By on October 9, 2012

With fall foliage peaking, it’s time for my third annual Appalachian Road Trip. Last year my friend and his father couldn’t make it, so it was just the old man and me. With fewer time constraints, I planned a route from West Virginia to “The Dragon” and back. Lessons were learned, among them the insanity of planning 360 miles of back roads driving in a day that also includes a few hours of hiking (my new max: 250) and, the subject of this piece, the inability of navigation systems to replace good old paper maps.

To give credit where it’s due, navigation systems can be extremely helpful when pushing a car hard along an unfamiliar twisty byway. Zoom way in, and you can tell a lot about that approaching curve (especially if a navigator calls out key info while you keep your eyes on the road).

Does it wind through 60 degrees, or 160? How tightly is it wound? Does another curve closely follow it? With these questions answered, the 318 curves in Tail of the Dragon pose little risk, even at night. (You ride The Dragon at night when things don’t go quite as planned.) Without these questions answered, bad stuff can happen.

That incident in mind, and in a new(er) RX-8 we wanted to keep on the road, the old man picked up a TomTom on the way out of town.

Like pretty much any other nav system, the TomTom would have done a fine job getting us to our destination if we simply wanted to drive as little as possible. But for driving enthusiasts, the trip is at least as important as the destination. You can’t instruct the TomTom to maximize the number of curves or the beauty of the scenery. Using Google Maps, I scouted out the twistiest roads connecting Lewisburg, WV, to Asheville, NC (a waypoint coming and going).

Some navigation systems can download a Google Maps route. But where’s the adventure in that? Lewis and Clark didn’t have a machine telling them when to turn. (They did it the old-fashioned way: they had a woman telling them when to turn.)

Well-travelled roads tend to be well-marked. The back roads in northwestern North Carolina are neither. When there is a sign at all, it might have a number when you’re looking for a name, or vice-versa. We got lost in this area on the way down, AND again on the way back. This wasn’t entirely a bad thing, as those roads have more curves than straights, and the views are outstanding.

But when you’ve covered the same stretch of road three times in an hour, that’s enough. Help is needed. But not too much help. All I really want to know is where each road goes when I arrive at an intersection. But minor roads only show up on current navigation systems when you zoom in so far that you can only see a mile (at most) down them. Which you can pretty much do without the nav system. I’d LOVE an option to display minor roads even when zoomed out. This wouldn’t be viable in urban areas, given the density of the grid, but in the MOFN it’s a different story.

We eventually threw in the towel and programmed the nav to take us to the next town along our route, Marion. The TomTom took us in the opposite direction than that suggested by my gut, retracing the route we’d just driven. Having surrendered to the machine, only after 20 minutes did I firmly conclude that something wasn’t right. Guess what? There’s a Marion in North Carolina as well as one in Virgina—and when programming the nav I hadn’t specified the state. We ended up retracing our route yet another time. If there weren’t ruts in those roads when we arrived, there were by the time we left.

Did I mention that many of these roads were gravel? Any decent paper map codes roads based on type: red lines, double red lines, blue lines, gray lines, dotted gray lines, and so forth. You can tell if the road spans two lanes or more, and whether it’s paved, well-graded gravel, or best traversed by truck. Neither Google Maps nor any nav system I’ve encountered conveys this information. Outside metro areas and off the highway, even roads that start out paved can turn to gravel—or worse—at any time.

And often do. On the single-lane dirt road we took to The Dragon (Parson Branch, not the conventional approach), we had to wait about ten minutes while a pickup repeatedly attempted to ascend an all-chewed-up hill. Luckily, as sports cars go the RX-8 has a compliant suspension and decent ground clearance. Plus one thing that pickup didn’t have: 50-50 weight distribution. Once our turn finally came, we summited on the first attempt. I don’t think our heads hit the headliner more than three times, and both car and occupants survived the experience without permanent damage. A few inches of water flowing over the road? Also not a problem.

