Hiking Trails

The Art of Mapping – Flathead Beacon

In 2015, Ryan Dalton and his bird dog, Driggs, were novice hunters trying to learn the lay of the land, but they both had expert instincts.

For Driggs, it was his Breton American pedigree that gave him his sense of the terrain, while Dalton applied his cartographic skills to navigate the checkerboard divisions of land ownership in Montana, using custom GPS maps. to get valuable information.

“After we had Driggs, on our very first hunting trip, we were on Block Management land in central Montana, and there were these brochure boxes with paper maps containing the most basic information – here’s where you are, this is where you can hunt, everything else is private,” Dalton said. “It didn’t really give me the information I wanted. But Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is pretty awesome because they provide very good access to their geographic data. You just have to know how to use it. »

Fortunately, knowing how to use it was in Dalton’s wheelhouse as a Geographic Information Systems specialist, or GIS for short.

Not only did he start building his own maps and navigation technology to help him and Driggs on those early hunting trips, but he also developed maps to suit the Dalton family’s outdoor lifestyle. – maps for rafting and fly fishing, hiking and disc golf, and more. , each layered with relevant information for a given activity.

“The way I always describe GIS is to compare it to those old-fashioned classroom overhead projectors with transparent film sheets,” Dalton said, conjuring up an image of a teacher with a marker-stained rag. handy for wiping the leaves. “Except with GIS, a sheet can have rivers in it, which doesn’t give you much context on its own. Until you overlay another sheet on it, and that sheet might have roads on it. And then you overlay public land on top. And fishing access. And points of interest. And the names of the peaks. And pretty soon, you’ve built a whole story.

In 2016, the personal hobby project turned into an entrepreneurial venture when Dalton launched OffTheGridMaps, signing a deal with his first client, which he still counts among his best more than half a decade later.

Hilary Hutcheson, owner of Lary’s Fly and Supply in Columbia Falls, agreed to work with Dalton on a map showing public access sites along the North and Middle Forks of the Flathead River, as well as its mainstem.

“His staff had hand-drawn simple maps to get their customers on the water,” Dalton said. “They were our first and still our best customer. They have been selling paper cards in the shop for over five years now. And their customers love the maps because when they buy the printed map from the store, they can download the GPS-enabled map for free. »

Working with a third-party smartphone app, Avenza Maps, OffTheGridMaps allows users to embed custom maps into their devices for free using the standard version of the app.

A section of a detailed 48×36 inch relief map of Glacier National Park, created by Whitefish cartographer Ryan Dalton, is pictured at The Walking Man Frame Shop & Gallery in Whitefish October 11, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | flathead beacon

Over the past half-decade, Dalton has worked with nearly 20 Flathead Valley organizations to tell their stories, releasing more than 80 smartphone GPS maps, including a kayaking map of Flathead Lake, hiking trails in Jewel Basin and fishing destinations. rivers throughout Montana.

Dalton jokes that OffTheGridMaps started out as a “poor man’s OnX,” a reference to the Missoula-based tech company founded in 2009 when it developed an app that allowed users to download topographic maps with custom layers before go hiking in the backcountry.

However, OffTheGridMaps is unique in that each map is tailored to a very specific group of users.

“I like to design each card to tell an interesting story for that viewer, as opposed to designing one interesting card for each viewer,” Dalton said.

OffTheGridMaps is also unique in that it allows users to carry a printed version of a map in addition to the digital companion map – a distinction Dalton is proud of.

“I’ve had people tell me paper maps are dead,” Dalton said. “But paper maps allow you to really explore an area rather than just navigate to a destination. If you really want to get to a trailhead or stay within a perimeter of public land, your phone comes in handy. But if you want to know what’s on the other side of that ridge, or what a wilderness area looks like, a small screen isn’t much use. That’s when a paper map becomes your best friend.

And if that all sounds too technical to be considered an artistic craft, Dalton explains how he puts “art” into cartography.

“When I first started designing cards, I started with a blank slate and got to choose every color, every lineweight, every icon and every font. Over the past five years, I’ve spent thousands of hours slightly changing the shade of a color, changing the line width of a road, selecting new icons, or changing font sizes half a point larger or smaller to may they all work better together. In most cases, no one but me will ever notice a specific change. But when all of those changes come together on a new map, my goal is to create a map that’s intuitive enough to let the design stand on its own, even without a map legend explaining what each feature or color represents.

A section of a detailed 48×36 inch relief map of Glacier National Park, created by Whitefish cartographer Ryan Dalton, is pictured at The Walking Man Frame Shop and Gallery in Whitefish on October 11, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | flathead beacon

Dalton has also created a series of large-format wall maps of popular Montana destinations and hidden gems, including a peaks and summits map of Glacier National Park. Created in cooperation with the Glacier Mountaineering Society, the map contains a list of Glacier’s 234 named peaks, their locations, and a list of all glaciers, waterfalls, fire lookouts, and campgrounds in the park.

This map has gained such popularity that it is available for sale at REI and Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell, as well as the Walking Man Frame Shop and Gallery in Whitefish, where it can be purchased with a custom frame. Large format cards are available in a range of sizes, from 18 inch by 24 inch prints to 36 inch by 48 inch prints. The maps are also for sale through Dalton’s online store at OffTheGridMaps.com, and he is available at [email protected] to create custom maps designed for a specific business or event.

Although Dalton is thrilled that the hobby project he and Driggs cobbled together in 2015 has turned into a business, he is heartbroken that Driggs wasn’t around to bask in accomplishment – he died this was the result of an intestinal lymphoma.

As Dalton says, maps tell stories, and sometimes the stories are sad. But he hopes that through OffTheGridMaps, he and Driggs can help others embark on the adventure of a lifetime.