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The Case for Waterproof Map Cases

Mark with a Map Case

If you hike in England or Scotland, it’s pretty common to see hikers wearing a map case around their neck. But map cases are relatively rare in the United States. They can be quite useful however if you have a lot of maps that you have to manage or you need to check them frequently because you are bushwhacking or hiking cross country – not something most Americans do though. They’re also quite practical if you need to carry a GPS, compass, and notebook and want a convenient way to keep everything together.

I reckon you see fewer map cases in the US because most hikers here hike in areas with well-marked, blazed, or signed trail systems. Heck, some people even hike the Appalachian Trail without maps, although I still carry mine because I like taking detours to scenic viewpoints. But US hikers hike almost exclusively on public lands, in National, State, and City Parks and Forest, where trail systems are well managed and easy to follow, unlike the UK and Europe where hiking routes run through farmers’ fields, small villages, and vast private estates, and there’s no one central authority responsible for the entire trail system.

But a map case can be very handy if you hike in a location that has a lot of intersecting trails and dirt roads where it’s easy to take a wrong turn, where you’re unfamiliar with the landscape, or where many of the land features look alike, like parallel ridges and rounded hills. They’re also very handy in places where it rains all the time and where maps printed on waterproof paper are less available, which explains their popularity in England, Scotland, and many other countries of the world that still print maps on paper.

Most of the waterproof map cases you can buy in the United States are intended for coastal kayakers or long-distance cyclists, not hikers. You can tell because they have lashpoints designed to attach to kayak rigging or loops to attach to handlebars. What they’re missing is the all-essential strap to loop over your neck so you can hold your map case in front of you and refer to it frequently.

When choosing a hiking map case, there are a few attributes to consider:

  • the size of your maps and whether they’ll fit without excessive folding
  • whether the map case has a neck lanyard
  • whether you can see through both sides – which is quite useful
  • if the material is flexible in cold weather

If you do live in the US, there is one good waterproof map case worth checking out, the Sea-to-Summit Waterproof Map Case which comes with a lanyard, is transparent on both sides, and remains flexible in cold weather. After that, you have to go to Europe to buy a good map case. The best map cases are made by Silva and Ortlieb but are difficult to acquire unless you buy them in Europe.

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  1. FWIW, maps I typically use are printed on non-absorbent, tyvek-like material, and I often don’t bother with a map case. On longer trips I’ll often put them in a ziplock bag so they escape excessive punishment. Still, I see circumstances, like bushwacking, when it would make good sense to have a map spread out in a map case. I wonder if some of those meant for cyclists would also be a good option. What about a large Loksak?

    • I do to, although I also carry old paper maps. A large Loksack would definitely work except for the fact thatit doesn’t really have any place to put a lanyard through. Of course a lanyard might also be sub-optimal for bushwhacking, depending on the density of the bushwhacking you do.

      My biggest headache is opening my map continuously and trying to get it oriented – a map case eliminates that because it’s always open to the section you need it to be open to and reduces the wear and tear on the map. Most of my frequently used maps disintegrate within a year from being folded and unfolded repeatedly.

    • Hendrik Jan Riesebos

      A simple large zipbag will serve you well, even in a place as wet as Scotland.
      Done de Cape Wrath Trail with it, very budget friendly way of keeping a map dry.


  2. For a forest park where I do most of my hiking here in New Zealand, I use a waterproof fabric map that has has a digital image dye-sublimated on to it. Not the cheapest map but much more robust and waterproof. It’s also multiuse as a shelter/packcover. The link below explains the map/process better than I could.

  3. One gallon freezer ziplock foe me.

  4. Great post.

    Supper idea for wet weather hiking.

    Makes sense too.

    Thanks a bunch.

  5. I “laminate” my paper maps front and back with clear shelf paper from the Dollar Store. I leave just a little extra around the edges. It’s waterproof, fold-able (I sometimes keep the map in my pants pocket), and can be written on. I also like zip-loc bags (I like the ones with the actual zipper, as I’m just too clumsy to get the other ones to close properly). Can’t beat the price; I get several maps (and sometimes written directions/route plans) for a buck!

  6. I find hiking with a map case dangling around the neck a real chore, they forever get whipped about by the wind or getting in the way at the most inopportune times. Or you just happen to walk over the fold when it’s lashing with rain and you really need it.
    I habitually use laminated A4 maps printed off Routebuddy, far easier to use on the trail, they’re waterproof, easily stuffed into a pocket and cheap. The large OS map(s) stay in the sack (in an aloksack) as a backup.

  7. “I reckon you see less map cases in the US because most hikers here hike in in areas with well marked, blazed, or signed trail systems…… But US hikers hike almost exclusively on public lands, in National, States and City Parks and Forest, where trail systems are well managed and easy to follow…”

    Hmmm….you’ve obviously never hiked in Alaska. While we have a (very) few “well marked, blazed, or signed” trails, most hiking in these parts is on obscure, very poorly maintained (if at all), trails with few signs. Even Denali National Park has only a few miles of officially marked trails, and those are short trails near Park Headquarters. Most “trails” in Alaska are really just cross country routes that have been traveled enough so that there is some sort of rough track visible. It has also been known to rain around here, every once in awhile ;-)

    I generally just put maps in a large size zip lock freezer bag in the outside pocket of my pack. I’ve never found the lack of a strap for around the neck to be a big issue. If I really think I’ll need to refer to the map that frequently I just print print key sections of the map on water resistant paper, and carry that in a smaller zip lock in my jacket pocket. That system has worked fine for me for many years.