Good thing, as there’s no turning around on Parson Branch. It’s not only one lane, it’s also one-way. Once you begin it, you must finish it! The Mazda RX-8, already the go-to car for a trip like this one due to its combination of visibility, agility, balance, composure, predictability, feedback, ride quality, space for your stuff, and disposability affordability, is now officially Parson Branch-Rated(TM). How many Porsche sports cars can make the same claim?

Once back on a (relatively) well-traveled mountain road, there’s a different class of hazard. Not everyone’s driving as if the curves have been provided for entertainment purposes, and the passing zones are few and brief. Blink (or get distracted by the scenery), and you miss your shot. To avoid riding that Geo Metro’s bumper mile after mile, right foot poised on the trigger, waiting for a break in the double yellow, it would aid both enjoyment and safety to know the distance to the next passing zone.

Bonus points if the nav system could also report the distance to the passing zone after that one. No need to take even a slight risk if there will be another opportunity soon. Road signs for rest stops frequently include the distance to the next rest stop. Next passing zone info would also help prevent soiled drawers.

So, if the nav system genie is reading this, you have my three wishes: an option to view minor roads even when zoomed out, information on road size and surface composition, and the distance to the next passing zone. Until at least the first two arrive (there is no current source of the third), a detailed dead tree map is a must-have for back roads adventuring. This week I’ll do what I should have done two years ago, and hunt one down.

Michael Karesh operates, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

43 Comments on “Dead Tree Maps Aren’t Dead Yet...”

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I believe the Garmin that I have zooms in or out based on vehicle speed.

    But that doesn’t solve the basic problem with 21st century non-paper maps: the fact that you can’t spread out a 2′ x 2′ viewing area in front of you and then plot where you’re going to go and how you’re going to get there.

    In the summer of 1971 I toured much of England on a bicycle. One of the great aids that I had were 3 miles to the inch paper maps that one could buy, showing every country lane and cow path. So, you could plan your course avoiding busy roads to maximum extent possible.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Nav systems work well enough for getting you from A to B, which is all they’re intended for. Road exploring is a whole different topic, and even paper maps are somewhat limited in their usefulness. Different mapmakers aren’t consistent about their conventions for road width and surface, and almost none will show terrain in any detail. Satellite views can help, but even then it’s a guessing game more often than not. Passing zones are dependent on all kinds of factors that aren’t easily mapped, even the whims of the local highway department. Ultimately, you just have to go out there and ride around for a while, and get a feel for the areas you drive in.

    • 0 avatar

      A map on the navigator’s lap is invaluable. On one cross country drive we found the NORAD museum in Nebraska (or a Dakota it was a long drive) Who would have thought a world class air collection in the middle of nowhere ?

      We also saw “future birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk”. Either a trap for those who would violate copyright or a bored mapmaker seeing if anyone was watching, but we laughed for a good 100 miles.

      I use a nav every day for work, but when you go on vacation, the paper map is a boon.

      • 0 avatar

        “future birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk”

        Now THAT’S hilarious! Now I need to go there if I’m ever out that way, fan of the original series that I am…

      • 0 avatar

        Are you talking about the Strategic Air and SPace Museum halfway between Lincoln and Omaha? If so, they moved it out there because they ran out of space at Offutt AFB in the ‘burbs of Omaha. Home of the Strategic Air Command, now Strategic COmmand (the command center for all nuclear assets) so it actually makes a lot of sense for it to be there.

        /used to live in Omaha
        //The only curves in the state are on I-80’s offramps!

  • avatar

    For many places worth riding (and by extension, spirited driving), there are Butler Motorcycle Maps.

    I HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend these. I keep the one for Texas Hill Country in my saddlebag at all times. They color-code routes according to how subjectively thrilling they are, they’re waterproof, and have lots of great additional information.


