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On the Map

The Paper Chase Continues —
Taking Your Maps Along for the Ride

By Tamia Nelson Show Me the Way to Go Homw

February 26, 2013

I may be a digital girl, but I still carry paper maps. Don't get me wrong. I find my Garmin GPS very useful, and I often load the PDF versions of USGS topographic quads onto my third‑generation Kindle 3G. (It's now been rechristened the Kindle Keyboard, presumably to distinguish it from later generations.) But I've yet to discover any electronic box that I could trust absolutely. I've had "new" batteries go dead in minutes, seen three computers crash catastrophically in the blink of an eye, and watched my Kindle lock up without warning, only to perform a seemingly endless string of automatic reboots for no discernible reason. Yes, digital gadgets are marvels of technology. When they work, that is. When they don't, though, they're just ballast.

And then there's the form factor. The little commemorative‑stamp sized display on the Garmin — no, it's not really this small, but that was the comparison that came to mind when I first used it — can't show me more than a tiny part of the landscape's big picture, and even the Kindle's 6‑inch screen is too diminutive for anything other than local navigation. (My Kindle doesn't do color, either, and color adds a lot to maps.) To top it all off, I still harbor nagging doubts about what the future holds for owners of consumer‑grade GPS receivers like my Garmin. When Big Money collides with the public interest, you don't have to be terribly cynical to put your bets on the Money getting its way in the end.

The upshot? I'm not ready to go paperless yet. And here, in capsule form, is the case for the old‑fashioned paper quad:

  1. It doesn't need batteries.
  2. It doesn't depend on a radio signal that can be jammed or degraded, at whim or by chance.
  3. It depicts a big swathe of country — though just how big depends on the scale.
  4. It can be read in full sunlight.
  5. You can take bearings right off the map, with no tool but a good orienteering compass, and when you need to measure distance you can use your hand.
  6. You can make notes on the surface, quickly and easily.

But this isn't the whole story, of course. There are downsides to be considered, too, beginning with the bleedin' obvious: Paper maps are made of … wait for it … paper. Water can transform them into pulp. Flames can reduce them to ash. A gust of wind can snatch them away. And all of these things can happen in an instant. That said, many 30‑year‑old quads in my collection have been carried in the field for weeks at a time, and they're still serviceable, if a bit worn at the folds. What's my secret? That's easy:

A Little TLC

First, though, let's take a minute for a reality check. If you're inclined to lump paper maps with other ephemera, to be used on a single trip and then thrown away, what do you suppose the odds are that my Garmin GPS, good as it is, will be putting me on the map in 30 years' time? (This assumes that I'll still be knocking about the backcountry in 30 years, but let's give me the benefit of the doubt.) I'm betting it won't. Yet I'm confident that many of my paper maps will still be going strong. I have much older quads in my collection already.

So let's agree that paper has a future as well as a past, shall we? OK. Just how do I safeguard my maps? Well, good mapkeeping begins at home. Since even those quads in my collection that see the most use probably spend 30 days in a filing cabinet for every day they spend in my pack, protected storage is important. And with the help of In the Same Boat reader Peter Bickford, I compared a number of home storage options in an earlier column. Protection in the field is a whole 'nother story, however. Some specialty maps, like the excellent Adirondack Paddler's Map, are printed on waterproofed paper. This helps. My copy of the Paddler's Map dates back to 2004, and it's still as good as new. That said, I never rely on the paper to protect the map. I protect the paper, instead. In short, I use a map case.

There are other approaches, however. You can coat paper maps with proprietary waterproofing compounds, for example, or laminate them to plastic sheets. Art Denney, an experienced paddler whose good ideas have often found their way into this column, recently drew my attention to yet another alternative:

I haven't tried this, yet, but the article "Print Waterproof Plastic Maps" at Instructables looks promising.

I agree. The author — he goes by the name hpstoutharrow — demonstrates how to print maps directly onto plastic sheets cut from trash bags. I haven't tried this (yet), and I'm not sure that thin, stretchy plastic is the ideal material for a quad, but I'm not prepared to discount the idea out of hand, either. It certainly deserves consideration.

For the time being, though, I'm sticking with my old standby: the map case. Which isn't to say it can't be improved on. Peter Bickford, whose contribution to "Winning the Paper Chase" I've already noted, also described his chosen method of protecting maps and charts while on the water:

For kayaking I am using an enhanced version of your ziplock bag technique [see "The Case for Maps" – Tamia]. I take the gallon bag, run a short piece of ⅛-inch nylon cord along each side so both stick out the top and bottom a few inches. I then duct tape the cord to the sides and tie snap clips at the four corners. I am a belt-and-suspenders type of person and do not trust the deck lashings to hold the map case when I capsize. With the snap clips the bag is under the lashings AND clipped in place.

I have also found that both the case and maps hold up better with a custom-cut piece of cardboard under the maps in the bag. The thin type of cardboard used for the backing on legal pads works well. [Foamboard, sold in art supply shops, would work equally well, and provide a little flotation, too. – Tamia] If you use pieces from the pads you will have to tape two pieces together to fill the bag. I try to find larger pieces from artist's pads or other packaging.

