jonshutt web developer

A quest to make the best 'outdoor' map possible using OpenStreetMap data.

Topographical Maps

Do we still need maps?

Not that long ago a good printed map was an intrinsic part of travel, outdoor sports and finding your way to someone's house. Hikers used OS maps, delivery drivers used A-Z street map book, and you didn't go on holiday without your AA road map of Great Britain.

Now a mobile phone can use GPS to work out your location in a few seconds. However, although the GPS can tell you where you are just now, you still need a map to tell you what's around you, or to figure out the geography of somewhere you may plan to go to in the future.

The right kind of map

Google's maps are great for some things - driving, finding addresses, and searching for local businesses. However, they're extremely bad at showing small roads and paths. 

Here's a popular hiking area:

Screen Shot 2018 04 03 at 16.11.17

A usability fail - not only does the map not show footpaths or hill terrain, but the road on the left side isn't even displayed!


Screen Shot 2018 04 03 at 16.13.29

Bing Maps does a fraction better - there is some hill shading, and they at least show the road, although it's quite hard to see.


Screen Shot 2018 04 03 at 16.14.18

Ordnance Survey maps to the rescue! This is a 'real' map - clearly showing the road, the forest, tracks in the forest, paths up the hills, the hill terrain and some place / feature names. It even shows the location of a telephone box and some historic hut circles.

It is possible to access OS Maps for free online on some websites such as Bing Maps, but in general one would buy the print out maps to use while out hiking/biking etc. You can’t (shouldn't) rely on phone battery and signal or wifi in the hills!

My map

It's hard to beat OS maps for detail. However, I wanted to try! For 2 reasons, I want to 'own' my own map tiles to use in my own projects such as website, Scotland Offline Outdoor Map app, Scottish Ski Conditions app and others. Secondly, OpenStreetMap data is actually pretty good -  sometimes more detailed that OS Map data, particularly for areas that a lot of people visit.

Screen Shot 2018 04 03 at 16.22.30

After a lot of experimentation - including various attempts to efficiently download and access the OSM data, and a lot trial and error in styling the map, the above screen grab shows the map just now, without labels. I've tried to make a map that shows the details you need when in the great outdoors - land cover, terrain, footpaths, and roads. I've overlaid the OS 1km grid squares (aligned to grid north) which makes estimating distances much easier.

There are no labels on the map as these map tiles are rendered for use in some an app where the user has the option of turning on/off various labels (towns, hills, lakes). Sometimes it's nice to have labels, sometimes it's clearer to turn them off and just see the map.

In summary, I'm very happy with the outcome of my map style. The OS map above does show a lot more detail. However, my map actually shows more footpaths.

View the maps:

Scotland Map

Pentlands Map. Higher Zoom than Scotland-wide map. Currently rendered in a format that only works in the Chrome browser.


I'll detail the apps themselves, my future plans, and some of the technical aspects of creating the maps in upcoming articles