Topographic maps are the first thing you should buy when preparing for a trip into the field.  Buy these maps well in advance of a trip so that you have time to do two things; study the area you plan to explore, and prepare the map for rough environments.

Universal Transverse Mercator or UTM is a grid system that is much easier to use than latitude and longitude.  UTM utilizes a 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer grid on standard USGS 7.5 minute maps to measure your location.  By printing the UTM grid on a map, it makes approximating distances easy because you can simply count grids from your origin to your destination.

To prepare your maps, look to see if the UTM grid is preprinted on the map.  On some maps, this will be the case, but on others, there will be tick marks along the edges of the map, often in blue for the 7.5 minute US maps, that indicate the UTM grid.  I use a 24 inch long steel ruler with a cork backing as a straightedge when I draw in the UTM grid.  The cork backing is important because it keeps the ruler off of the map, preventing ink smudges and allowing a clear view of the tick marks that I am trying to connect.  In addition, I use readily available ink pens with a 0.2 mm tip (my favorite is the Pigma Micron) to draw in the lines for the grid.  These pens are found in most stores that sell art and drafting supplies.  Be sure to find the pens that say “waterproof ink” on them.  Care must be taken with these pens as the tips are so fine that they are easily bent or distorted if you use too much pressure.  Draw the line slowly to get a solid black line without any skips.

Equipment for plotting UTM lines

Equipment for plotting UTM lines

Once you have the UTM grid drawn on the map, it is time to waterproof the map.  There are a number of commercial map waterproofing agents available.  These are all good products.  Follow the directions on the bottle.  You’ll need a foam brush to apply the waterproofing material.  If you used an ink that was not waterproof, it may ruin the map.   In addition, you’ll want to waterproof the map before you crease the map.  Repeated creases can wear the paper thin in areas, and after waterproofing these thin areas, you’ll often find that you can no longer read information at the crease points.

Now your map is properly prepared for a trip into the field.  To further protect it, you’ll want a map case of some sort.  I have tried several specialty waterproof map cases made from sturdy plastic, and found them to be bulky and inconvenient.  Over time, my favorite map case has become the one gallon freezer bag.  These are readily available, cheap, easily replaced, and waterproof.  They are clear on both sides, making it easy to read a large portion of the map.

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