Image of an illustrated map of ski resort trails


Ski-Trail Mapmaker

Rad Smith combines art and science to map mountain slopes


PATH FINDER: Smith has been making ski maps for 15 years.

Before skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes, they need to know what routes they can take down a mountain. Parks and resorts rely on ski maps to provide this information to visitors. These maps show a mountain’s topography—the arrangement of an area’s natural features—including slopes, cliffs, and forests. Along with needing to be detailed and accurate, ski maps must look visually appealing to entice people to explore the mountain.

That’s where Rad Smith comes in. He’s an artist and designer specializing in cartography, or mapmaking. He uses geographic data to craft maps that chart ski routes while also highlighting mountains’ breathtaking terrain and surrounding landscapes. Science World spoke with Smith to find out how he creates maps that are both informative and beautiful.

How did you become interested in maps and mapmaking?

I’ve been interested in the natural world my whole life. As a kid growing up in North Carolina and Georgia, I spent a lot of time outdoors. I was also a big collector of maps. Every time I got an issue of National Geographic magazine, the first thing I would do was flip through it to find the maps.

When I grew up, I decided to pursue a degree in fine art. I studied painting, drawing, and sculpting. Along with giving me valuable technical skills, my education also taught me to observe things more closely.


ROUGH DRAFT: Smith works on a pencil sketch of a map.

After I graduated, I worked in graphic design. Graphic designers use visuals to communicate messages or ideas. That could include creating a logo for a company or making technical diagrams for a scientific publication.

At one point, I was creating designs for ski clothing. That reminded me of my interest in the outdoors. Soon after, I made my first location maps for an outdoors magazine using watercolor paints. I loved it! Then I got a job at an environmental consulting firm and spent 20 years making maps for experts like biologists and historians. Now, I make mostly ski maps.


FLYOVER: Smith finds it helpful to view an area’s features from an aircraft.

How do you make your maps?

It begins with a lot of conversation. I like to speak with a person who knows the area well. For a ski area, that might be a site manager or ski patroller. We talk about what parts of the landscape need emphasis. I usually visit the property and get an aerial view, either from an airplane or with a drone. If it’s a ski map, I like to ski all over the mountain.

Next, I gather technical information, like satellite images and topographic data—or elevation measurements—that tell me the exact size of every feature on the mountain.


Then I create a basic line drawing. I ask myself: Are the right features being highlighted? Is it a believable scene?

I show my initial drawing to the client to see if they are happy with the direction. Then I create a more detailed pencil sketch. Once that’s approved, I bring it to life with watercolors. I paint buildings, trees, and valleys. From start to finish, a map can take two to three months.


TOURIST ATTRACTION: Smith drew this map, which shows Big White Ski Resort in Canada.

If you could make a map of any place, where would it be?

I’ve never mapped anything underwater. That’s a special type of mapmaking called bathymetric mapping. I would love to map the terrain of the ocean floor. So far, only about 20 percent of the ocean floor has been accurately mapped—that means we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the seafloor!

One thing I love about maps is that they can take anybody anywhere without them having to go to that place. So I think mapping somewhere that most people never get to see would be really exciting.

Skills Sheets (2)
Skills Sheets (2)
Lesson Plan (1)