Map Reading is a Dying Art

In a little over a week we’ll start our annual drive down to Florida for the holidays. This will be our fifth year driving to Florida, and I look forward to it every year. Around this time, I pull out a roadmap and study it to familiarize myself with the places we will pass through or around. For the last two years, I have used my Essential Geography of the United States of America map for this purpose.

As I pour over the map, I always think the same thing: wouldn’t it be nice if this year, instead of depending upon the GPS, I brought along a good set of roadmaps, and made the drive using good old-fashioned pilotage? As soon as I think of it, I am swept up by the romance of the idea—but it never happens. The technology contained in our car and our phones makes it too easy to farm out the navigation to the computers.

The GPS in our car, today, makes navigation effortless. We don’t even have to push any buttons. We can speak to it. It not only gives us route information, and tells us when we need to change course, but it incorporates realtime traffic into the mix, will route us around delays, will give us updates on our estimated time of arrival. The GPS will even tell us where gas stations and restaurants are located and direct us to them. And, of course, if we get lost, or detour, the GPS will route us back on course.

Modern navigation systems in our cars have the advantage of freeing up a portion of our mind when we drive. Still, I miss the romance of road maps. I remember driving from New York to Maine for the first time, many years ago. My grandfather was going with me. I bought a map of New England from a gas station, and spent the evening carefully plotting our course. I calculated our travel time, factoring in stops, and came up with an estimated time of arrival. It took me more than an hour. But, it turned out, we arrived within 10 minutes of my estimate.

GPS limits your field of vision on the map. You can’t see beyond the edge of the screen, and so you might not know that there are interesting places to visit beyond those borders. What’s worse is the technology has dumbed down my knowledge of the area I live in. I don’t take spontaneous shortcuts the way I used to because I’m not familiar with the roads. I don’t study maps because the GPS handle that for me.

The thrill to pilotage is the achievement of using a map to get you to where you are going. But it is a lost art. And as cars get smarter, I imagine that piloting will become as lost an art as pilotage.


  1. GPS is non-negotiable for me when I’m travelling. The last thing I want is to lose our way with two cranky kids in the back of the car and my wife’s “I told you to ask directions/turn left/use the GPS”. Besides, we all get terribly car sick reading things like maps in the car so GPS is just better for us all around.

  2. I moved to a new town in August and, because I use the GPS to get just about anywhere, I feel like I’ve barely gotten a grasp of the local geography. It’s like I have no idea how some of the major roads even relate to each other.

  3. We moved to our new city about two years ago and I had almost no sense of what was where for months. I use public transport here and taking buses around has been a great way to piece it all together and get a better sense of the lay of the land, literally.

    I suppose if you just look at your GPS while you are navigating, you miss the scenery around you. I think the same thing applies to maps, though. Both GPS and maps will show you a bigger picture and point the way but appreciating more of your surrounds mostly comes down to looking around as you travel (once you have a sense of where you need to go).


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