The Beauty of Maps over GPS by Sam Manicom

Welcome to Thoughts from the Road. Here’s Sam Manicom’s take on the beauty of maps over GPS and what you’re missing…  

two wheels to beauty slovenia sam manicom
When you're travelling through places like this, do you even need to know where you're going?
Picture of By Sam Manicom

By Sam Manicom

Motorcycle tourer and traveller

Sam Manicom rode for 8 years around the world, exploring 6 continents. He is the author of 4 motorcycle travel books. All are available in Paperback direct from him, with free worldwide shipping from The Book Depository, and from Amazon. His books are also available as e-books and his first four books Into Africa, Under Asian Skies, Distant Suns and Tortillas to Totems are available for download as Audio Books.

Sam is also a contributor to and editor of a new book. ‘The Moment Collectors’ is a 5* rated celebration of long distance motorcycle travel, with chapters from 20 overlanding authors around the world.

Maps. Where the land comes alive before me.

When they were first becoming a thing I couldn’t help calculating the number of fuel miles I could ride for the cost of a GPS. I struggled with that. I could probably have ridden the length of Africa and back up. And anyway, maps are fantastic! Add a compass and why would I need anything else?

I also had a fear of GPS. No, not because I’m a bit of an idiot when tech is involved, but I was worried using one would make me lazy, and that’d mean I was missing opportunities. I ride for the joy of being on two wheels, and opportunities. Perversely, I like getting lost; it’s where the delights of so many unexpected adventures are.

Just 20 years ago many motorcycling cynics were saying GPS would never catch on. With a wry expression on my face as I write this, I have to admit that I was one of them. Were you too? Or did you speedily embrace all the possibilities and have ridden with one ever since? Have your maps been relegated to dusty back shelves or even worse, headed for the local charity shop?

I’m a total fan of maps. I love laying out the best quality editions I can get hold of and letting my dreams turn into possibilities. There before me are not only the potential routes to get from A to B, but give me a colour map with the altitudes shaded and it’s almost as if the land is coming alive before me on my living room floor. 

In advance I can see where river crossings are; bridges, ferries or fords. If I can find them, contour maps help me to plan time wise and for potential viewpoints. I can see the mix of ride possibilities from motorway to dirt track. Potentially interesting side turnings jump up off the paper at me. I can see where towns are and so potential fuel stops, food sources and a shower opportunity too. I can see the history of a land; how the likes of glaciers and earthquakes have formed where I’m going to be riding. 

I can see the curiosity places too. So often those stand out by their names. And what about heading for places with the weirdest names? Maps show you where those are. I have one mate who uses his maps to hunt out the rude place names and plans his routes via those!

A lot of the 22,000 miles I rode over the length of Africa, a 5,000 mile long continent, were lost miles. As in I didn’t have much of a clue where I was, but the sun was guiding me and so long as I knew roughly where I was on my map I was happy. Every hour of being lost was full of adventure. Having a 43 litre fuel tank helped with the peace of mind.

Do I use a GPS now? Too right I do and for many reasons. But I always reach for my maps first. They are also a trip down memory lane. Many of ours are a notepad of special places, great hotels, people met, spots where things were grim and so on. 

I mentioned the cynical side of my nature. It doesn’t like relying on a machine that can break down or be stolen. Does that make me sound like a control freak? I hope not. It’s just that there are opportunities and lost opportunities. And perhaps I prefer maps because I can travel without the pressure of a digital clock counting down each second of the day in front of me. When I have a deadline to meet though, that’s different.

Sam Manicom

Would you ride only with maps? Do you use both? Or have you learnt to use your GPS so well that you find maps superfluous weight and space takers? Let us know in the comments below. 

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16 thoughts on “The Beauty of Maps over GPS by Sam Manicom”

  1. Lovely article. Admittedly now I use a SatNav for ease of use, but growing up I would only ever use maps and I still carry them with me on tours. Sometimes I don’t even use them, but having them there is a great reference for ‘seeing the bigger picture’ and there’s nothing like spreading your map out over a table while having a coffee stop. Or maybe it’s just nostalgia, I don’t know!

  2. I use a combination if map Garmin software & Google maps with street view, there is always a map with me it doesn’t crash or run out of power. It’s good when you ask for directions most people can understand them

    • Nice one! That’s a great combo, but I agree about having a map to hand for the very reasons you say. Directions are so much easier when you and a stranger can both see the same map eh. Cheers.

