Map Apps: Where Do We Draw the Line on Ease of Information?

Looking beyond cartography and changing what “mapping” means

words :: Nikkey Dawn

It’s a wild, wide world out there and trip planning is personal. Some take great pleasure in the hunt-and-gather of information—running a finger along the shelf for just the right guidebook, digging out and unfolding a weathered map, and calling up friends to find out who’s got a line on current conditions. There are some who purposely avoid too much research in order to preserve a sense of adventure. Others want the most information possible delivered in the most convenient form—for that, of course, we turn to our phones. 

“Mountain landscapes are fluid places. Avalanche terrain, crevasses, river crossings or rapids may not appear as you expect. While we integrate new technology into our outdoor experiences, it’s important we don’t lose foundational skills and critical thinking.” 

Map apps have developed rapidly over the last few years. FATMAP founder, Misha Gopaul, was training in Chamonix as a mountain guide when he observed a disconnect. “I noticed that in our urban lives, digital maps have become the search engine and information source for the physical world wherever we go—but in the outdoors, everything is still very localized and you end up piecing together information from lots of different places.” 

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Gopaul would go on to create a map app with hopes of redefining what “mapping” our adventures means. FATMAP wants to “map the world’s wild places” and allow users the ability to look for first ascents (or descents) in zones they’ve never visited, or simply discover a trail in their own backyards. Apps like FATMAP aim to blend digital cartography with community building and providing information such as real-time conditions to help people make good decisions. 

But in this new age of information and discovery, can access to copious amounts of data turn self-discovery into delusions of preparedness and ability?

Map apps are undeniably intuitive and useful—but is that always a good thing? Photo :: Mirae Campbell

Whistler Search and Rescue Society member, Joel Sweet, uses map apps and sees their value as a tool but cautions, “as great as these apps are, they should never replace proper trip and navigation planning or packing essentials like a map and compass.” To rely solely on your phone—which can run out of battery, get smashed or lose data coverage—is not a wise move. 

Sweet also points out that satellite imagery used by some map apps can be outdated. “Mountain landscapes are fluid places. Avalanche terrain, crevasses, river crossings or rapids may not appear as you expect. While we integrate new technology into our outdoor experiences, it’s important we don’t lose foundational skills and critical thinking.” 

For Gopaul, safety has always motivated the app’s development. He sees FATMAP as an opportunity to help people share and access better information—and ultimately make it easier and safer to explore the world. It’s up to us users to remain present in the face of potential hazards, but as our lives become more intertwined with tech, is that presence itself at risk? Whether scrawled on a bar napkin or downloaded to a smartphone, maps help us make sense of the world—a world that is changing rapidly. “Maps are answers to questions,” Gopaul says.

I guess it depends on what, and how much, we want to ask. —ML



4 thoughts on “Map Apps: Where Do We Draw the Line on Ease of Information?

  1. Navigation apps are fabulous tools. As mentioned in the article, they should be used in addition to a paper map and compass. That fundamental knowledge, of how to read a map, is also required when using navigation apps. I am a member of Lions Bay Search and Rescue, and our team has rescued hikers who followed an apparent trail into dangerous terrain. By not being able to properly read the map, the subjects didn’t realize that what they thought was a trail, was actually a full-on climbing route requiring climbing skills, and gear. Our team has had to rescue two parties from the same route. When we contacted the app developer about the mis-labelled trail, we were told that the developer doesn’t generate the information, and isn’t responsible for the content.
    As a SAR team, we may refer to some of the apps, like Fatmap, but don’t count on them for accurate information. For that, we use a combination of Avenza, which allows us to upload a map for offline use, and Caltopo. In Caltopo we can create a custom map, with up to date information, which we know is accurate. However, none of our teams go into the field without a paper map, compass, and skills to use them.

  2. Hi Christopher,

    thanks for your comment and thanks for previously getting in touch with our customer support team back in November about this.

    The specific case you reported to us is actually not a “route” in FATMAP but trail reference data on the underlying map from open source data in Open Street Map (OSM). The existence of this trail is shown on most other maps too. They are shown as dashed-grey lines representing the existence of an underlying path and show no information on them other than a name. Some times more technical routes get entered in to the Open Street Map data and these will appear on our map.

    Of course, we understand that some users might see the dashed-grey lines and not understand the difference. We are working to make this clearer. Obviously the existence of a trail doesn’t mean it’s safe, in condition or within a person’s given ability. These are decisions people need to make themselves and we are always careful to make no representation here.

    Actual routes on FATMAP are indicated with bold colourful lines – hiking are green, skiing are blue, mountaineering are pink etc. You can search for these routes, filter the map with them and select them by clicking or tapping on them and it will give you all the information about that route, including photos, difficulty, description, etc.

    Routes on FATMAP include both community content and content written by experts and qualified guides. The content written by experts is is curated and moderated by our team and we label these as “FATMAP Select” so people can easily find the best quality content.

