What makes a good map

What makes a good map?

We make maps at Adirondack Research – and we research the best ways to make them. So how do we determine what makes a map great? Research, of course! We developed a map assessment guide comprising 37 questions across four categories. Each map receives a score based upon its effectiveness at meeting goals. Read below to see what makes a GREAT MAP…

First, it needs to look good on display.

A map’s cover helps it sell. National Geographic’s Adirondack Park map has a beautiful photo of the High Peaks and image of the inner map on the cover. This map is made of a waterproof and tear-resistant material, a feature essential for any avid outdoor enthusiast. We loved the bright colors, easy to read and well-organized fonts and fantastic cover design!


Second, the map needs to “pop!” for the intended user.


A map needs to look good when it is opened. Designed for the cyclist in mind, The San Francisco Bike Map & Walking Guide was one of our favorite and most effective maps. It was the ultimate guide to bike routes and bike shops throughout downtown San Francisco and the Presidio. In particular, we loved the color-coded bike routes and shade-based denotations of street grades! This map also went above and beyond in detail. Look closely and you can see stairways to overpasses.


Third, the map needs expertly designed roads and trails!


These maps are designed for outdoor enthusiasts. The way in which roads and trails are portrayed is essential for a map to be useful for a broad audience. We loved how the Rothrock map portrayed different road types and even distinguished between 4wd roads and roads with gates! This map also labeled all recreational features including campgrounds, hiking areas and boat launches. What we loved the most about this map was the unique placement of small purple lizards throughout the map to signify a surprise (usually a scenic vista or neat place!)


Fourth, the map needs to have clearly labeled topographic features!


You’ll want this map in the backcountry. Some areas have unique features or dangers. We loved how the Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park map shows snow hazards and glaciers, something often neglected in topographic maps! This map also showed clear distinctions between the different types of land (i.e. National Park, Provincial Park, National Forest, Wilderness). The hill shading enhanced the depiction of elevational changes, yet allows the user to discern elevation contours. What really stood out on the map was the differential tapering of the hydrological features to more accurately portray the sizes and shapes of creeks.


Overall results

Our 2017 Hamilton College intern Mary Lundin evaluated 10 different maps using our map assessment protocol to evaluate their effectiveness. The scores of these maps are represented below.


This research helped guide our process of creating the most useful map for recreation in the Adirondacks. So, what did we do for our Adirondack Research Map series map of Saranac Lake and Lake Placid?

We included a very detailed representation of the different land classifications in the region and of the many features present in these areas including campgrounds and different accesses. We took care to mark boundaries between different types of land and used hill shading very effectively for our unique topography. Our maps also include extensive text regarding general Adirondack Park information and safety information. Our map is very detailed and contains travel information in addition to a very thorough diagram of extent. The vast majority of features are labeled including lakes, lodging and campsites. The rivers are expertly represented through the use of differential tapering and the elevation changes on the mountain are clearly depicted through extensive hill shading. Want to see our map? It’s not out yet, but here is a sneak peek!



No maps were harmed while conducting this research. In fact, they are alive and well and can be purchased here:

Adirondack Park


Trails of the Adirondacks High Peaks


Colorado Springs Manitou Springs


Exploring New Hampshire’s White Mountains


Glacier and Waterton Lakes National Park


Green Mountain Club Northeast Kingdom


Maine Huts & Trails


New Hampshire & Maine White Mountains




San Francisco Bike Map & Walking Guide



Adirondack Research
28 St. Bernard Street
Saranac Lake, NY 12983
Phone: (518) 253-4112

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