  3. I’ve stated previously on many occasions my method of route planning. While I do carry an ‘analogue’ option, my adventures start many months before departure. Those “happy little accidents” for me are carefully crafted with a mixture of spotting an interesting road on Google maps and then using Streetview to confirm that the road is navigable. Streetview also helps me decide which road has the most interesting scenery. While this may seem artificial it is in no way a substitute or spoiler for the splendour of many of the vistas I have then discovered in all its 3D “through my own eyes” grandeur.

    To quote that little book I wrote:

    “When I had been planning the route, I had spotted a single track just beyond Saanen that took us through a wooded area and then over Alpine pastures. It was a bit of a gamble, but I thought it would be a good option to adventure away from the main roads.
    The turn-off for this road was a wickedly acute left turn and, having initially missed it, we did an about turn and picked up the start of the track.
    While by no means off-road, the single track was secluded enough to feel that way, and as we passed through the woodland it felt that we were off the beaten track and on a road rarely used, other than by the very occasional agricultural vehicle. The occasional pile of lumber by the side of the track was the only hint of any human activity.
    Emerging from the canopy of trees, the track then opened up to a lush, green valley, which was more recognisable as farmland pastures. In the distance, the vista was framed by snow-capped mountains and in this peaceful setting the only noise to be heard, once we had pulled to the side of the track and turned off our engines, was the bells of the grazing cows. The only other sign of life was a farm building perched on the side of the slope that ran to the valley below.
    These are the type of places that you hope to find. While this wasn’t an adventure across the wilds of an untamed landscape, it was nonetheless an adventure of discovery. In this case, our adventure motorcycles had led us along a small single track that someone travelling in a car would rarely consider finding. No doubt their focus would be on the destination and not the journey itself.”

  4. What a wonderfully detailed comment Martin. I enjoyed reading how you work, and also the excerpt you included! Nice one. Want to pop in the name of your book for folks to see?

  5. I agree 100% with your article Sam. Maps are almost like ( dare I say it) to me. I love them and get excited by the endless trip possibilities they reveal. A close friend was so worried about me darting off on solo, far flung, bike trips and getting lost, that she treated me to a sat nav. for a special birthday present. I only ever use it to find my way through a big city, or, to find a hotel, or friends place, in a big city. But, usually, I try to avoid such places anyway. No sat nav can better enable the type of route I enjoy riding, like a good quality, up to date, detailed, map! End of!

    • Kindred spirit Sue. Sat navs are amazing, and practical, but to us both methinks, maps are the full picture allowing curiosity full rein! PS Your fiend is amazing. What a great gift.

  6. I’ve just joined this excellent forum and just read your piece on maps vs satnav, Sam. I feel similarly, though I’ll admit that I am a technophobe and quite strongly dislike the idea of relying on something I know nothing about to tell me where I ought to go! I plot my routes looking at 1:200000 road atlas maps and scribble a list of place names on a bit of paper which goes in the magnetic map holder on my tank. I gave up bothering with road numbers years ago (this is France mainly, where road numbers seem extremely random and can change from one commune to the next).

    I have met some really lovely people when lost. In fact I’d go so far as to say that, with extremely rare exceptions, everyone I’ve asked for directions has turned out to be very kind and helpful, even if they didn’t appear to be so at first. I’ve been invited into complete stranger’s houses for a drink and something to eat, or led directly to a hotel I couldn’t find by fellow bikers who didn’t speak a word of English (and car drivers). Discovering the kindness of strangers is one of the joys of travelling abroad on a bike, and as you imply, using a satnav would render the need/opportunity redundant a lot of the time.

    Like you, I love maps for maps’ sake, though the tiny scale Michelin road maps I use don’t give any detail for minor roads, and completely omit numerous very small back roads. But as long as I know I’m at least heading in the right direction, it always (touch wood) works out in the end. Vive les cartes!

    • Hi John, you made me smile when you wrote about navigating France’s roads! They all lead to Paris eh and too right re the number juggles. Birgit and I have a laugh about it. Probably stems from rebellion agains the Romans! But seriously…

      I love how you describe meeting people by asking the way! So true. The more friendly communication between strangers the better methinks. So many opportunities to learn, smile and feel good about humanity pop up as a result.

      As you say, “Vive les cartes!”

  7. Hi Sam, my husband likes GPS and I (pillion) like maps, so we always have them, if for nothing else but to document where we have actually ridden!. We are growing a little pile of maps with sharpie lines and arrows all over them!

  8. Hi Sue, We do the same with ours. Highlight the routes we’ve ridden and mark the high points, points of interest etc with our sharpie. Brilliant to look back at them later. All those memories flood back don’t they. Happy onwards travels to you guys!!

  9. Love the article.
    Yes, i use the gps to find a restaurant, a hotel, but…riding, just with a map. I can see better the big picture and choose what adventure i prefer.
    Cheers from Portugal


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