Are GPS apps rendering part of your brain inactive?

How to vastly improve your experience with maps and keep your head from getting lost in the map on your smartphone.

By Brad Beckstrom


Cartography –  The study and practice of making maps.

maps thefrug

Remember paper maps? I’m talking about the big unfolding kind they used to give you at tourism offices, AAA or full-service gas stations. How about the slick plastic coated ones that you could access with one hand on the steering wheel trying to navigate in a city like Rome or Washington, DC? Or the jumbo 50 page city or county map books they used to sell at office supply and convenience stores for about 18 bucks, still popular with some realtors and salespeople who work in remote areas or haven’t jumped on the smartphone bandwagon yet. Or the mother of them all, The Rand McNally Road Atlas hundreds of pages just waiting to be explored. I always had a thing for maps. I was always up for exploring out-of-the-way places, and maps helped me get there.

The frug globe

When my boys were younger, we used to play a game called “spin the globe”, wherever you land, you have to go there. I remember once my oldest son spun the globe and landed on Yakutsk, Russia generally considered to be the coldest inhabited city on earth with average temperatures of -58°F. He immediately added the city to the weather app on his phone and kept an eye on the place, occasionally sharing the sometimes ridiculous low temperatures. I don’t think I’ll ever see Yakutsk but I have a feeling he might.

Once GPS came along I knew I was hooked. (Finally an answer for my lack of direction in life.)   I played around with some of the earliest handheld GPS units, the kind where you had to load a CD onto your computer then somehow transfer maps to the GPS unit. These early units were popular with boaters because it’s very important to know where you’re going on the water. You also need to know about a third dimension, the depth of the water so you don’t end up on a sand barge, as I occasionally did.  At least I can blame the fricking GPS unit versus my lack of preparation with paper navigation charts.

About five years later, the first GPS apps were introduced for the iPhone. Quickly the iPhone replaced the handheld GPS along with about 21 other things including paper maps.  Over the years, I found that I’ve become over dependent on the GPS especially in a town where I already know my way around. Luckily these apps have become extremely handy for avoiding traffic jams, finding alternate routes, and tracking hikes. That makes up for any brain cells are rendered inactive by staring at my smart phone too much.  I’ve used Google maps, Wayz, Motion X, and Apple maps.

Map Making How to learn from making maps instead of just looking at them

Google Maps has been by far my go to choice with its clean intuitive interface, options for walking and biking, and accurate public transit times in many major cities around the globe.  The real secret of Google maps is a less known feature called my maps. My Maps is part of Google Maps online version and is now accessible in the mobile app. My Maps allows you to create custom maps adding specific locations, landmarks, custom borders, special icons and many other easy-to-use mapmaking features.

How it works


So let’s say you’re traveling to a foreign city, your trip involves a client meeting, a convention, and a couple days of sightseeing. You also have a list of restaurants and things to see a friend shared with you. Instead of just saving some random locations in Google maps you can now create a personalized map, name it, save it, and have it accessible with location services on your smartphone even if your data access is limited. It’s best to do this on a laptop or tablet then save the map for easy access on your smartphone later. Here’s how I built a map for a trip to Barcelona.

my maps google

  1. Login with your Gmail account or create a new Google Account. You need an account with Google to save and find the map later.
  2. Are you a privacy nut, or running for office? Set up two-step verification to protect your account, this includes any emails,maps, documents you create in Google. 
  3. Go to my maps or just search my maps on Google.
  4. You’re ready to create your first custom map. Click on the giant red button create a new map and name your map. To name your map, you’ll need to click on the word “untitled” up in the left navigation menu.
  5. So for Barcelona, I started with my anchor locations. Anchor locations are things like the airport, hotel or AirBnb you’re staying in, and any important meeting places, client locations. You add places by simply searching for them then clicking “save” in chosen color. I generally use one color or two colors and one layer in the map to keep things simple.
  6. Once I have my base map with anchor locations, that’s where the fun starts. I pull out my list of places to see and  add a few of those and also add a couple of restaurants recommended in emails from friends.
  7. After you spend about five minutes making your map, you start to get a feel for the city. That’s the big advantage of making a map versus just depending on GPS. You’ll know that the airports 40 minutes away from the hotel, you’ll know you can walk to certain locations but need to UBER to others and it will all be saved on your phone.
  8. You also see if attractions and locations are close to each other or if some are just a bit out of the way for a short trip.
  9. You can really step this up a level when you’re visiting multiple locations with the family. By quickly laying out a map, you’ll get a real good feel if your plans are realistic. Once you’re in the country, you’ll will be able to click on the location and pull up train schedules, Metro schedules, and other transportation options.
  10. Once you get the hang of it you can easily add layers, images, borders, zones and icons to your map you can even change the type of map from simple to satellite or terrain and other options by clicking on base map at the bottom of the navigation window.

Creating your own maps is not just about travel, you can research a new neighborhood, finding nearby parks and exploring ways to reduce your commute. If you like to hike or cycle, there are many shared maps online that you can add to your my maps profile.  I’ve even used Google maps to trace my family origins back to small towns in Ireland and Finland, some with names like SnapperTuna! Don’t believe it?  Check the map.

What’s next?

Look for VR headsets that allow you to explore your custom map 360° at street level and  explore immersive experiences created by others combining street view with virtual reality.   Heat maps show you parts of cities with high pedestrian traffic this is helpful for both someone searching for popular neighborhoods and nightlife and someone looking to avoid the crowds.

Once you build your map, don’t just stay home or look at it in VR, make sure you get out and see the world real-time, or at least go look for a Pokemon.

Happy Trails,


The Frug

Apps mentioned in this post

Google Maps Chrome

Google maps app iphone



Waze app

Uber Free Ride

Airbnb $30 coupon

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