How to keep map and compass at hand -- in all weather

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Nov 8, 2003
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If it ain't snowin' there, we ain't goin' there.
Another thread touches on the perennial problem of keeping a map handy for consultation, especially during bad weather when you need it most.

For several years I enjoyed the sport of following newbie SAR dog handlers as they learned the craft. Occasionally I had the twin pleasures of (1) spotting them drop their maps and (2) returning same to them some time later, usually at the very moment when the absence of the map was being felt most acutely. (Hey, there are limits to altruism . . . )

Eventually they all learned the wisdom of affixing map and compass to their bodies and not holding same in hand or stuffing them into their packs. That's usually when they acquired a sturdy, see-through map case and a chest harness. My map case is a Gaia Noon-Sight Roll-up (medium size) that will be familiar to some paddlers. Sealline and others make them as well. My preferred chest harness is a double-pocketed one from Conterra. The Conterra harnesses are easily adjusted and will fit over any clothing you wear.

Map case is suspended from harness at two corners, arranged so that the map can be read by flipping it up and toward you. Compass is attached with a slim piece of black bungy cord or other elastic cord and placed in one of the harness pockets.

No, it has never hung me up while bushwhacking. No, it doesn't interfere with my movements. Yes, it makes me look a tiny bit geeky or Ninja-like. But it's not nearly as embarrassing as wandering aimlessly through the dark woods, cursing self for setting down map or compass some time earlier . . .
I just prefold my map and put it in a ziplock and then in a pocket. And I usually carry a spare in my pack in case something happens to the first one.

I carry 3 compasses:
* A good sighting compass
* A zipper-pull (1./2 inch) compass (with thermometer! :) )
* A 1/2 inch compass on a wrist strap.

They all live in my "ready bag" (a uniquely colored stuff sack which stays near the top of the pack) unless I anticipate needing one, in which case I hang it on my neck, strap it on my wrist, or put it in an outside pocket.

The small compasses aren't much good for accurate sights, but they will keep you oriented well enough.

Not quite as professional as sardog1's scheme, but it has worked well so far.

what about one of those field vests?

I'm thinking about buying one, my pants pockets don't work very well & I have too many things when I go plant-hunting (GPS, map, pencil, tape measure, notecards, ziploc bags) that I need to have ready-access to.

edit: I use the ziplog bag approach to waterproof my map, cheap & easy, doesn't have holes to tie onto though.
sardog1 said:
A field vest would probably be OK on a trail. Off trail it gets chewed up and spit back pretty soon, methinks.
Hmm -- hadn't thought of that. I'll let you know. :D

WMNF's botanist (formerly with New England Wildflower Society) always wore one whenever I saw him & I know he does more bushwhacking than I do.
Ooops, I was fixated on the fishing version that my wife gave me for Xmas.

Yes, a decent field vest of the type worn by hunters will indeed be sturdy enough for the task. It needs a wide range of adjustment to fit over the clothing d'jour.
I also carry 3 compasses. An old instructor once told me to carry 3... one for me, of course; the second in case I break or lose the primary; and the third for another poor soul I meet who has forgotten or lost his. Since I'm a traditional map & compass only navigator, one high quality orienteering style compass (flat base model) is always worn around my neck. I keep a second slightly more compact orienteering compass in a small emergency kit in my pack. A third one, small but still capable of orienteering, is kept in a separate place in my pack.

My map is always kept in a map case, protecting it from weather and bushwhack brush. I use two different styles. I prefer one I got as a gift from LLBean (not available there anymore) that is nylon on one side and clear plastic on the other. It folds into thirds and clips together for easy of carrying. When in use I fold it so the map side is visible, of course. Unfortunately it is not completely waterproof on the nylon side. I keep a large ziplock bag so if the weather turns the map goes in the bag then back in the case. The other map case I take when I expect to get wet is the one found in any kayak supply store, clear plastic on both sides. I like it less because it is heavier and more difficult to fold than the other case.