With something like 10,000 maps to his name, Peter has certainly learned a thing or two about their care, and I like the elegant simplicity of his improvised map case. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to an improvisation of my own, one that I've been using for some years now. In honor of the first‑to‑publish principle, however, let's call it …

Peter's Case

And here's how to make one. It's not hard. The bill of materials (below) is short, and you can carry extras along on a trip to fashion replacements under way, if needed:

  • A one‑gallon heavy‑duty freezer bag with a ziplock closure
  • 2 strips of duct tape, cut a little longer than the long sides of the freezer bag (if you use a gallon bag, each will measure about 12½ inches)
  • A strip of duct tape just as long as the bottom of the freezer bag is wide
  • Parachute cord (if you want a lanyard, that is)

And that's it. The tape is folded over the sides and bottom of the freezer bag, reinforcing the edges and forming a three‑sided frame around the transparent bag. The tape can also be used to anchor one or more lanyards if desired. The schematic drawing below shows how it's done.

As Easy as A, B, C, D

When I wrote the first draft of the column I didn't think that this sketch would require much elaboration, but the puzzled look on Farwell's face soon convinced me I was wrong. So here goes:

The dark green strips are the duct tape. They're green because that's the color of my favorite 100‑mph tape. And in the interest of clarity, let's agree terms: The plastic bag has a front and back, as well as a top and a bottom. The ziplock is at the top. (A hint: Ziplock closures are subject to wear, and pinholes are hard to spot. Test your chosen bag by total immersion before using it as a map case. And then retest it periodically.) Now we'll walk through the process one step at a time, …

Beginning with Step A. Stick the two longer strips of tape against the back of the bag so that each strip extends out from its respective edge by half its width. Size the strips so they also protrude about ½ inch at the bottom. Then make two short cuts in the tape, at the locations indicated in the sketch. (Take great care not to nick the bag!) Stick the newly created inner tabs down on the front of the bag, as shown in Step B. Now fold the exposed portions of the long strips of tape over the edges of the bag (Step C), sticking the remaining tabs down on the back. Neatness counts here. Finish the job off by sandwiching the bag's bottom seam between the halves of the third, shorter length of duct tape (Step D).

Lanyards, if you want them, can be placed along the right and left edges of the bag before you fold the duct tape over, trapping the cord. Or you can tie them off to small holes punched through the duct tape sandwich and the bag above the zipper, as shown in the sketch. The former method is the one used by Peter, and it's arguably the better of the two. Are lanyards necessary? No. But they're a mighty good idea. You can see one in use in Photo 2 below, where a climbing companion is carrying a map slung over his neck on a hot afternoon in the Pasayten Wilderness. (You can also see a compass and a whistle looped around the climber's neck on a second lanyard.)

Cache and Carry

On the Pasayten trek, the map was folded so that our day's route was clearly visible, continuing around on the back if necessary. Carrying your map case this way lets you keep your hands free, an important consideration in climbing — and in paddling, for that matter. It also makes it less likely that you'll leave your map behind at your lunch spot. But a lanyard is a perishing nuisance in thickets or spruce hells. That's when I tuck my map safely away in pack or pocket, or shove it under my clothes or PFD. You can see two variations on this theme in Photos 1 and 3, above. The casual PFD carry in the first photo (and the photo below, as well) is handy if you're paddling on calm water, and you only need to check your map now and then. It can't be relied on if you dump or roll, however, and there's always a chance that a gust of wind will snatch the map away. It's not much help if you have to keep a constant eye on a chart, either, or at any other time when you need to make frequent reference to your map without parking your paddle. Which is why I favor Peter's lanyard‑on‑the‑deck (or thwart) method anywhere but beaver ponds and tiny, sheltered mountain tarns.

O Say Can You PFD?

Amphibious treks can also require that you keep a map before you at all times, especially when you're cycling along unsigned town roads or fire‑truck trails, on your way to or from a put‑in. A pocket‑sized GPS is good for keeping track of where you've been, but it's not very useful for on‑the‑road navigation — unless you're following a predetermined route, that is. But a lot of truck trails (and more than a few town roads) don't appear on any digitized map. Which means that if you haven't been there before, you won't have a route to follow. What's my answer to this problem in practical navigation? A map case attached to my bike's handlebar bag, that's what. Here's one in action:

One for the Road

It's the CycoActive (ouch!) Products BarMap, and it's almost as simple as my version of Peter's Case. But it's a better fit under my 'bar bag's elastic lashings. The CycoActive case is only showerproof, however. Don't plan on using it in your boat. The small size can also be a nuisance, which is why I bought a larger Zéfal Doomap. The Doomap has a roll closure, too, which greatly improves protection against splash and rain. Once the day's map has been tucked into a freezer bag and then slipped into the Doomap sleeve, it's as safe on the water as it is on the road. No amphibious trekker could ask for more.

True North

The Kindle e‑book reader and its competitors are knocking paperbacks off the shelves, and motorists are dancing to the beat of the TomTom and its kin. But there's still a place for paper maps in paddlers' packs, and paper holds up surprisingly well under the rigors of backcountry travel. Still, it never hurts to take care of your tools. A while back, in "Winning the Paper Chase," I looked at how to store maps at home. This time around, with the able assistance of Art Denney and Peter Bickford, I've described several inexpensive ways to protect your maps anytime you take them along for a ride on the wild side. Now it's over to you.



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And one from my own website:


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