-only map platform, The National Map, which provides a more feature-rich map. The national map also has a crowdsourcing component, The National Map Corps, where anyone can apply for an account and add to the map.

The national map is available in Gaia GPS as an additional map source, but it it is only available up to zoom level 15, which is not a high enough resolution for many situations. The color palette also has far lower contrast than the classic topo maps, making it hard to read in the outdoors.

We have also found that the National Map is not suitable as a primary map source in Gaia GPS, because it hasn’t always served maps quickly or reliably. And then there was the government shutdown, when The National Map along with most other US government services became unavailable for 16 days in October 2013.

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OpenStreetMap in the US

The OpenStreetMap project was launched in July 2004 as a collaborative project to create a freely accessible and editable world map. Think of it as wikipedia for maps, not just for streets.

The OpenStreetMap community has mapped rivers, lakes, backcountry trails, ski chairlifts, bikes paths, railroads, trailhead toilets, glaciers and much more. Several of the most popular map sources in Gaia GPS, especially for users who are not in the US, are based on OpenStreetMap.

The quality of the data varies a good bit in the US. In some large cities, the data is on par with the commercial map providers.  For backcountry areas, the situation is not as good. California, Oregon and Washington all seem to have good coverage, but in less populated states like Montana many lakes are not even on the map. Typically popular parks closer to urban areas have the best coverage, which is perhaps good news for most people, but bad news for backpackers.

Today, the best OSM topo maps (US and worldwide) are designed by Andy Allan, through his company Thunder Forest. He makes 3 variants of topo map – the OpenCycleMap for cycling, and the OpenHikingMap and OpenLandscapeMap styles suited for the outdoors. There is also a nice outdoor source from MapBox, which has significant capital backing, and other open efforts like hikebikemap.de.

International Maps

The US is actually quite unique in offering free and open source topo maps (and boating charts, and flight charts, too!). Nearly every other country in the world that conducts such surveys charges royalties, usually through a government-owned agency or company. Large businesses exist solely to acquire and resell government data, because it is both technically and financially challenging. Only a few countries, like Brazil and New Zealand, have open data policies like the US.

For this reason, many people depend on OpenStreetMap-based topos outside of the US. The quality and density of OpenStreetMap data varies dramatically around the world. In Western Europe it is on par with the commercial map providers, and even better in some developing countries where commercial mapping providers are not willing to invest their resources.

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For example, in the UK, the Ordnance Survey surveys and licenses local maps.

OSM Topo Maps by Gaia GPS

This summer, I started a Gaia GPS effort to improve OSM topo maps. The biggest problem with all existing OSM topo maps for Gaia users, in the US, is metric contour lines. The US simply wants things in feet.

Our vector topo maps let people choose meters or feet for contour lines, combined with fresh OSM data. The topo lines are rendered from the highest quality digital elevation models I could find. These maps are currently in beta and are available to users of Gaia GPS 9.0 on iOS.

The Future of the Map

OpenStreetMap is going to rapidly overcome all commercial mapping efforts, through the combined march of technology and rapid growth of the OpenStreetMap community. In many places, OpenStreetMap has already won.

Everyone at Gaia GPS wants to usher in this future quickly, particularly for the outdoor side of OpenStreetMap. You can log on to http://www.openstreetmap.org now and start improving the map, and in the coming months we will be introducing new tools on gaiagps.com/map to use Gaia GPS data to edit OpenStreetMap. We will also continue to work on our vector topo map, now and for the for-seeable future.

It is in everyone’s best interest (except for a few big companies) if the canonical repository of geographic knowledge is not controlled by a private corporation, or even a nation state, but instead is open, and freely accessible to all. In 10 years, the OpenStreetMap community has built a high-quality street map, and I have no doubt that in another 10 years it will provide the best backcountry mapping data available.

Happy Birthday OSM!

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About Jesse Crocker

Jesse combines an equal love of the outdoors, snow, and computers. He developed large swaths of both the Gaia GPS apps, map servers, and infrastructure, and is a partner in the business. Jesse owns and operates an organic farm in Montana, where he lives with his family. He spends as much time as possible hiking and backcountry skiing. He has thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and speed-skied the John Muir Trail. Prior to joining Gaia GPS, Jesse worked as a ski patroller in the sierras, doing avalanche control. He also developed software and data to help conserve buffalo.