A map will last much longer if you coat it. Thompson's Water Seal works exceptionally well. Just paint it on both sides and let it dry completely (outdoors!). It becomes tough and waterproof, completely protected even if dunked underwater.
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I carry either 2 to 3 compasses at any given time. On my summer day pack I have this little one that clips to my backpakcs sternum strap. Small and unobtrusive. But my pride and joys are:

Basic Silva Starter which is good and basic (but has a printed declination scale instead of adjustable).

And my favorite:

Brunton 8010G Baseplate. It has a tool free adjustable declination scale, which is VERY handy.

As for Maps, I always have the AMC Tyvex set, but have slowly been switching over to the USGS 7.5 minute, 1:24,000 scale maps. It gets put in one of those big ziplock bags and goes into the main compartment of my pack. I don't have full coverage yet of the Whites, but do plan on it in the near future.

I have the Gaia Noon-sight map case, but I find it too bulky. I prefer The Ortleib map case
It is totally waterproof, with a roll top velcro seal, visible on both sides, but compact enough to be rolled up and put in a pouch or thigh pocket. My task assignment sheet is usually sandwiched in between a 1:24,000 map and a 1:12,000. It will take a full topo sheet, but that pretty much fills it up, I have my maps printed on 8 X 10s, with MapTech Pro with the trail data overlayed on it.

It is so light that it can get twisted around in the wind when it is around my neck, but I will just stick it under my shell. These are all the rage in Europe, I picked mine up in London.
I keep one of my compasses tied to a strap on my pack. I prefer that to being around my neck. I keep my map in my pack. It is my backup. Before a trip, I make a photocopy of the section of the map I'll be using, and draw lines/write bearings on that, so that I don't have to be fiddling around trying to find a bearing in the rain/wind/snow. This map-copy will be in a plastic bag in my pocket, folded so that the pertinent section is visible through the plastic.
I like layers with chest pockets in all seasons. The summer nylon vest carries a lot of stuff and its real handy.

I keep a map folded and, unless it's tyvek, sealed in a sandwich or snack bag stored in a chest pocket. I often carry a 2nd map, generally a different publisher or scale, maybe part of a topo.

I carry two compasses, a spare in my "emergency kit" and one in a pocket at the top of my pack ... unless I anticipate needing it, like a bushwhack, new, cusing or unmarkedtrails, or questionable contions, in said pocket or around my neck. Oh yeah, and some of my zippers have a small thermometer and compass pull.
I fold a copy of the topo and put it in a freezer ziplock and keep it in my leg pocket. I carry at least two back-ups in my pack in their oqwn ziplocks. Everything is okay until I have to write on the map in the rain and then it's not a practical solution.

Compass on a string around my neck. Only hung myself twice and had it pulled off once. You can look for that compass on N. Henderson mtn in the dacks.
Map is always readily available and in a ziploc - top compartment.
Compass is on a lanyard on my belt - and lives in my front pocket - if it is not easy to get at, you will not use it. I rarely need it, but when you get to a confusing, or poorly signed juunction it can be very useful - or if you are releiveing yourself and forget where the trail is, it can be very useful....ov course, nothing like that has ever happened to me. ;)
sapblatt said:
Map is always readily available and in a ziploc - top compartment. Compass is on a lanyard on my belt - and lives in my front pocket - if it is not easy to get at, you will not use it.

Amen and ditto, though I keep my map in a front pocket alongside the compass (with a backup in the pack if I'm in an unfamiliar area). You need to be checking map and compass at regular intervals *before* you get lost!
Stan said:
sealed in a sandwich or snack bag stored in a chest pocket.

WUSS! :D :p Real men never use anything but the heavy duty freezer bags. Drives my wife nuts. I store it in my chest pocket also. Works great and is relatively cheap. Seriously, god was in his heaven the day they invented zip locks. One of the best inventions ever. And I'm not even counting what you can do with them and food.

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Trouble with the zip locks is that there's writing on one side ... both sides of the folds are clearly visible through my wuss bags.

I do use a zip lock for my new camcorder, however, (does that exonerate me?) which I place in a supposed watertight bag for either hiking or paddling, which is inside another bag ... sort of nested like those Russian dolls ...