    We would love to work with you to add an accurate route to this particular trail that specifically indicates it as climbing not hiking and gives the difficulty rating, plus any other information that is important. By doing this, anyone that sees the route on FATMAP will be better informed on the type of route and less likely to get into trouble. We’ll follow up to our previous conversation via the Support channel and reach out to you on there.

    More generally safety is a topic we take extremely seriously. We are just one stakeholder in the wider community and we want to play responsibly. As the article explains, our hope is that by providing better tools and information we are enabling others to make more informed decisions for themselves. Just like with Avenza and Caltopo, you can also download offline maps and save routes privately on FATMAP, though we totally agree that any digital tool is not a panacea and checking other sources of information is an important part of the planning process as well as having backups like a physcial map and compass.

    Sorry for the lengthy reply but we wanted to try and be clear on the issue and where we stand. We very much welcome discussion and further input from you and others on how we can be a positive contributor on our industry, activities and the environment.

    Misha Gopaul, FATMAP Founder and CEO

    1. I apologize, it seems as though the main point that I was trying to make was not clear. I am not singling out Fatmap, or any other navigation tool. I am saying that the essential ability to read a map is required whether you are using a paper map, or a digital one. Both parties that we rescued from an alpine climbing route would have known that the terrain they were venturing onto was beyond their abilities, if they had been able to read the topographic lines found on most hiking maps.
      When it comes to the accuracy of the content on any app, it is my personal opinion, that any information that is user generated should be regarded with some scepticism. Similarly to the way restaurant reviews from the general public can be very subjective, susceptible to bias, and inaccurate. What is an easy scramble to one person, could be a terrifying experience for another.
      The responsibility to be safe in the backcountry lies with the individual, who has the opportunity to make a series of good decisions, to ensure a safe experience. Those decisions need to be made based on a variety of sources and skills, which may include the use of a navigation app. The responsibility of app developers, in my opinion, should be to provide accurate information, to the very best of their ability, and understand how users are using their tool. Building a platform, and then saying that the developer is not responsible for the content, or how it is used, is the argument that Facebook has made regarding the dissemination of news influencing election outcomes.
      I appreciate that Fatmap, in particular, is trying to make the information presented clearer, however, at the moment, it is not clear. Major, popular trails, that see heavy traffic in our area of Lions Bay, are represented exactly the same way as the mountaineering/climbing route on which we have had to perform two rescues. Gaia has removed the trail/route completely, Alltrails has it named and shows it as a hiking trail, and Caltopo has it named and labelled as a climbing route, when zoomed in.
      Ultimately, I believe our goal is the same, to make people safer in the backcountry. As Fatmap says on their website “we’re creating the definitive guidebook to the outdoors. And by providing the best outdoor map and access to everything you need in one place, we’re making it much easier to plan and navigate safely.” I applaud the sentiment, but, it must be accurate. We, SAR members, are the ones who get called out in the middle of the night to go and rescue a stranded party. We are all volunteers, who willingly donate our time to help people in need. People get into trouble in the mountains for a whole lot of different reasons, and we are constantly trying to educate people in how they can make good decisions. Understanding that navigation apps have limitations, is an important part of that education.

  3. Hi Christopher,

    Thanks again for following up on this and keeping the discussion going.

    It sounds like we are very much on the same page here. When you say, “The responsibility to be safe in the backcountry lies with the individual, who has the opportunity to make a series of good decisions, to ensure a safe experience. Those decisions need to be made based on a variety of sources and skills, which may include the use of a navigation app.” we couldn’t agree more.

    As we explained, this particular trail is reference data from OSM (Open Street Map) that we are unable to edit or remove manually, but based on your feedback we have reached out and reported this to OSM suggesting it be removed.

    We built FATMAP as a tool to help people more easily understand the terrain and make better decisions. We have a range of terrain overlays that are free to use, including our gradient layer. Users looking at the terrain when planning this route will see it to be a steep rock face of over 45 degrees.

    Even without these tools, anyone approaching the route would likely see it is clearly a steep route that is much more than a regular hiking trail. As you say, we hope that people will make decisions about where and how they travel in the back country based on more information than just a basic nameless trail marked on our app. Though we very much take on board your feedback and we’ll look at how we can go further to make the information we have in the app even clearer and re-enforce the principle.

    In the meantime as an immediate action we have added a climbing route on top of this reference data so that anyone that is using FATMAP will be able to click on this and see that it is not a hiking a trail. You can see this here ( with the relevant difficulty rating, photos and a description.

    Our North American Community Manager, Emily Berkel, will also drop you a note directly via email. We work closely with SAR teams around the world and she can explain more about our free pro-access membership for professional users. Let us know if there is a better email address to use as we didn’t manage to reach you on email via our support channels when we tried before. We’d welcome the opportunity to keep the communication channel open and listen to your feedback to help shape our product for the better.

    Thanks again

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