Cartographers combine science and art to show us the world – The Journal
Using data and creativity, cartographers create important tools
Most mountain bikers and hikers in Southwest Colorado are familiar with trail maps.
You will recognize the wavy contour lines, the dashed paths and the blue lakes and rivers.
But while maps are ubiquitous in outdoor recreation and travel, the map-making process and the cartographers who create them are often forgotten.
Cartography is an art in which cartographers attempt to translate real-world information into a guide that anyone can use. It begins with geographical data and ends with the stylistic preferences of the respective cartographer.
The process is almost entirely digital, with layers of information being assembled into a single card. It can take months or hours depending on the purpose of the map, and each is ultimately determined by the cartographer’s interests.
“Maps are really, really important for communicating information easily and clearly,” said Farid Tabaian, owner of Singletrack Maps, which makes maps for mountain bikers and other trail users in Colorado. “(Cartography) is an important tool.”
Map making has changed with the availability of new technologies, but modern map makers rely on some form of geographic information system (GIS) software to visualize data.
“It’s sort of your central development platform for building a map. It’s all about the GIS software package,” said Will Jansen, owner of Centennial-based Outdoor Trail Maps, which produces maps for hikers and backpackers.
When creating a map, cartographers first find digital geodata such as elevation information or bodies of water and start recording them in the GIS. This data may come from federal agencies such as the US Geological Survey, states, or municipalities. Private companies like Google and ESRI, a maps and data company, also have geographic data.
Both La Plata and Montezuma counties have GIS departments that hold publicly available data, such as roads and public land boundaries, that cartographers can download and incorporate into their maps.
“When I create a topographic map, the first thing I do is look at what elevation data is available,” says Anna Riling, owner of Durango’s Four Corners Mapping & GIS.
Once Riling has data, she can begin to create the topographical contour lines and set them for each elevation change of 20, 40, or 100 feet.
Riling then layers other data on top, covering everything from roads and trails to vegetation, geology, and landmark names.
The purpose and audience of the map determine much of the data that a mapmaker incorporates.
Travelers in a city need street names, mountain bikers need trail difficulty ratings, and geologists need different layers of geology.
The assembly of the layers will eventually serve as the backbone of the paper map that hikers and bikers will then use.
“The reality is that most of it just sits behind a computer,” Tabaian said.
Some cartographers like Jansen and Tabaian take this first map and field test it to verify the accuracy of the underlying data.
“Place name (and) river information usually comes from government sources, but then a lot of it has to be completely revised and improved because either the information was out of date or it was inaccurate to begin with, and then it just has to be verified,” said Jansen.
Jansen travels across the state or enlists local friends to hike the trails he has mapped while wearing a GPS watch or device.
As Jansen hikes, the GPS device draws a breadcrumb track every few seconds, which he can later download into his GIS program and compare with the original data.
Tabaian begins most of his cards by venturing into the field.
Colorado born and raised equestrian and trail rider, Tabaian has not only collected trail data but also allowed him to see the places he maps.
“It was certainly an advantage to help us understand the field better before we start working on it,” he said. “You know the state of the country.”
For some cartographers, like Mark Stroud, who owns Moon Street Cartography in Durango and counts many tour guides among his clients, accuracy is less important.
“I don’t think accuracy is really an issue at the scale we’re working at,” he said.
Stroud may need to compress a map in a book of France to just a few inches, while Tabaian’s maps can stretch a few meters when unfolded, covering a smaller area in more detail.
“I’m more concerned with the cartographic look, feel (and) making sure it looks like any other map,” Stroud said.
When Stroud finishes layering the needed data in the GIS, he transfers the map to graphic design software, where it can be more easily shaped and the visual representation enhanced.
It has a strict style sheet that every guidebook map must follow. All fonts must be the same and colors are standardized.
Other cartographers such as Riling, Jansen and Tabaian also use graphic design software to finish their maps before they are sent to the printing press, but they have more creative latitude when stylizing their maps.
“We have a lot of artistic options to bring the cards into the final form,” said Jansen. “We spend a lot of time focusing on creating styles for our map (like) nice hill shading (and) contours that aren’t too thick, not too thin, but legible.”
Cartographers can change everything from the length of strokes to hill or “bump” shading, which creates the light and dark shadows and contrasts that make a map’s topography stand out. Color may seem trivial, but card manufacturers are constantly tweaking it.
A former geologist, one of Riling’s maps visualizes the geology of popular hiking trails in the Grand Canyon. Each rock layer has a different shade of blue, purple, green, and red to match the official USGS color map.
The suits of their other cards are more subjective.
“I wish I could say it’s an objective process, but I play around with the colors until I have something I really like,” she said.
Riling even uses a website to see what their maps would look like for those who are color blind.
“If you look at a geological map, the colors are a gradient. They’re different colors, but they’re not distinct enough for someone with color blindness to tell them apart,” she said. “You have to know that some maps are not readable for everyone.”
Cartographers use their creativity and style to create more visually appealing maps, but they can also use them to change the information they convey.
“Our favorite term is ‘mapping license,'” Tabaian said. “It’s basically the cartographer’s ability to optimize reality. If there is a path that has a lot of switchbacks, the cartographer can optimize that and maybe not as many will show up. It’s a stylistic choice that generalizes the information to communicate it more clearly.”
With all design elements, it’s important to reflect the landscape as accurately as possible, Jansen said.
“The idea is to be able to visually correlate the terrain and path you’re on with what’s in the real world,” he said. “It just involves having graphics on the card that evoke the right feeling.”
The time it takes each cartographer to create a map varies.
Stroud produces three to four maps every day and 400 to 500 annually, since each guidebook requires dozens of maps. The guide to the Canadian Rockies that Stroud just completed had 42 individual maps.
One of Riling’s maps for commercial production takes 40 hours or more, and with their fieldwork, Jansen and Tabaian’s trail maps can take months from start to finish.
What makes Southwest Colorado so special for the map?
“The possibilities are endless,” Riling said.
For Tabaian, who made his first map of Durango, geography matters.
“It’s a fascinating area of our country,” he said. “… Due to its uniqueness, from the desert to the high mountains, this area is really fun to map.”