All About the Data 6

An Exploration of Missoula’s Map Makers: onXmaps and Cairn

From Amerigo Vespucci to Lewis and Clark, map making has always been about getting the best data possible. Things haven’t changed much in the years people have been making maps, and for two Missoula-based companies, onXmaps and Cairn Cartographics, focusing on “the data” has been the driving force behind the products they make and the businesses they’ve created.

Hunters, hikers, and other outdoor types have long used government-issued paper maps to navigate through the landscape. But despite seeming solid and immutable, the landscape changes over time—boundaries shift as ownership changes, roads and trails open, close or get rerouted, and public access points move. The government agencies that make these maps don’t update them very often, and over a decade or two, the differences stack up, leaving users confused about property boundaries, access points, and other critical information that can turn a public-land hunting trip into an illegal, private-land trespass.

X Marks the Spot

Eric Siegfried had ample experience with the frustrations these outdated paper maps cause. Growing up in eastern Montana’s checker-boarded landscape, where public land and private land are mixed in confusing patterns, he often struggled with knowing exactly where he was, a critical piece of information for hunters. It’s perfectly legal to shoot an elk on public land, but on private land, it’s another matter. In 2008, he was inspired to work out a solution.

That solution was Eric’s 2009 start-up, Hunting GPS Maps, which essentially pulled publicly available data sets from counties, municipalities, and other public sites and stitched them together into reliable, accurate data sets that showed specific boundaries, ownership details, trails and roads, and a host of other data. Hunters bought this data on a mini SD chip and plugged it into their GPS unit. Voila! They now had the positioning function of the GPS and the accurate map data showing where they could hunt and where they couldn’t. Business took off.

Today, Hunting GPS Maps has morphed into onXmaps and Siegfried’s four-person start-up has become one of Missoula’s fastest growing companies—a 65-person organization that’s bursting at its seams.

OnXmaps still offers mini SD cards loaded with accurate maps. But it’s also taken advantage of another recent technology that is quietly transforming how people navigate outside. A few years ago, nearly all smart phones started to come with standardized GPS software. The software works whether the phone has cell service or not, so basically any modern smart phone is a powerful GPS unit in-the-ready.

OnXmaps now makes an app that utilizes this technology by offering the same high-quality maps it makes for GPS units, but rather than buying a chip to put the information on the device, users pay to download their maps through the app. The HUNT version of the app has been around for a few years, and onXmaps just launched ROAM, a similar app that’s targeted at hikers, mountain bikers, and paddlers.

While it’s not as critical that hikers know if the deer they’re watching are on private or public land, they’re just as keen as hunters to know precisely where they are. Add in functionality that shows campgrounds, trailheads, fishing access sites, allows route plotting and tracking capabilities, and even facilitates sharing this information with friends, and it becomes clear why hunters, skiers, hikers, and climbers are happily shelling out $30 for a single-state map.

As cool as ROAM is, it’s not a fail-safe way to navigate the woods. Phones fail and batteries die. More importantly, if you don’t download the map you need before you head out into the cellular-service-free forest, the phone can pinpoint where you are, but it can’t overlay that onto a map, rendering the technology nifty but also somewhat useless. It’s also prohibitively difficult to plan long hikes or backpacking trips on a tiny phone screen. And so, outdoor types are left clearing off their dining room tables to make room for paper maps.

On the Ground

Another Missoula start-up is producing beautiful, accurate maps of local landscapes in this classic analog technology. Cairn Cartographics is a husband- and wife-run business that got its start through a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2011. Like Eric, Jamie Robertson and Amelia Hagen-Dillon, the map-loving pair behind Cairn, saw opportunity where others saw frustration.

The pair has a deep love for maps—Jamie has a degree in cartography and GIS and Amelia in environmental science—and they love being outside in wild places. In 2009, the duo applied for a grant to make a map of South America’s Patagonia region. They didn’t get the grant, but they also didn’t quit pursuing their map-making goal.

Years prior, Jamie had spent his summers wrestling with outdated and inaccurate paper maps while working for the Forest Service in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. They knew Montanans loved the Bob. They knew they loved the Bob. So they quit their jobs, bought a couple of high-end GPS units, recruited Jamie’s brother, and embarked on a quest to build the Bob’s most accurate set of trail data.

Basically, they hiked. And hiked. About 800 miles in all. Then they spent the winter combining their ground-truthed trail and road data with the most up-to-date GIS data they could find. In early 2011, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to print the map. In short order, they had the capital to print their first run of 2,500 maps.

Almost six years later, the duo has published seven maps and a poster of the Bob Marshall. Because the company doesn’t have to provide maps of a specific administrative unit, the Lolo National Forest for example, they’re free to map whatever landscape they want. This lets them to produce maps that focus on natural geographies, not arbitrary administrative boundaries. It also allows them to make maps at a more useful scale than typical government maps. Fitting the two-million-acre Lolo National Forest on one map (or even two) means that the scale is frustratingly large. Featuring just the 60,000-acre Rattlesnake Wilderness and Recreation Area makes a much more useful map when you’re hitting the trail or planning a trip.

To date, they’ve focused on nearby Wilderness Areas, but are planning to expand beyond Western Montana. Their process is still pretty much the same as it was when they produced their first map. Amelia spends her summers on the trails while Jamie works at his full-time job as a cartographer for Adventure Cycling Association. They spend the winter on their computers, building the map, and then do it all again the next season. They also continually update their maps to reflect property shifts, road closures, and the other changes that render the old maps so frustratingly inaccurate. Despite it only being six years old, the Bob Marshall map will be released as a fourth edition in the near future.

No doubt the cartographers of yesterday would be amazed and astounded with the technology modern-day map makers use. Fortunately, onXmaps and Cairn Cartographics do the heavy lifting for today’s adventurers and hunters, producing products that transform a phone into a precise global positioning unit, or hiking every trail in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area to show exactly how far it is from the Spring Gulch Trail to the Snowbowl Overlook. Used in combination, these powerful technologies open up Montana’s landscapes for the adventurous.