Digital disruption is the buzzword used to describe the impact information technology is having on many areas of human existence. While this is a concern when thinking about future job prospects in an increasingly automated system, there are also specific issues for those activities where a reliance on ‘analog’ systems is preferred, as in wilderness navigation.

In Wild 147, reader Dave Osborne submitted a letter lamenting the seemingly inevitable decline in paper map products and, in turn, their availability.

‘When we’re actually out on a walk, and even if we’re using GPS, there’s nothing yet to compete with opening up that printed map sheet to get a real feel for where we are in the broader landscape and so make us more truly aware of, and engaged with, our environment,’ Osborne wrote.

Other issues raised include the general fallibility of electronics, the need for regular recharging and the lack of fine-scale resolution in many areas. These issues were further highlighted when, in August this year, it came to our attention that Garmin’s topographic maps product is automatically generated, with many significant and potentially fatal errors pointed out by our readers.

In order to delve a little further into the future of cartography for adventure pursuits, we interviewed a few local cartographers to ask their expert opinion on the matter.

Hema Maps senior cartographer, Pierre Kurth largely concurs with Osborne’s description of the matter, but defends several benefits that digital mapping options offer above that of the traditional map, saying “digital maps have definitely lessened the gap left by print maps that are no longer available”.

“A geographic system (GIS) expert or cartographer’s ability to produce good digital mapping for larger areas is accelerating at a great rate,” Kurth said. “This means it’s becoming more feasible to create products that blanket an area, whereas prior to advances in digital technology it made more sense to produce highly targeted, printed maps for specific areas.”

Moreover, Kurth points out the ability for digital mapping solutions to automate large parts of navigation that were once a very manual process, like locating your position, tracking your route, knowing your bearing and measuring fine distances.

“If you have a mobile device and a good set of maps these days, there’s very little skill acquisition involved in using those tools to get out and explore,” he said, while also admitting this is an obvious double-edged sword in that the technology may break or run out of power and, in that case, the availability of a map and the skills to use it would be handy indeed.

On the other hand, the misgiving some people have regarding the need for mobile devices to be connected to a cellular network in order for their digital maps to work doesn’t need to be listed in the ‘against’ category for digital solutions. The fact is, a good mapping solution should have an ‘offline’ mode, where users download the data they require prior to departing for their journey.

“In reality, all you need are your device’s GPS receiver and an offline maps app. As long as the app or software you’re using gives you the ability to save maps to your device, you can head into the cellular wilderness without worrying about internet connectivity for your navigation needs,” explained Kurth.

Yet, despite the clear benefits that digital mapping solutions provide, contemporary adventurers and cartographers alike aren’t likely to describe the argument as an ‘either/or’ scenario. Instead, people should always try to carry multiple cartography options with them in the wilderness – as well as holding the knowledge to use them.

“Paper maps are a necessary backup if you’re travelling, though in all honesty there’s nothing quite like laying out a map on a table or a car bonnet to assess where your adventure will take you, or coming back home with a customised map full of hand-drawn notes,” said Kurth.

On this point, John Frith of Flat Earth Mapping agrees, while also underlining one key advantage that the fine-scale paper maps of yore will always have over a digital app on a mobile device.

“The advantages of paper maps over digital, besides not requiring power and not relying on software, is the ability to get an overview,” Frith said. “The more you zoom out on even a good-sized portable screen, the less detail you see and harder the map becomes to relate to.

“A large paper map on the other hand does not lose information as you unfold it. Spread the whole thing out and simply move your eyes around to get the big picture.”

All of that hinges on your ability to acquire a printed, topographical map for the region you’re visiting, but many of these products have fallen by the wayside (as Osborne made mention of in his letter). The reason for this, Frith explained to Wild, is more nuanced than you might expect, because even prior to the advent of digital products, print maps weren’t always profitable, or even viable.

“The costs of production (even before printing costs were factored in), for map titles that only sold in small numbers, this meant that many years might pass before the costs were recovered – if at all in the case of many topographic maps,” said Frith.

For a while, government-produced map series were made available to fill this shortfall, but the more inexpensive digital datasets have since overtaken their print counterparts.

Looking to the future, it seems there may be no simple solution for sourcing high-quality print options when it comes to cartography, yet it may be that new economic models, partnerships or even publicly funded opportunities can continue to provide an alternative to all-digital solutions.

But there’s another real benefit offered by digital technology that enhances what previously existed in more traditional options, and that is the ability to use GIS databases for gaming.

“Gamification is at the centre of real-world games like Pokémon Go and its predecessor Ingress, which both have a fascinating way of increasing engagement and incentivising action within the game,” Kurth said. “For Pokémon Go, that means getting people out and about catching new Pokémon and battling each other in real-world places.

“For Hema, this could mean rewarding users for traveling to new places, increasing their travel frequency, or something else that encourages adventure. If we could do that while connecting travelers to one another through that same platform, then that would seemingly be the right recipe for the current digital landscape.”

If that’s the case, rogaining and orienteering events may come to look very different in a few years’ time.