    It’s mostly a western thing, but they’re slowly moving east (they just added an Ozarks map)

  • avatar

    GPS for free on your smart phone or tablet by Waze. I’ve been using Waze since summer as it’s a driver generated live map where you can report road condidtions(police, broken down or wrecked cars in this case) and commuicate with others in your area.

    It’s great for getting around stopped traffic as there is usually someone local given directions with other stuck in traffic given reports of life flight and the wrecker removing the wrecked car.

  • avatar

    I live in Central WV. If you get the chance, take a ride on WV State Route 15. It connects I-79 to WV 219 and is an absolute blast in my GTI. Then you can hit 219 south and stop at Snowshoe Resort for some drinks.

  • avatar

    You can do what I’m doing: Find your route first, then create a trip in the Garmin and set up waypoints along the route that force it to take you the way you want it to.

  • avatar

    I did a rally a few weeks ago that was a shortest distance one. There were two classes GPS and non GPS.

    I did the non GPS and we planned it with paper maps, we were the 2nd ones there, and came in far ahead of the GPS group and placed 3rd in the whole event. The spread of the non-gps group was about 4 miles distance, and the non-GPS cars were about 40 miles behind.

    Give me a good paper map and I’ll plot out a good route, I just use GPS to either look at traffic, or just to keep a running tally of ETA.

  • avatar

    For those of that go where there are no “roads” (IE: boating/fishing) Google Map’s satellite view is awesome. I’ve found plenty of creeks, bays and unmapped, hidden spots this way. You can string together several GPS points to create a route and navigate point-to-point this way. The problem is trees: when they get big enough they can complete obscure the small creek (or road) hidden below. As you found: if a road is unmarked there is a reason – its not much of road at all and more like a path of gravel more suited to an ATV then a car… especially a sports car.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, the problem I’ve had is the opposite one–Google Maps doesn’t distinguish between paved and unpaved roads. The barely passable ones are marked just like major highways (though you do have to zoom in farther to see the markings).

  • avatar

    The Dragon is the #1 thing I really regret never doing in the 2 years I had the RX8. :(

  • avatar

    I’ve been preaching paper maps over nav for a long time. Nav is useful in the DC area to figure out traffic (although in the end, there are so few alternate routes all it does is either aggravate me or cause me to stay at work longer). Waze is a great tool; my two main gripes with it are that it is impossible to use when driving (maybe when I get a good mount for my phone so it is eye level but even then I don’t like looking at the phone when in motion – set and forget) and it eats up data and battery. Also great for traffic is the Inrix app (they supply traffic data) – the free one has great graphics and the paid one does nav and other features.

    I still have a pile of paper maps in my car – although I admit for urban driving, I use google maps most frequently (from the computer).

    Y’all will have a great time on the drive. Wish I could join you. Look forward to reading about it.

  • avatar

    Back when I was a team leader at Fort Drum I caught one of my Privates using a Garmin on the land navigation course (gave the 10 digit grid). He attempted to defend it saying that in combat he’d have a GPS and wouldn’t need a map. I took his batteries and his map and told him to continue on and I’d see him and his partner back at the Company when he was done and if he didn’t find all the points he could come back on Saturday.

    It was my experience in Baghdad also that GPS doesn’t work worth a damn in a sandstorm. I like GPS too and don’t often use a map anymore, but knowing how to use and read one is an invaluable skill.

  • avatar

    There is no question that a good paper map is a good backup for a GPS. Our GPS routed us through an Indian reservation in New Mexico and I thought the road was going to disappear into a cow track before we reached civilization again. I would never have taken that route based on a paper map.

    But as to this particular trip, I don’t have any sympathy for your problems regarding how fast to take a curve. Taking curves at high speed is what you do on a race track. Driving responsibily (for yourself, your passengers and the other drivers) is what you do on a public road. Especially — especially!! — if you plan on experiencing any of the scenery visually, as opposed to kinetically.

