B.C.’s Back-road Mapmakers

Backroad Mapbooks | BCBusiness
Coquitlam’s Backroad Mapbooks is launching a smartphone app for off-grid adventurers.

From his Coquitlam office, Russ Mussio believes he can show Google a thing or two about mapmaking, at least for Canada’s vast uncharted backcountry

Russ Mussio shouts across the room: “Someone stop that Google machine.” The co-founder and president of Mussio Ventures Ltd., publisher of the Backroad Mapbooks series of maps for off-the-beaten-track adventurers, chuckles at his joke. Everyone at the meeting, which has been called to discuss the progress of the company’s new smartphone app, knows all too well how good Google Maps is at charting the world from people’s phones. Their goal is to do it better, at least for the backwoods.

The expert in Canada’s back roads has sold 1.5 million copies of its 22 map books, an unrivalled compendium of the country’s dirt roads, hiking trails, ATV tracks, paddling routes, campsites and outdoor recreation activities. Now, in its 21st year in business, the Coquitlam-based company is venturing into new territory by taking its tried and true map books into the world of iPhone apps with Backroad Navigator, a smartphone app that will launch this summer, in time to catch the summertime weekend warriors as well as the fishers and hunters who venture out in fall (Mussio refers to the latter as “the hardcore users”).

The Backroad Mapbooks team is meeting with the app developers today to fill in some details of functionality: what is the pay model? Over which area will they prototype the app? And most critically, how can users create offline maps that use their phones’ latent GPS capabilities when they’re out of cell range? “That’s what’s going to appeal to most people, is that you download it and go off the grid,” explains Mussio.

Going off-grid is becoming a larger part of the B.C. experience as trailblazers are continually forging new inroads into the outdoors—for hikers, campers, snowmobilers or ATV riders. There are six times more kilometres of resource roads criss-crossing this province than paved roads. And the 30,000 kilometres of trails outnumber the 25,000 lane kilometres of the provincial highway network. (A lane kilometre is the de facto unit of road measurement, wherein one kilometre of a four-lane highway constitutes four lane kilometres.) The latest update to the Backroad Mapbooks GPS kit for B.C. added 10,000 kilometres of new trails and paddling routes.

It’s not that the backcountry is growing, but inroads into it are, and the key to getting there is knowing the way. In Backroad Mapbooks the backcountry comes alive with an exhaustive, and unique, level of detail. “Province-wide there’s such a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities, but more important are the roads to get there,” says John Crooks, provincial recreational manager for Recreation Sites and Trails B.C. (a branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations). “There are other vendors out there that produce something similar but not to the level of detail that Backroad Mapbooks does,” says Crooks. “People need their products to be able to find those sites and trails.”

Mussio Ventures was founded in 1993 by Russ Mussio and his brother Wesley, both avid backcountry explorers. The idea germinated when the two got lost in a maze of logging roads around Harrison Lake in southern B.C. The maps and books they had were worse than useless; they showed only one road system, despite evidence on the ground to the contrary: the brothers were surrounded by a warren of backcountry roads, none of which were on their maps. With the question “Why doesn’t someone make one guide that shows all the roads?” the company was born.

Since then Mussio Ventures has grown to become one of the top map producers in Canada. It’s a mom-and-pop-type operation (for a while the brothers ran their printing press out of Wesley’s garage in Surrey) that has grown impressively since its salad days to accomplish its mission of mapping all the back roads of Canada and publishing these as maps, map books and GPS maps—digital maps encoded with GPS coordinates that can be used by GPS units to pinpoint the user’s exact location. The company brings in annual sales across all its products of close to $1.9 million and sells more than 75,000 map books annually. Mussio reports that the GPS maps are increasing in sales by about 15 per cent annually, noting a recent shift toward the digital products.

The next step of course was an iPhone app, which users and vendors have been clamouring for at trade fairs. Mussio expects that once it is launched, the Backroad Navigator will eventually replace a good portion of the GPS map sales. The app will tap into the GPS tracking capabilities built into smartphones and offer users a way to cache or save portions of maps so that when they go offline and into the backwoods, the app will still track their exact location within the map. The idea is to sell base maps in the app that people can build adventures on (be they hiking, hunting, paddling, etc.); they can then pay for auto updates to new routes and points of interest in a subscription model. And, of course, users can mine the maps offline.

While Mussio himself would never venture outdoors without a hard-copy map, because batteries die and phones can function unreliably, he recognizes how much technology is changing the game and evolution of his company. Indeed, a look around the offices shows mappers on computers, plugging in GPS tracks that are sent in by the company’s wide network of contract researchers and writers on the ground, or prettifying maps using graphics software such as Adobe Illustrator. As for the hard-copy maps themselves, they are boxed in the company’s warehouse below (some $2 million worth of them), but the actual data behind them are all digital, stored on the company’s servers. “Something as old as maps, which have been here from the start of mankind to today, you can’t imagine how much technology is affecting them,” Mussio muses. “It’s eye opening.”