Map or App?

I’ll be honest – I can’t remember the last time I was out walking and opened a paper map.

Don’t get me wrong, I love maps and it’s probably true to say that there’s barely a day goes by that I don’t look at one, but it’s invariably a digital version either on the laptop at home, or on my mobile when I’m out.

If I’m on the laptop, the O.S. map is great for easily investigating routes and measuring distances. If I’m out, the availability of GPS on the mobile means that if I wish I can pinpoint exactly where I am, and get an accurate grid reference for my location.

Of course, I could do that with a paper map, but it would take longer, and why try and turn the clock back when the technology is there to be used?

But what if the phone battery dies, I hear you saying?

Maybe I’ve been lucky, or perhaps I’m just cautious, but I’ve never been let down yet. I always start the day with a fully charged phone, and I’ll often carry a spare charger with me (which I’ve been able to offer to other people for a quick boost more often than I’ve ever used it myself).

But map reading isn’t for everyone. A recent survey by the O.S. of 2,000 people as part of National Map Reading Week in July (no, I didn’t know there was such a thing either) revealed that 77% of respondents couldn’t recognise the most basic O.S. map symbols. Some 56% admitted they’d got lost because they couldn’t use a map or follow a phone app correctly, with 39% resorting to calling friends and family, 26% flagging down help, and 10% calling mountain rescue to get home. Even when they’re not actually getting lost, 31% said they were worried they might, and nearly half of all adults (46%) admitted that they were happier walking with someone else for that reason.

Considering how popular walking is, that’s potentially an awful lot of people getting lost.

So it would seem that I’m in the minority who can read a map, and although I like to use the technology, if that were to fail it wouldn’t faze me at all; I always carry a paper map with me and can happily switch to that.

If you’re studying for a Mountain Leader qualification, for instance, they still don’t allow digital technology, but surely it’s now time to move into the 21st century. I’m not saying that paper maps should be dispelled with – they’re obviously an essential back-up – but ignoring the technology that’s available seems a little luddite.

It reminds me of when calculators were first introduced into schools (decades ago now), and there was an outcry in some quarters, particularly from parents. Again, there was a place for teaching children to use them – after all, that’s what they’ll be using in the real world when they leave school – so long as they also know how to do basic calculations on paper or in their heads. Using a calculator isn’t cheating; it needs an understanding of number in the first place. Try giving a calculator to a year-6 child and asking them to do the calculation of £1 minus 37p, and you’ll see what I mean.

The same is true of digital maps. Anyone can load a map and get it to show them where they are, but using that information to navigate to a different location is a further essential skill.

In the words of the O.S. managing director: “We want to encourage people to better understand how good map skills, paper and digital, can inspire people to safely discover new places and adventures.”

“Paper AND digital,” he said.

To read more about the O.S. survey, as reported in The Guardian, follow this link.

By the way, a recent survey of Country Walking readers revealed that only 28% use paper maps. It would be interesting to ask the same question in five years’ time.

(See the page on the Snowdon walking app.)

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