  8. I do a fair amount of off trail hiking and peak bagging. Having a map that is a) handy (without taking my pack off) and b) secure (i.e. unlikely to snag on brush and get lost — which has happened to me) is really important. I really like the Isuka map case that I bought in Japan. I’m not a fan of the lanyard around the neck type. The lanyard type swing about too much for my liking and can snag in brush. The Isuka clips in to either my backpack’s shoulder strap or to an attachment that I can put on my belt with standard ballistic type plastic buckle. One handed unbuckle to read; one handed move to re-attach. It’s the best I’ve seen.


  9. Having a lanyard hanging around your neck is an accident waiting to happen.

  10. I agree with Shocker, especially when it comes to something like a big dangling map case just waiting to get caught on something. I do carry a rescue whistle on a lanyard around my neck for calling my dog back when she decides to go off trail chasing something, but I keep it tucked inside my shirt when not in use.

  11. No. Safety First!!! Accidents like strangulation happen when one leasts expects it. It’s not a function of where you hike but the risk one assumes on having a lanyard around one’s neck.


  12. Aquapac UK cases are excellent waterproof cases ideal for these situations and more. These cases do not leak have used all types for the past 10 years.
    Lanyards get caught in branches so not ideal. I use carabiners for a gps or whistle.

  13. REI carries Osprey map cases to attach to your pack shoulder strap. I haven’t tested it myself. Customer reviews look mixed.

  14. Thanks for the topic, would actually like to hear more particulars comparing the growing number of options available in US as quality & functionality deserve more than a passing reference. A friend brought the idea back from hiking in Europe, always has his map to hand which I support 100 percent. Staying found best practice is to dead reckon continuously monitoring progress through terrain features which require frequent, easy map checks. And in back country paddling, the more so. Hmm, is this the rapid we run, or the one that might kill us?

    And sure, it’s great to have maps quality printed on Tyvek, but when was the last time all your maps were everything you could wish?

    Doubtless within a few years these will be the hottest item on the shelf, must have gear for every weekend warrior. And if that prevents a few folks from wandering off into unintended detours for a night outdoors, great. May the old Graphical Positioning System be the hot new trend.

    Nervous about the neck tether though, a big no no in paddling unless rigged break-away. In short attachment is an interesting topic in itself.

    Some updated (2019) online research. Amazon alone lists half a dozen. What reviews say:
    NRS HydroLock Mapcessory get’s panned as having an unreliable zip lock closure mechanism
    Sea to Summit – ziplock hard to seal but effective. Comes with lanyard.
    *Sea to Summit Map Case – with roll top. Sizing illogical. Comes with lanyard
    *Ortlieb Ultimate Map Case has a hook & loop roll type closure, looks promising, from REI. Targeted at bicycles, seeming to leave hiking attachment method to your own ingenuity. Too stiff to roll in pocket.
    SealLine – ziplock seal, just don’t get sand in the closure.
    *SealLine HP Map Case – Roll top. No figure out your own attachment. Said to leak a bit submerged. Should fit 8.5×11. I am buying at 50% off, give it a try.
    Rothco Map & Document Case – looks nice but is only water resistant.
    AceCamp Waterproof Map Case Holder – ziplock, fits about 10×10, inexpensive

    My tentative conclusion: Roll closure over ziplock, I’ll likely add my my own attachment hardware. Personal experience, don’t expect anything flexible clear plastic to last forever.

  15. The advantage of owning a small sign company is having a wide format printer capable of printing topo maps on Tyvek. USGS topo quads are available for free download. I print the ones I’ll use on both sides of the material. I’ve also diced and spliced maps in my graphics software to create trip specific cartography.

  16. Does anyone know how to clean the inside of the map case? Mine has print that has transferred from a map and also some cloudy sections from the wet.

  17. I just came across this ancient post and thought about sharing an idea here.

    I’ve been carrying a map in ziplock in my packs bottom pocket for a while. This works ok most of the time, but in some terrains I want to have the map closer for frequent consultation, and that has generally lead to me carrying a map in hand, which is not necessarily ideal anyway (trekking poles etc). I tried a map case hanging from neck, but I found it cumbersome, as some other commenters have mentioned.

    Now I use a map case tied to my waist with an elastic cord. When not in use, map rests basically covering my thighs. With elastic cord and soft case it doesn’t hinder my movement at all. Cord is elastic enough that I can just grab the map and raise it to chest level for a look, and when I let go of it snaps back in place, out of way.

    Only downside, I can’t really argue that my map & compass -system is lighter than smartphones anymore.

    This system is especially good for when you need frequent map access, bu also for winter hiking, as it is just fine to use with mittens, when small map folded in a pocket would be a pain.

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