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.