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Column: The humble road map has advantages over GPS
Rudi Kiefer

Global Positioning Systems, also known as GPS, aren’t fail-safe. Mine demonstrated this some time ago by sending me in an endless loop around some major highway intersections in York, Pennsylvania. Halfway through the third go-around, I stopped and brought out the state road map. It had a special insert showing York in large scale. 

Maps printed on paper aren’t obsolete. They are experiencing less use thanks to GPS and online Google Maps, but for an accurate overview of the area they are hard to beat. While traveling outside of Georgia, I have a habit of stopping at the Welcome Center that’s found on most interstate highways shortly after each state line. There’s always an excellent free road map available, along with tips and discount coupons for lodging and activities in the state we just entered. 

Official maps are “oriented”. The term, meaning “east-bound,” originated from the earliest maps that showed east at the top, because that was believed to be the location of Paradise. From the 16th century onward, sailors used Polaris (the “North Star”) to find their way around, and maps now show north at the top. 

Another element is scale. “Large scale” means that “things look large.” To find your way around a city, you need to see roads and intersections clearly, and that means a scale of 1:24,000 or larger. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) publishes maps so accurate that they can serve as evidence in court cases. Their standard scale is 1:24,000. One inch on the map translates into 24,000 inches, or 2,000 feet, on the ground. More practical for navigation is a bar scale. It shows a line tick-marked with distances. That makes it easy to estimate on-ground miles. 

Many welcome centers have a display of the USGS so-called “topographic” maps. Their three-dimensional appearance comes from the fact that they show ground cover, contours and shading. Forest areas stand out much more clearly against urban, industrial or agricultural ones than they do on state road maps. Contour lines show the outlines of mountains and valleys. Shading illustrates the steepest slopes. Curiously, it looks most natural by throwing light from the north and showing shadows on southeast slopes. On satellite images, actual sunlight produces shadows on northwestern, northern or northeastern slopes. Nevertheless, official maps are a resource with much more detail than a GPS unit provides.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at