On the Map
Winning the Paper Chase — Map Management Made Easy
By Tamia Nelson
November 27, 2012
As more and more people allow an onboard GPS to do their route‑finding for them on the road — sometimes with tragic consequences — the art of map‑reading is rapidly being lost. A case in point: Just last month, I found myself giving directions to a young woman. I had a roadmap in my hand, and I made frequent reference to it as I described the sequence of turns and landmarks. But I was wasting my breath. My map might as well have been the Rosetta Stone for all it meant to the puzzled motorist. In the end, she just looked up at me and asked, rather plaintively, "You don't happen to know the GPS coordinates, do you?"
I didn't. So the young woman was left to find her way to her destination as best she could, without electronic aid. And without a map to guide her. Don't get me wrong. I own a GPS, as does Farwell, and we use them almost every day. But whenever we need to get a sense of the lay of the land in an area new to us, or renew our acquaintance with a place we haven't visited in a while, or plan a trip, we turn first to a paper map or printed atlas. Unfortunately, the decline in what I suppose I have to call "geodacy" — the geographic counterpart to literacy and numeracy, this shouldn't be confused with "geodesy" — has meant that paper maps aren't what they used to be, either. The new USGS US Topo series of quads is, sadly, a case in point. They're wonderful advertisements for digital technology, but they're also cartographic deserts, a triumph of "KISS and don't tell" philosophy.
That's a subject for another time, however. And until the day comes when all backcountry travelers are completely electrified, the paper map, no matter how dumbed‑down, will retain its utility. Its strong points are obvious. It gives you the Big Picture in a single glance, at a scale that permits direct comparison with the terrain around you. It doesn't need batteries. You can take bearings right off the map with an orienteering compass, or locate your position by triangulation — and you can also make notes on its surface, quickly and easily. (For those readers unfamiliar with the process, it requires an archaic instrument called a pencil. Ask your grandparents to show you one.) It's even possible to read the "display" in the full light of the noonday sun.
Of course, paper maps have their limits. They're not waterproof. Leave one out in the rain, unprotected, and it will soon be a sodden, pulpy mess. They're not fireproof, either. If you bring one close to the campfire in order to see better, sparks will soon burn holes in it. And paper maps also make great kites. If your fingers are stiff with cold, it's easy for a stray gust of wind to snatch your map away and carry it over the falls (or over a cliff, if you're hiking, rather than paddling).
There are remedies for many of these afflictions, to be sure: waterproof map cases and lanyards, for example. But paper maps are paper. Over the the years, folds will inevitably become tears, while the topography of hills and rills will slowly be obscured by trail dirt, blood from blackfly bites, and grease from your lunchtime sausage. You'll certainly want to get the most out of your maps before they're reduced to tatters, however. And that goes double for one‑of‑a‑kind items like annotated quads from trips to places you won't be going back to — or even quads that are no longer readily available, like many of the old 15‑minute (1:62,500) series. You're not likely to be using any of these in the field, but they can still suffer damage in storage. Or just go missing, hidden away in the dusty recesses of garage or basement. The upshot? Good mapkeeping begins at home. So let's take a closer look at …
How to Store the Maps in Your Care
If Farwell and I are at all typical, and I think we are, most paddlers collect maps. We have thousands. Maps of places we've paddled and maps of places we'd like to paddle. Not to mention maps that just caught our eye for one reason or another, or for no reason at all, other than their intrinsic beauty. And since the study of maps can be a pleasure in its own right, notwithstanding their obvious uses in the backcountry, we didn't want to consign our map collection to a clutch of cardboard boxes in a shed.
It turns out that we're not alone. Here's what In the Same Boat reader Peter Bickford has to say on the subject:
I have just been reading an article from 2006 regarding map cases ["The Case for Maps" – Editor]. I have also been collecting maps since I was a small child. When we would stop at gas stations I would go inside and try to figure out how many different maps I could take without exceeding some ill‑defined limit. I now have over 10,000 maps, with multiple flat files and many file boxes to hold them all. I, too, am fascinated by topo maps. I have been fortunate enough to have acquired coverage of about half the world in US military topo maps. Even if I never plan to go to these places I love looking at them and learning about the areas.
Clearly Peter is One of Us, and he's obviously given a lot of thought to the best ways of caring for his map collection. Which is why his letter makes an ideal springboard from which to launch a brief discussion of various storage methods, beginning with …
Flat Files. These are the nonpareil of map storage. Your maps are protected, yet accessible. There's no need to fold them, either, and since all folds eventually become tears, this is Very Good News, indeed. But as good as flat files are, they aren't for everyone. They aren't cheap, for one thing, and they take up a fair bit of space. Cottage and apartment‑dwellers will have to find other solutions, such as …
Map Tubes. You'll see these in the catalogs of retailers like Forestry Suppliers and Ben Meadows, companies that sell essential kit to surveyors, foresters, and environmental workers. Tubes are cheap — prices start at around five bucks for a tube that can hold as many as two dozen maps — and they do a good job protecting their contents from dust and light. They don't take up much floor space, either. (You can buy tube racks if you have a large collection, though I've had good luck simply suspending multiple tubes from the ceiling in slings, much as you'd store a boat.) Best of all, you don't need to fold the maps. But there are drawbacks to rolled storage, and they're not to be sneezed at. To begin with, rolled maps are the very devil to work with. They twist away from you. They skitter off the table. They snap closed in your face. You can fight back with weights and elbows, of course, but the map always wins in the end.
