deep green earth



Eleven uses for an Ordnance Survey map

Joe Gray

Publication date: 4 August 2020

Citation: Gray J (2020) Eleven uses for an Ordnance Survey map. Available at:

I am on a ramble around an area whose landmarks and woodlands I know like the freckles and hair patches on the backs of my hands, and I find myself, at the half-way point, grateful to have packed a map. For while I have no particular use for a navigational aid on this walk, I do need something to stop the damp from the surface of a wooden bench seeping up into the seat of my trousers. The map in question is an Ordnance Survey Explorer, and, even though I have the standard version, and not the weatherproof one, I still feel confident that the folded sheet will hold up as a barrier for the duration of my sitting break.

As I sit there, I begin to consider some of the other uses for an OS map, and I quickly find a surprisingly long list forming. I present this catalogue of applications below. The list is not a contrived effort to document as many items as possible. So I will not, for instance, be describing these maps as emergency 'material' for people who are caught short or as a discus replacement for a non-aerodynamic Olympics. Nor is the list a springboard for jumping into a philosophical consideration of what a map is, is not, and might be. Rather, I am simply noting all the genuine practical uses that I have registered, up to the point in my life that I sat down on the damp bench that currently supports my weight – the time when I became conscious of the item's incredible versatility.

So, I say, let the Swiss keep their penknives… I will take an OS map over a pocket-tool any day.

Use 1: Roaming enabler

This first item in the list is straightforward enough, yet it says something more than a map simply being an aid to navigation – because this object's application need not be restricted to keeping one on a set path. A map is a marvellous aid to getting lost… or getting lost with confidence, to be more specific. Bearers of a map can roam a landscape, turning down any path that the heart might suggest, or striking off on a woodland tangent, and then – using landmarks, say – re-locate themselves when the time comes. They can also, at the point of re-discovery, learn just how much land they trespassed across on their wild foray.

Use 2: Distance measurer

Aided by string and pins, or a mini 'trundle wheel', one can use a map to measure the approximate distance of a trail completed, or of a walk yet to be undertaken. This is a far more satisfactory method, I feel, than trying to contort a route on Google Maps, say, into a rough likeness of a path in the real world.

Use 3: Clock

Since – by comparing one's location to that of a landmark – a map can be used to find north and south, it can also be employed, on a sunny day, as a clock. For people like me who travel with no wristwatch and a mobile phone that is almost always turned off and at the bottom of one's bag, this clock is in theory helpful. At the same time, for people like me whose stomach's augmented rumblings are an accurate teller of mid-morning, noon, and mid-afternoon, such a clock is rarely needed.

Use 4: Ruler

An OS map can fulfil both uses of a ruler: offering a straight edge and measuring the size of an object. I often run a pencil down the long edge of a map cover to give myself a straight line in a notebook. And I sometimes, also, make use of the measuring potential. In the case of an OS Explorer, each square is four centimetres on its side, and, along the edges of the map, these squares are divided into ten equal fractions, each measuring four millimetres. So if, on a walk, you would like to ascertain the diameters of flower heads, the widths of leaves, and the lengths of (slow-moving) insects – and then record them in a neatly drawn table – a map can serve just as well as a ruler.

Use 5: Bramble pusher

If you walk with your map folded in your hand, rather than having it mostly stowed away in your backpack, you may find yourself, without conscious thought, using it to push away brambles or other impediments to progress. Maps are actually remarkably effective in this regard and, over the years, they have saved me from many thorn pricks and scratches. Of course, on account of Use 1, they are also responsible for me having wandered through the undergrowth, as opposed to along well-trodden paths, more than I otherwise would have. On reflection, maybe the two competing impacts on my contact with thorns balance out and the net effect is neutral.

Use 6: Sun visor

If the sun is out, it means not only that Use 3 becomes possible, but that, unless you have packed a hat, you may find yourself discomforted by an excessive amount of bright light in your eyes. Fear not, though, for this is where Use 6 comes into play. A folded-up OS map is the perfect length for keeping all sun off your brow, and a good width for keeping your nose under shade, too.

Use 7: Neck protector from sun

The presence of bright sun may also leave you desiring Use 7. Fortunately, an OS map, when opened up to double its fully folded size, rests neatly across one's shoulders, thus protecting the neck. I am not suggesting that the dimensions of an OS map were settled on with this purpose in mind, but it must be said that the mechanics of this thing are remarkable. But what if one has only one map with them and wishes to use it both as a visor and a neck shield? The answer is simple: A partially unfolded map makes a reasonable approximation of a French Foreign Legion cap, complete with neck drape.

Use 8: Fan

Another subconscious application of an OS map, like bramble pushing, that one may find themself making is as a fan, on a warm day. And, as a bonus, maps come equipped with two fanning modes. The first is achieved with the item fully folded; like this, it delivers a gentle and simply administered breeze. The other mode is accessed by opening the map's cover back onto itself and locking the folds into a circular form using the fingers of one hand; with this, one has a fan that can issue a breeze sufficient for cooling oneself even on the hottest of days.

Use 9: Insect discourager

Using a similar motion to that employed in Use 8, one can use a map to gently discourage flying insects from occupying the air into which you are about to walk.

Use 10: Argument winner

Another animal that an OS map can be used to discourage is a farmer – specifically one striding across their land in the hope of shooing (or shooting) you away, even though you are on a legal footpath. I have found that one flash of the bright-orange masthead of an OS Explorer is normally enough to win the argument before it has begun.

Use 11: Waterproof seat

In contemplating all these uses that I have made of OS maps, I have sat down longer on this damp bench than I had intended to. Nervously I stand up and pat the rear of my trousers with my right palm. The map has done its job admirably: not a drop of moisture has seeped through. And so, happily, I can add an eleventh and final use to this list: that of waterproof seat. 

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