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Paper maps aren’t dead, but this digital map app is an innovation for off-road explorers

Since the dawn of human history, explorers and travelers have been trying to understand the world around us, navigate by stars, landmarks and, finally, roads. The earliest maps were created around 600 BC in Babylon as crude scratches on clay tablets. The Greek scholar Ptolemy is often credited with learning cartography, or the study and practice of making maps.

Digital mapping company onX goes a step further by combining satellite map images with 3D topography lines and information about public and private land boundaries. By providing a variety of data to those most interested in hunting, fishing and off-roading, this app encourages safe exploration and helps avoid trespassing on clearly marked private lands.

“The people who make maps are historians,” says Molly Stoecklein, senior communications manager at onX. “Maps tell a story, and creating them in a way that everyone can understand comes with a lot of responsibility.”

OnX takes this to heart.

Are paper maps dead?

As a child, I traced a route on my parents’ Rand McNally road map with my finger, following it to best understand where I was in this great big world. Nowadays, most of us are used to working with Apple Maps, Waze, and Google Maps, to name just a few navigation apps.

Unlike paper maps, modern online maps allow you to zoom in and out and pan. OnX creates its own content and divides it into different tiles depending on the zoom level. The mapping team then decides what content to display and how to visualize it at each zoom level. For example, at low magnification you can see the outline of a state line, high-level topography (e.g., mountains, rivers, lakes), and popular outdoor locations. Zooming in reveals more detail as trails appear, as well as land ownership boundaries and recreational points of interest. Mapbox is an independent company that creates the core “map viewer” technology that onX uses to display these tiles and their designs in 2D and 3D.

hand holding smartphone with open application, other hand pointing to paper map on car passenger's lap
Paper maps are not dead just because they exist in digital form, say onX representatives. The app helps to give the terrain a different angle. Photo: Garth Milan Photography/onX Offroad

A map is only as good as the data it is based on, explains Stoeklein. Most navigation applications available on the market use “off-the-shelf” data sources, he says, and these are “one-stop-shop” sources such as Open Street Maps (OSM). However, these apps do not modify or change any information. Instead, onX includes thousands of other sources, such as local city geographic information system data, Forest Service data, and more.

“No data set is too small,” says Stoeklein. “We compare this data and select the most accurate and up-to-date elements from each of them. For example, trail data in OSM may be geospatially different from the same trail in Forest Service data.

OnX staff compares these various sources and uses human input through the QA team to gather more information, then selects the path that most closely reflects what an application user would see in the field.

“Some people see this app and say map printing is dead, and I say no,” says April Leone, an engineer at onX and a frequent off-roader. “I think it’s a good way to supplement them with real-time information and data.”

Leone is a repeat competitor in the Rebelle Rally, an eight-day, 2,500-mile off-road competition for women. As we chased previous pre-rally checkpoints in the Mojave Desert, using the onX routes for training, the intersection of paper and digital data and how they complement each other was clear. During the rally itself, it is forbidden to use any devices equipped with GPS, while during our training sessions we run using the onX application on illuminated routes and climbs to hills that I had not thought about before.

A two-finger swipe down turns a flat digital map into a 3D view that helps you better understand the terrain. The paper topographic map translated into a larger area. Together we had a panoramic view of the public areas.

The dichotomy of exploration and protection of natural resources

OnX allows adventurers to explore far and wide, often further than before the app existed. Some caution is warranted when digitizing map technology as environmental advocates raise concerns about wildlife and the fragile desert environment. For example, Utah’s biological soil crust is a critical part of the ecosystem for plants and animals and cannot be easily replaced. Staying on established routes is crucial to off-road survival, as well as the sport of off-road riding.

two people in a car using an application on a smartphone
Founded in 2009, onX develops digital maps for people who practice hunting, fishing and off-road driving. Photo: Garth Milan Photography/onX Offroad

The vast majority of dedicated off-road enthusiasts are aware of and follow the guidelines set forth by TreadLightly!, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ethics in the field. The organization’s goal is to “balance the adventure needs of off-road and off-road vehicle users with the need to protect the places where they drive and explore.” In that spirit, hundreds of proven onX trail guides have completed TreadLightly! training before they can contribute.

After entering the system, contracted onX trail guides record their routes, take photos and describe the surface in comprehensive, easy-to-read text. Routes presented in the form of lines, dots and shapes are checked and supervised by the company. Behind the scenes, the onX cartographer team has already done the groundwork to create an artistic representation of the map in a way that off-road enthusiasts can understand.

“There’s a lot of information on the map, and we need to figure out how to simplify it,” Stoecklein says.

Technically, the app works worldwide, Stoecklein says, explaining that some users have used it in Iceland, Thailand and parts of South America and Africa. After all, satellite imagery and GPS location are already built-in. However, onX basemaps (higher resolution topographic, 3D and aerial photos) and content (trail data, etc.) are currently only available in North America, primarily the US, Canada and Baja.

So buckle up, choose your route and explore.