    • 0 avatar

      The speeds we’re traveling aren’t near track speeds, and the car is generally well within its limits. I’ve reviewed over 600 cars since 1999. My last accident, which occurred at the insane speed of 5 MPH, occurred back in 1997. (Unless we count the mailbox I scraped in reverse last year–it jumped into my blind spot.) With good information on the upcoming road, I can both drive a little faster AND drive more safely.

      With the incident two years ago, no speed was posted for the curve, and my father badly misread how severe it was. He won’t be making the same mistake again.

      • 0 avatar

        I would not be to worried about such comments. Real reckless driving is not your thing. But some can’t appreciate what it is like to enjoy a curve, and you can do so safely and responsibly. And when a curve is signed for 15 and you can easily do so at 30, or even 40, all that is accomplished is to encourage folks to ignore the posted speeds because they are so unrealistic.

      • 0 avatar

        Different states also have different standards. A curve that Virginia will mark 15 West Virginia will mark for 25, owing to the differing familiarity of each state’s residents with curvy roads. I wouldn’t recommend doubling the recommended speed in West Virginia, they already assume you know what you’re doing (but not that you have the best car or tires).

    • 0 avatar

      Sometimes that high speed curve is at a 40mph clip, like the one that got me all mixed up and put me into a ditch. On a 55mph road that winds much like a short version of the Dragon.

  • avatar

    Michael, I’m not dissing your driving skills, but really they are irrelevant. I think you know what I’m talking about – there are times when it’s almost impossible to drive on certain mountain roads in NW Ga without having boy racers just abour ram their front wheels under your bumper. I can appreciate the feel of a good curve taken well, and I am just as irritated by the dufus who putts along at a good walking pace while leading a parade of cars, but still … that you keep a car within its limits on a public road is not really a justification. I once hit a cat while rounding a curve, and, as I tell my wife (a cat lover) there was absolutely nothing I could have done without risking real problems for myself. And I was just a little over the limit. Once you’re committed, unless you leave some leeway, sometimes there is no out.

  • avatar

    It would interesting having all the things you say you want, but I guarantee that once you have them, driving will be less fun. Don’t discount the value of not knowing everything about where you are and where you are going.

    To contradict myself, I enjoy the DeLorme state atlases. Each atlas devotes to a single state what an ordinary road atlas devotes to the whole country. For my area, they literally have every road. You will still be on your own figuring out which ones are paved with gravel. All my cars have been equipped with a gravel detector, so I am fine. It makes a rhythmic thudding sound whenever gravel is near, and if I ignore the first warning, it sends out a cloud of smoke-like material to warn the people behind me.

    • 0 avatar

      I was thinking about buying the DeLorme, but they don’t indicate road surface type? I was sure they would.

      Gravel isn’t so much an issue when it’s there from the start. The problem is once you’ve committed to a route, and are 10-20 miles in, when the pavement ends. The question then is whether to keep going or turn around and add another 20-40 miles.

      • 0 avatar

        Many of the Delorme atlases have road surface info. Some of the state atlases have been redone more recently than others, and the newer ones are way better. Only get the ones with large serif fonts for town names, those are the new kind. I just bought the Maine one for a recent trip and the level of detail was stupefying.

        As a side note, if you’re driving in Southern Maine, the Delorme store in Yarmouth (right off the highway) was kind of fun (they have a huge rotating globe that the kids liked).

        Some state highway departments (such as Kansas) have extremely detailed maps you can download for free from the web.

      • 0 avatar

        West Virginia does have state maps that are highly detailed, but hard to read. If I was ambitious I could download all of the relevant pages (two to five per county) and print them out.

      • 0 avatar

        What you probably want is the Delorme state atlas & gazetteer maps. With those you get data on road types and also elevation info.

  • avatar

    Nice Sacagawea reference!

  • avatar

    My ancient Garmin c340 has an “avoid unpaved roads” option which I keep permanently selected.