And then there's the problem of locating the map you want in the forest of tubes. It's not a simple matter. First you have to extract all the maps from the relevant tube, not an easy job in itself. Next, you have to corral the twisting, rolling, writhing mass while you find the sheet you're looking for. Finally, having persuaded your map to shake off the clinging embrace of its fellows, you now have to weigh down its corners. With a flat file, you just open a drawer and leaf through the contents in a leisurely fashion till you find what you want, and the map you choose will lie docilely on the table before you. But with rolled maps from a tube, you're in for a take‑no‑prisoners struggle from start to finish.
That leaves you with the third option:
Box 'Em Up. You best bet here is to use heavy‑duty cardboard storage boxes with close‑fitting lids, of the type made famous by the venerable Fellowes Bankers Box. These boxes stack, and it's not hard to fold quads so that they fit neatly inside. Then you can easily riffle through the maps till you come to the one you're looking for. But you will have to fold the quads first. And every crease is a potential tear. That's a definite downside. Still, these sturdy boxes make good portable storage files. We often used them when we were in the stones‑and‑bones trade.
That said, cardboard boxes aren't the most elegant of furnishings. You probably don't want stacks of the things — not even upmarket Bankers Boxes — in your living room. Happily, you can get plastic file boxes that are about the same size. They look a little more respectable, I suppose.
But there's an even better choice:
Standard Filing Cabinets. These are where the majority of our maps reside. To make the most of our limited office space, we stack two‑drawer cabinets three high. Getting at the topmost tier entails a stepstool, but this is only a minor inconvenience. At least the drawers come out of the frame, allowing us to place them on a table for easier access.
Within the cabinets, the folded maps are organized in accordion files by location (country, state, or province), type (topographic, geologic, road), and scale. Marine charts are filed separately, as are pamphlets and various proprietary maps. The organizational scheme is broadly, but not slavishly, alphabetic, and labels on the file drawers tell us where to look for what.
That said, cataloging and indexing our collection has always been somewhat hit or miss. Early on, with no computer to help us and with hundreds of map sheets covering New York alone, we fell back on the printed USGS indexes, coloring in the squares as we acquired additional sheets. Sad to say, though, our enthusiasm for this task never equalled our zeal for acquiring new maps. The result? We're something like 20 years behind.
Will we ever catch up? Good question. Now that most additions to our map collection take the form of PDFs — we can then print out only what we need, when we need it — the incentive to bring our old indexes up to date has waned. Still, it would make a good mid‑winter project, particularly if the enterprise were fueled by a wee dram or two. And it could be fun. Maps and dreams go hand in hand, after all.
The bottom line? Filing cabinets are the storage solution that works best for us, though I'm sure you've spotted how that little word "folded" crept back into the discussion. This is the great gotcha of any storage scheme that uses standard filing cabinets (or cardboard storage boxes, come to that). But needs must, and if you've got no choice, it pays to …
Know How to Fold 'Em
Nowadays, many USGS metric quads come prefolded. This hasn't always been the case. Back in the day, you were left to your own devices (not a bad thing, in my opinion). Of course, there are about as many ways to fold maps as there are paddlers, and we haven't found that any one scheme is clearly superior to all the others. Which may explain why we tend to ring the changes. In order to facilitate searching and storage, however, we strive for uniformity within each series, always ensuring that the map's title is prominently displayed. We also make sure that our folded maps will fit easily into one‑gallon freezer bags.
Here's an illustration of one of our regular folds, using a veteran map from our collection:
As predicted, the result is a neatly folded map which slips nicely into a freezer bag:
So far, so good. But once a map leaves the womblike security of its filing cabinet berth, its life gets harder, as evidenced by the supplementary folds seen in the map in the photos above. Working maps are folded and refolded to accommodate the needs of the moment. And this mean that …
No Map is Forever
In the past, paper maps were relatively cheap. In fact, we acquired multiple copies of many quads. One was our archive copy. The others were working copies, and these were expendable. Then color copiers got cheap and quads got costly. Now we copy what we need, returning the file copies — you guessed it — to the file. Or we print out the relevant portions of a map from its PDF counterpart, making sure that we annotate the printout with grid marks and scales, as required. The result is a pretty pallid imitation of the real thing, I'm afraid. Something important has been lost. But at least there's a bit of the old map magic left, even in a smudged photocopy, and this will have to do. Now I know how the monkish scribes felt when they saw their first printed book. Tempora mutantur, they probably muttered, under their collective breaths, almost certainly adding, somewhat resentfully, nos et mutamur in illis.
And so it goes.
Printed paper maps were once the proud emblem of the cartographer's art. Today they're fast becoming throwbacks, increasingly out of place in the digital age. Nonetheless, many paddlers cherish their collections of old quads. And paper still has its uses. But it won't last forever. Which is why it pays to give your paper maps the best possible berth between trips. Now you know how we do it.
Maybe you've found a better way, though. If so, and if you're of a mind, please tell us about it. We're always on the lookout for better ways of doing things. And you can be sure we'll pass your ideas on, so that other paddlers will benefit, too.
Related Articles From In the Same Boat
- "The Things We Carry: The Case for Maps"
- "On the Map: First Steps"
- "On the Map: Traditional Navigation in a Digital World"
- "On the Map: Is History Vanishing Before Our Eyes?"
- "On the Map: Topos to Go!"
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