Today I received a new map in the post. It came from SplashMaps and covered my own neck of the woods, Snowdonia South.

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SplashMaps say that these aids to navigation are “Washable, Wearable, All-Weather Fabric Maps for the REAL outdoors.” That’s all well and good, but I wanted to find out if they are any good for finding your way around the hills – surely the most important function of any map aimed at walkers?

I decided to focus my comments on the practical aspects of what a map should be used for in my profession. While I’m certainly interested in any map that is weatherproof, having good readable map symbols, a useful scale, ease of taking bearings, and ease of measuring distances are far more important to me than whether I can wear the map as a scarf or put it in the washing machine.

I took it out for a wander in a sleet and rain shower onto Aran Benllyn this morning. The first snows of the winter are just touching the mountain tops, and band after band of wet stuff were coming in off the sea – a good day to test a map!

So, let’s have a good look at how the map performed with regard to the following:

  • Weatherproof Fabric
  • Scale
  • Map Symbols
  • Measuring Distance
  • Taking a bearing
  • Price
  • Overall user-friendliness

Weatherproof Fabric

As the first shower came on it was immediately obvious that the SplashMap was going to perform exactly as the manufacturers claim. Water beaded on the surface of the fabric, and continued to do so throughout my walk. The fabric also seems surprisingly tough – you’ll certainly never rip this map. And of course, should you drop it in a peat bog, you can stick it in the washing machine when you get home. Another great plus point was that once the shower passed over, the map dried in a matter of minutes.

Water beading on the map during a shower
Water beading on the map during a shower

Map Scale

For a while now I’ve been critical of the 1:40,000 scale (as also used by another well-known map maker), but I have to say that the more I use it, the more I like it. It gives you more map for your money (it is possible to have a sheet about the same size as that used by the popular 1:25,000 scale, but with the map covering a much bigger geographical area). If you can get the same level of detail on your 1:40,000 map as you do on the 1:25,000 scale, then I’m a happy hillwalker. However…

 Map Symbols

Unfortunately, a first glance at the SplashMap made me immediately think, “but where is all the detail?”. The most useful bits of detail that a map could possibly show from a walkers point of view are features such as paths and tracks, rights of way, field boundaries, buildings, contours, streams, and rocky areas. The SplashMap uses contours at 10m intervals, so it looks a bit busy at first (the competitor’s map at this scale uses 15m intervals for contours, so there are fewer of them on the map), but you soon notice that there are no field boundaries shown on the SplashMap. No buildings either, apart from in built-up areas. These are, in my opinion, absolutely essential for accurate navigation in the hills. The map does show streams and rivers, but not rocky areas, be they scree-slopes or even major mountain crags. A quick glance at the symbols key is a bit alarming if you put it side by side with those from either of the two UK major map producers. So much more useful information could have been squeezed onto these maps. The two photographs below show ALL of the symbols shown on the key.

Linear features shown on the SplashMap
Linear features shown on the SplashMap
Other features shown on the SplashMap
Other features shown on the SplashMap

Perhaps the most alarming thing about SplashMap symbols though is that the vast network of public footpaths seems to have been largely ignored. I looked at the area around where I live. It’s upland sheep-farming land, but has an important network of public footpaths crossing fields all over the place. The SplashMap shows only a minor road cutting through the area, with no public rights of way at all.

The paths and tracks that are shown seem to have been selected almost at random. Many look like they are those most likely to be used by mountain bikers, rather than walkers. On the map below the tracks at the head of Cwm Mynach are a good example. Where the yellow road ends at the head of the cwm there is actually a little car park, and a very good forest track that leads north. From that track an obvious path takes you north-west onto the open hill east of Diffwys. On the SplashMap there is a track shown, but it doesn’t connect with the road-head, or with the path going up the hill.

Cwm Mynach
Cwm Mynach

Another slightly odd thing about the SplashMap is the incredible detail given to some spot heights. On the map below we are told that Foel Boeth is at 615.4m and the north top is 619.4m, while Moel yr Wden is 572.2m. That’s very accurate indeed, but I’d have preferred that accuracy being put into marking other features on the map.

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Measuring Distance

Now I’ve got my head around using the 1:40,000 scale I’m very happy with it, so I hadn’t really anticipated any problems with the SplashMap at that scale. However, with the map being fabric it does have a small amount of stretch. For instance, I measured the distance in millimetres of a grid square corner to corner. With the map just held flat on a table it is 33mm corner to corner, but held in the hand under tension that same corner to corner measurement went up to 37mm. Something to be aware of if you’re using this map on a hill.

Taking a Bearing

As taking a bearing involves using your compass like a protractor to measure the angle between a straight line (say where you are, to where you want to go) and Grid North, I found this frustrating to accomplish on this map. Held in the hand, in the field, it’s almost impossible to line the compass up from one point to another, simply because, being fabric, the map folds and creases too easily. On a flat surface, like a table, it was fine, but on a hill I found it difficult to say the least.

Trying to take a bearing on a straight line using a SplashMap
Trying to take a bearing on a straight line using a SplashMap

Price

The price for the SplashMap Snowdonia South is £25.

User Friendliness

I think it very much depends on the user. I can see that this might be a reasonable map for cyclists and motorists to use who might want to stick to the roads with occasional forays onto the paths and tracks that are shown on the map. However, I can’t see how anyone going walking in the hills would be able to actually make use of this map. Show us more features, guys at SplashMaps – such as all the paths and tracks, field boundaries, rocky ground – and then you could be onto a winner! As for being washable and wearable, I guess you can do both of those things if you want a scarf or shawl, and want to be able to wash it afterwards.

So, sorry SplashMaps. I wanted to love your map, but in use on a mountain, it just didn’t do it for me.

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