On the Cumbria Way in the English Lake District

The big square thing slung around my neck in this photo is a waterproof mapcase. Map cases are essential equipment when walking in England; they keep your maps dry and available. Without them, hiking books and maps have a tendency to disintegrate in the rain over several days. Most British walkers use mapcases. I bought my first mapcase on a hike in the English Lake District.

I’ve gotten addicted to my mapcase. It’s so handy to have the map always available, hands-free. So now I use a mapcase on every serious hike, even in Italy where it almost never rains, or just to cruise through Rock Creek Park.

There are disadvantages to mapcases. In a strong wind, they flip up and whack you in the face. The cord around your neck can scratch and pull on the skin – when it’s not trying to strangle you. And mapcases are mightily inconvenient when you have to turn the map to the next section.

Digging the map out of the case and stuffing it back in is not as easy as it looks. Once you pull the map out and unfold it, you have a strong chance of becoming a low-to-the-ground kite.

Folding a map in the wind is harder than it looks.

Then you must stuff the map into the case upside down, so that when you pull it up to read, you’re looking at it right-side up. Despite years of walking with a mapcase, it’s still counter-intuitive for me to put the map in upside down. It usually takes two tries to get it right.

But those are pretty trivial disadvantages compared to a larger issue: looking ridiculous. Outside of the U.K., I don’t run into many people using mapcases. And even though the color of my backpack matters to me, and I care that my boots don’t make my feet look huge, this is one place where I’m willing to forego appearance for convenience. In fact, I secretly relish the idea of myself looking like a dweeb in full hiking regalia.

If you want a mapcase, buy it in Europe. Or order one online; one of my favorites is from the German company Ortlieb. The cases they sell in U.S. hiking stores are usually quite inferior. And I would know; I’m a mapcase geek.