  • avatar

    This reminds me of the time I was trying to get a carload of carsick girlscouts to Little Switzerland in western NC from my home in Greenville SC on a morning so foggy I had to lower the windows to help navigate by sound – an old WV trick so as not to be killed by a coal/lumber truck or drunk hillbilly. The GPS was some help as I could not see any signs due to the fog. Unfortunately GPS cannot always hone in enough when there are multiple intersections really close to each other. We somehow got on the Blueridge Parkway and Lola (my name for my Garmin) kept trying to have me turn onto roads we were crossing but were not connected to because it’s the G.D. Blueridge Parkway. By the time we got there I needed a drink.

  • avatar

    The photos of that RX-8 surfing those twisties has me a little bit aroused.

  • avatar

    Absolutely! I am SO SICK of printing Mapquest and finding when I get there that it’s wrong, and oops, no map of the area so I can’t figure out what to do to overcome its’ wrongness. I’m going back to paper maps!!!!


  • avatar

    Several months ago I took a Jeep trip out to Colorado to camp and drive Jeep trails, log roads and county maintained dirt roads. I did map out my basic destinations on the Garmin GPS on my iPhone. It worked okay, but there are some software limitations and only so much detail that a little screen can show. I also carry National Geographic maps that offer a lot of detail for such trails, including hiking. Here are the Colorado maps as they’re awesome, should they cover where you’re going!

    Oh, and sorry to see the picture of that RX-8! Ouch!

    • 0 avatar

      Hey AJ, I know this is OT, but where in Colorado did you do your Jeeping? I once drove a not-extremely difficult Jeep trail in the Silverton area and have been wanting to check out some more roads that aren’t really technical but just off the main roads.

  • avatar

    Ahhh…just back from vacation and this article awaits me!

    Some years ago, I did a Google map to bypass Gatlinburg to get to a cabin. We followed the route – until the road ended at the top of a hill – there ust happened to be about a 300 ft. gap where the route showed a through road, but it really wasn’t.

    After going in circles – something we’re REALLY good at, I said forget about it, went back down the mountain and followed the directions we received, which just skirted the town and got us there pretty quick!

    We also have a cheapie GPS which is un-upgradable, but still useful – especially when navigating San Francisco a few years ago, which is why we bought it in the first place.

    What’s really funny about GPS navigation for us is when we tend to default to “dead reckoning” and go our own way in spite of the nice lady screaming at us to do a U-Turn at the first opportunity. Eventually I do and admit my indiscretion and humbly obey her and arrive at our destination…

    In spite of all the technology, I still consult a real road map and scout the area in my mind and on the internet using aerial and street-level views when possible well ahead of time – it’s fun and gets me eager to get out of town!

  • avatar

    I have a nav system that is probably what you’re looking for. The data I use was taken from on-line government GIS data. Trail maps, road data, curb cuts/ driveways, permeable/non-permeable surface data, and even things like crime data and drainage information. Huge, huge amounts of data.

    But, the massive amount of data is the problem. There’s so much data that most low cost devices can’t handle it. Every data layer/type of data that you add increases the amount of computing power needed to process the information. Newer devices/micro-controllers are getting more powerful (I’m now using one with a quad core processor at 1.6 gHz) so you may get what you’re looking for soon.

    My product is for use in robotics and autonomous vehicles, so I don’t have the same cost or hardware constraints as Garmin, TomTom etc. (and I don’t have to consume resources drawing it to a screen) so it’s hard for me to predict what they will be doing.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • dal20402: KBB had it in the high 18s at the beginning of the year and now in the 22s. I’m sure part of that is...
  • probert: The government should protect them – regulating predatory practices is something government should do....
  • 28-Cars-Later: Then get one more year out of it before something expensive breaks.
  • 28-Cars-Later: Your Bolt? Carvana has them listed out your way for 21,9-22,9, were they retailing for much less?
  • dal20402: In the last few months my “green full electric nonsense” has appreciated more in percentage...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber