Author Archives: Cairn Cartographics

Fall Update

We spent September and October wrapping up our field season in the South Half of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. This is some beautiful, rugged and remote country! We got a little tired of the LONG drive from Missoula to get back to some of those trailheads (some took over seven hours to get to!) but we had a beautiful stretch of cooler weather which was much appreciated after a hot dusty summer.

Sunrise over the Bitterroots from the Windy Saddle area
Home away from home, you never know what toys you might need

We got to catch up with the folks from the Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation at the Telluride Mountain Film festival. Beautiful inspiring films and good company! We partnered with Run Wild Missoula to make a map of the Elk Ramble 15k trail race that took place on November 8th. Each participant received a map of the Mt Jumbo area with the race course highlighted printed on waterproof plastic. It was a super fun project and a really fun race!

Elk Ramble Map- crossing our fingers that this race can happen again!

We are deep into work on our next trail map- the South Half of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness which we hope to print by next spring. It is always fun to re-live our summer on the trails as we comb through all the data.

Back on Missoula trails- what a beautiful fall!

Print vs. Digital

I had an inspiring conversation with Kevin at Rocky Mountain Map Gallery today about the Print vs Digital topic which has been on my mind a lot recently. It’s always fun to talk to someone who is as much, if not more of a map geek as I am. Our conversation followed several tangents but we kept arcing back to two main points.

1. Nothing can replace a print map

2. You don’t have to choose between print and digital, they should be used together

Some of the reasons we kept coming back to:

Planning. Especially when you are going somewhere you’ve never been before you can spread out maps on the table or (my personal preference) the floor and see the area you are planning to go in context. You notice how the mountain ranges and rivers fit together and how the trail network connects one valley to the next or how one trailhead is easily linked to another to create a more interesting loop.

Dreaming. People tell me all the time that they “love maps.” I do too. I think what they mean is that, like me, they can spend hours staring at a map noticing which peaks divide which drainages and which creeks form the headwaters for bigger rivers. You can’t get lost like that on a four inch (or twenty-four inch) screen. This blog post talks about scheming and dreaming to connect various trails that you might not have thought to connect before and the power of print to inspire new explorations of familiar places.

Maps tell stories. You can lay a map out on the table and it becomes an instant focal point of the conversation. You gather around it and trace your fingers along rivers and ridge lines and tell the story of your adventure. You can point out where you saw a bear or found a monster huckleberry patch or almost ran out of water.  Zooming around google earth is fun but it isn’t the same.

Soul. A well-made print map is beautiful. Print is a much higher resolution than digital and misplaced labels or awkward line widths stick out much more when you can look at a map as a whole and not just a little piece at a time. It takes a lot of time and skill to fit data from all different sources together and make it look good. Cartographers spend hours agonizing over font sizes, label placement and color choices. In our case we spend weeks on the ground to GPS the trails as well. We know what the trail along a particular creek feels like underfoot. We know how the trail is just far enough from the creek that the creek’s name can be squeezed in between them on the map. We know the landscapes that our maps cover and we know our maps themselves intimately and I think it shows through in the final product.

Navigation. You can’t beat a GPS for ease of navigation. It is a wonderful thing to be able to look at a little screen and see exactly where you are. Especially for off trail navigation or for something like hunting where your focus might not be on your surroundings as you tromp through the woods it can be lifesaving to have a device to help navigate back to your camp.

That’s the thing: It’s not an either or choice. You don’t have to choose between a map and a GPS unit. They are both incredibly useful tools. Nothing beats a GPS for navigation or tracking. I use Strava and I love my GPS as much as the next person and I almost always have at least one GPS-enabled device with me when I’m running or hiking (and I frequently have two or three). But I would never leave my map behind- one of my favorite things is to unfold my map at the top of a peak and use it to pick out distant landmarks and understand the landscape around me and a GPS can’t do that.

Putting it all together at Steamboat Lookout

A Note About Walking

“There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who’s always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.” –Edward Abbey

I spend a lot of time ruminating on this Edward Abbey quote when I’m on the trail. There’s something about the pace of walking that just feels “right.” My brain can easily keep up with processing the sights, sounds and smells around me when I’m not hurriedly trying to figure out where to put my feet or bike tire or ski.

In the age of the Go-pro walking at three miles and hour with fifty pounds on your back doesn’t seem very flashy, especially next to that video your friend posted of ripping down that crazy descent on a mountain bike. It’s humbling to spend an entire day putting one foot in front of the other and in the evening retrace my crooked path across the my current corner of the map but exhilarating to think I’ve made it that whole way under entirely my own power.

There is still a lot of snow up high but summer planning has begun and after an office-intensive spring I couldn’t be more excited to start walking again.

Jamie walking over Freeman Peak

Another Note about the Missions map

I can’t write an announcement about the Missions map without talking about our dear friend Kyra Jean Wiliams. Last spring when we first pulled the whole map together Kyra was probably the only person more excited about it than me. She was living in Saint Ignatius at the base of the Mission Range and spent much of her free time exploring the mountains out her back door. She called or stopped by almost every weekend to check on the progress of the map or to look at our draft to plan her weekend outing. As some of you may know Kyra passed away in a car accident last August. This map is dedicated to her and to the spirit of adventure and the willingness to forge her own path that she embodied.

Kyra and I went to college together in Maine and we both ended up in Missoula after we graduated. Kyra was one of those people I always wanted to see more of. She was so vibrant and such a kind and colorful spirit. So grounded and so at peace with who she was and what she knew to be important in life. Unlike most of my female friends we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about relationship drama or life in a broad metaphorical terms. We talked about business plans and ways to create fulfilling careers doing what we loved in a way that we could avoid burning out. We talked about our Bates peers who were living in bigger cities following more traditional paths and how we felt drawn to this mountain town where you can touch the wilderness with one hand and gourmet coffee with the other. We both fell in love with Missoula because the culture here encourages a certain kind of dreaming- about how life doesn’t have to be either a successful career climbing the ladder or full of adventure; it’s possible to have both at the same time. It was always such a comfort to talk with someone who came from the same background and could appreciate differences between Missoula and Bates from the same perspective as me. I miss her dearly and I continue to be inspired by her passion for living life to the fullest.


Kyra in her little home at the base of the Missions photo credit: Grant Haynes

New Map of the Mission Range!

The idea to make a map of the Missions started in the spring of 2012. We were wrapping up the final details on our maps of the North half of the Bob Marshall and the Rattlesnake. We were in the beginning stages of shopping for our first house. We had two big family vacations and a week-long river trip planned for the summer. We knew we wanted to tackle another big wilderness map but after two years of going full steam we needed to slow down a little. We decided on the Missions for several reasons:  its proximity to Missoula, we could do almost all the hiking as day hikes and, after driving past the Missions several times a week for the two previous summers we wanted to stop and explore!

The hiking part of the Missions map went fairly smoothly- although we may not have said that at the time. We had some frustrating mornings trying to find trailheads and a few adventures trying to discern if we were on a “real” trail or not. But for the most part we hiked to a lot of beautiful lakes, found some choice car camping spots and we were able to be in town enough to buy a house and move into it.

Putting the map together was a different story. Like many small businesses in their first years of business we have experienced some growing pains in the last year. As the volume of work grows and we try to balance outside jobs with keeping our existing maps up to date something was bound to slip through the cracks. The Missions map, as many of you know, has been “almost done” since last April. The final touches on a map always take much longer than we think they will and so here we are in January finally making the announcement that the map is ready!

Publication timeline aside, we are so excited to get this map out into the world. The Mission Range is a spectacular place. It has a little of everything- from craggy peaks and alpine lakes to dark cedar forest to beautiful doug fir parks and some of the best huckleberry patches we have ever seen. And it’s all packed into one super-accessible skinny little range. Whether you are looking for a multi-day ski tour, a Sunday stroll to a lake with the kids or a big day of bagging peaks there’s something for everyone. As always itis available at retailers around western Montana and on our website.

South Half of the Bob Marshall: 2nd edition

Have you been using our South Half of the Bob Marshall map? We’re getting ready to print a second edition and we want to hear from you. Have you found any mistakes? We’re looking for anything from mis-named peaks or trails to spelling errors. Shoot us an email at and let us know!

Sweet Summer

We’ve turned the corner on summer, instead of feeling the luxury of extra time in longer days and open schedules stretching into the future, we’re looking September in the eye. We’re feeling the occasional hint of fall in a cool morning. There’s a reassessment happening, a taking stock of adventures planned and adventures had and a frantic planning to squeeze the remaining river trips, hikes and summer meals into the next few weeks. Maybe we feel this especially strongly in a college town where at times it feels like the whole city operates on a September-June school schedule.

Driving down some forest service roads the other day I was struck by how right now is the pinnacle of summer, that elusive point where foliage is full and green without a single hint of red or yellow. Orchards and gardens everywhere are bursting with the riches of late summer. Evenings are warm and lingering, days are hot and the hazy sky is buzzing with horseflies and mosquitos. As usual I feel like summer snuck through while I was looking the other way which is not necessarily a bad thing. The last few weeks have been full to the brim in a wonderful way- traveling to visit family, swimming in lakes after long hot days exploring a new mountain range, a few lazy afternoons on the river, some delicious summer meals with friends, and of course shipping out order after order of maps to wholesalers around Montana and customers across the country. I couldn’t really ask for more, but I’m still feeling the crunch to eat more corn on the cob and stand on top of some dramatic peaks and generally just soak up as much summer as I can before the days get noticeably shorter and life shifts into its fall schedule.

New Maps

It’s an exciting day here at Cairn Cartographics. We’re proud to announce that our two new maps are printed, just in time for summer.

Printing the North Half of the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex map is the culmination of a project that has taken us close to three years. You wouldn’t be the first one if you told us that was an awfully big project to tackle as our first map. I won’t say there haven’t been moments when I’ve wondered if maybe we should have started with something smaller but over a thousand miles of walking and a fair amount of blood sweat and tears later I couldn’t be more proud.

I’m so excited about this new map of the Rattlesnake. Like a lot of people here I’m a transplant to Missoula and this map is pretty much the reason I’ve chosen to call this home. We are so lucky with our access to recreation- there are awesome trails in every direction that you can access right from town, there’s the Rattlesnake Wilderness which always surprises me with how rugged it is, there’s the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers. The crazy thing is, until now there wasn’t a map with the wilderness, national recreation areas, and city open-space all on one page. This is the map I’ve wanted to own since I moved here and I hope it will inspire people to take advantage of this beautiful place we live and explore some new trails. See you out there-


Press Check High

Here’s the thing about making the types of maps we love for places we love: we don’t get a chance to use our own maps very often. We carry them everywhere and sometimes even if we’re driving through an area on the map we pull it out, but even then it feels more like fact-checking than using. Last week we headed out for a little visit to Great Falls to go to the press check for our next two maps(!). Since summer seems to have actually arrived over on the east side of the divide, instead of just teasing like it is over here we decided to make a trip of it.
Friday afternoon, after both maps were through the press and drying for the weekend we had some steam to blow off. Press checks can be stressful! We headed west to the mountains and pulled out our South Half map and looked for a good hike that would give us some views. We settled on the trail up to the old Steamboat Lookout site. It’s one of those rare places in the Bob that has a solid trail all the way up to a high point. It’s a  gorgeous trail that climbs a few thousand feet in a little over six miles right on the front with views out over the plains to east and over the whole Scapegoat Wilderness to the west. And you know what? Our map works pretty well! We spent a long time at the top looking out over the sea of peaks and picking out landmarks. It was a treat to spend some time just hiking, no GPS units, no note taking, just walking down the trail on a gorgeous day.Since I know you’re wondering: the new maps will be available any day. We’re just waiting to hear that they’re folded and ready and we’ll let you all know!

Our office made the Independent

I think Indy reporter Matthew Frank hit the nail on the head when he described our world as “expanding and contracting with the seasons” in this weeks “Up Front” column in the Independent. Thanks to Frank and Chad Harder we got a chance to share a little about the less glamorous side of making maps- and the little world of our office. Check it out!