Harrison's mapmaking tells a story about the transformation from paper to digital: what's lost, what's gained, and what a map can tell us about ourselves.
Harrison's mapmaking tells a story about the transformation from paper to digital: what's lost, what's gained, and what a map can tell us about ourselves. (Photo: L&S Studios/Stocksy)

The Analog Mapmaker in the Digital Age

Tom Harrison makes painstaking, recreationist-friendly maps the old-school way. But it's not a lost art—in the enduring popularity of his products is a lesson on what makes the paper map special.

Harrison's map-making tells a story about the transformation from paper to digital: what’s lost, what’s gained, and what a map can tell us about ourselves.
Daniela Blei

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From his home in Marin County, about a half-hour drive north of San Francisco, Tom Harrison makes wilderness maps by hand. He’s been doing this for four decades.

His bestseller, a package of 13 maps covering the 211-mile John Muir Trail, which stretches from Mount Whitney to the Yosemite Valley, is known for its clear mile markers, crisp elevation lines, and appealing colors. Local search-and-rescue teams use them. Online reviewers are quick to note that these paper maps, for all their simplicity, are sturdier than a smartphone and don’t require batteries or recharging. Protected in plastic, they can be dropped in water, twisted, crushed, folded, rolled, or caked in mud.

Harrison and I chatted over coffee in San Rafael this July. When he mentioned that his printed maps outsell his digital versions at a rate of 50 to one, I thought I’d heard wrong. I wondered, Why would anyone prefer paper? It turns out, the arguments—practical and aesthetic—for choosing paper over digital maps remain compelling, even today.

Tom Harrison.
Tom Harrison. (Courtesy of Tom Harrison)

When we look at a paper map, Harrison told me, we see more of the surroundings and less of ourselves, whereas digital is the other way around. A digital map, downloaded onto a phone or found on an app, can be revised quickly and cheaply but eliminates the need to locate yourself in the landscape. The premise is that you are the center of everything; there is no map without you.

Perched at his desk in the glow of his MacBook Pro, frames of Lake Tahoe and Point Reyes National Seashore on the walls around him, Harrison engages in an ancient craft, but one that is constantly changing. He creates paper maps, which take about two years to complete, and high-tech digital versions downloaded by hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, and others heading into the California wilderness. Take a look around an REI or a fishing shop in California, and you’ll find maps bearing his name. 

Harrison is low-key and self-effacing—hardly given to bold claims about his work. But his mapmaking tells a story about the transformation from paper to digital: what’s lost, what’s gained, and what we’re really doing when we read a map.

It turns out, the old social practice of gathering around a map has not been lost.

Harrison became a California park ranger in 1975. He started out in the middle of San Francisco Bay on Angel Island, a woodland-covered mountain once known as the “Ellis Island of the West” because hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly Chinese, arrived there between 1910 and 1940 to be “processed” by U.S. authorities. In 1954, officials established the 740-acre Angel Island as a state park. Panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay, 13 miles of hiking trails, picnic areas, and beaches soon drew a steady stream of visitors. 

While stationed on the island, Harrison discovered a dearth of good maps. He found himself huddled alongside day trippers and campers in need of directions, deciphering poor and often inaccurate versions supplied by the park service. So Harrison took matters into his own hands. He knew the terrain well and had studied geography as an undergraduate before serving as an army infantryman in Vietnam. 

His first wilderness map was a hit: a full-color, shaded-relief guide to Angel Island, which, with help from his wife, took him a year to complete. Their first print run sold out in just a few weeks. Hikers began to inquire: How could they get their hands on similar high-quality maps of other Northern California trails? 

Harrison saw an opportunity and enrolled in a master’s program to burnish his cartographic skills. He ventured into the wilderness to the state’s iconic destinations—Yosemite, Mount Whitney, Mount Shasta, Death Valley—armed with a measuring wheel, pen, and paper. Today, maps are ubiquitous—most of us take them for granted—but Harrison plied his trade in an earlier era, when accurate, easy-to-read maps were a rarity. He gained a niche following, and distributors came calling. 

So much has changed since Harrison embarked on the unusual path of cartographer-entrepreneur. He can now draw on crowdsourced information, like mountain bikers who alert him to hazardous conditions or unforeseen obstacles—a large fallen tree or high stream crossing—and he may note these smaller changes on his digital maps. He uses open-source data to keep track of recent Forest Service efforts so he can reroute trails around meadows rather than through them. He can quickly and inexpensively revise his digital and print maps to account for shrinking glaciers and melting snowfields. 

Climate change is one reason why mapmakers are moving away from printed materials, which are costly to produce. But digital technology, for all its advantages, won’t guarantee that a map is visually understandable, attractive, or even informative. Open-source data lacks context and editing, Harrison told me. Try searching “Desolation Wilderness” on Google Maps, and you’ll find nothing but a large green blob. 

Harrison’s work shows that maps are more than just passive reflections of the physical landscape. Cartography seems like an objective science, but the underlying process is creative and highly subjective. Building a good map requires extensive research and editing, endless rounds of verification, and, in Harrison’s case, rendering older two-dimensional versions into three. He once relied on poring over old guidebooks, plus pounding the dirt and talking to backpackers and bikers, to confirm his findings. His research still takes him to parking lots to observe license plates so he can gauge who might be using his maps in each place—where visitors are coming from (local versus out of state) and how many there are. But now he checks his work against crowdsourced data and maps from federal agencies (USGS and NPS) that are created using geographic information systems (GIS) and satellite imagery.

For modern-day cartographers who have a world of information at their fingertips, the challenge is how to provide as much detail as possible without overcrowding the page. To achieve this balance, Harrison builds his maps in layers, placing high-priority features—trailheads, camps, distances between intersections—in the foreground, while contour lines and vegetation are relegated to the back. Consistency is important; since his earliest guide to Angel Island, Harrison has relied on the same visual signs and symbols in all his work. In this way, his maps, taken together, are a system for organizing and representing the natural world. 

There’s also something romantic about old-school navigation, according to fans of Harrison’s work. Finding your way through dense backcountry, map in hand, is a creative process; it means forming a three-dimensional picture in your mind. Simon Garfield, author of a cartographic history called On the Map, disparages digital as “the enemy of wonder.” Printed maps expand our horizons, not only because you’re relying on your spatial imagination to make sense of a two-dimensional picture, but also because paper offers a larger viewing window—more peaks and passes, rivers and streams—than a device that reveals only what’s directly in front of you.

And, of course, digital anything will never be able to replace the printed map as a physical work of art. We hold onto them, display them in our homes and public buildings, and encounter them in the books we love. A map is “the magic of anticipation,” wrote Rosita Forbes, an early 20th-century British explorer. The printed map, holding the promise of what’s to come, is more journey and less destination. Whether so many hikers will continue to value paper over digital to find their way in nature—literally and figuratively—remains to be seen. For now, there are still plenty of good maps to linger over and wonder at.

Lead Photo: L&S Studios/Stocksy