It’s reasonably common knowledge that, for an intrepid traveller exploring the universe on a budget, nothing is considered more useful than a humble towel. In his seminal work, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the late Douglas Adams went to great lengths to describe just how useful one could be, suggesting that it could be used as a sail, a weapon, protection against the heat or cold, a gas mask, emergency signalling or, if impregnated with the appropriate substances, a source of vitamins or anti-depressants. At the end of this exhaustive list he also noted that (should it still be deemed clean enough) it could be used to dry oneself.
“You can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”
I found myself considering a similar range of applications recently when using one of Splashmap’s products. Described as ‘”Wearable, washable, all-weather maps for the real outdoors” I had spent an inordinate amount of time getting it wet, writing places of interest on it and perfecting the right knot to use to turn it into a natty cravat before remembering that I could also use it to help me get from A to B. And just as well that we could. I had my usually trusty Garmin Edge 605 with me for our recent trip up to Yorkshire for Le Tour but on Stage 2 disaster struck. In our haste to glean as much as we could from the caravane publicitaire I neglected to turn it off when we stopped to watch. Given that I had caned it’s battery over the preceeding couple of days’ riding (and also given the difficulty asssociated with recharging electrical devices when camping) the poor thing had completely given up the ghost by the time Nibali et al had cruised past us atop Blubberhouses Moor. Cue Splashmaps to get us to our next destination before we headed back home.
I’d first seen SplashMaps on their stall at L’Eroica Britannia where they were doing a brisk trade selling material maps of the three routes being tackled by the vintage bikes that weekend. Printed on a waterproof fabric, with options to define areas, add routes and personalised titles etc they are something of a cartographic expression of style and a usefully stowable alternative to bulky paper maps or the soulless GPS. Inspired by the silk “Escape and Evasion” maps carried by WWII pilots and others operating behind enemy lines, they seek to address the compromises needed when using traditional maps that we just seem to accept without question. The project is another example of someone being fed up with a status quo that, in the words of SplashMap’s MD, offered the choice of either “Paper maps that became mush every time it rained, [or] laminated maps which are just too heavy and still need to be folded to perfection”. It’s also another. example of one person with a strong idea making a business happen through online crowd-funder Kickstarter. Hampshire based entrepeneur David Overton secured a small start-up fund back at the end of 2012 and is now selling thousands of maps a year and starting to look beyond the British Isles.
The Splashmap I have is the Tour de France Stage 2 special. Well, actually it’s ‘Parts A & B’ of Stage 2. Because of the length of the stages, the route beyond Keighly and onto Sheffield is covered on an entirely separate ‘Parts C & D’ map. It is also titled Le Tour du Nord – without any direct reference the Tour de France itself. I had assumed this was a licensing issue that SplashMaps have sought to get around and David confirmed this when I spoke to him to see how things are going. The Tour map is 1:50,000 scale to fit it all in, which is just about fine for cycling, but I found that at first the info didn’t jump out at me in the way an OS Map would. It’s just a familiarity thing, like seeing yourself in photos having spent years looking at a slightly different version in the mirror. I’ve spent the better part of 40 years looking at OS Maps and any change from that specific language is bound to jar a little at first. The more I looked at it though, the more I came to see the information that I needed and got used to the style. The 1:25,000 scale ‘customer-centred’ maps on SplashMap’s website are totally identical to OS maps but because SplashMaps are using Open Source data to produce their ‘standard’ maps they can also control the scale they chose to use. Most of these maps are 1:40,000 as they have found this to be the best scale for cycling, striking a good balance between “too much clutter and too little detail” and they boldly highlight cycling friendly routes such as bridleways and cycle paths.
Unsurprisingly David’s background is in geographic innovation and cartography. He worked as the Ordnance Survey’s Innovation Manager until 2009. Resurrecting one of his ideas that didn’t make it there was always an aim and, after a couple of years doing consultancy to help flesh out his skills, he took the plunge. He is now looking at bringing more scales to the customer-created maps, grow his UK market and move into European mapping. The first of these – seven standard areas in Germany and customer-centred ones using the German equivalent of OS – launches in October.
So why choose one..? The Ordnance Survey do now provide a range of bespoke and weatherproof maps – a fact that had passed me by until looking into it for the purposes of this article – and for less money than the £18.99 -£24.99 price of the SplashMaps (only slightly less for the bespoke area & weatherproofed option). Well, an OS Landranger won’t keep your head dry nor hold a broken arm as a sling would it? Err no.. The fact that I could use my map as picnic blanket or sit on it on damp grass awaiting Astana, Team Sky and co was pretty handy too. The fabric is the USP of Splashmaps and it’s a good one. Certainly I could stuff (or fold or roll) my SplashMap into a smaller package than I could have with paper maps covering the same area. Or I could use it like a scout’s neckerchief (SplashMaps are missing a trick here and really need to issue their maps with some kind of simple ‘woggle’) to keep the Yorkshire sun off my exposed neck and, had I had the one covering Stage 1’s recce, it would definitely have come into it’s own as a rainshield on our sodden ride of a couple of days earlier.
So what could be better? Well, the waterproof aspect of the mapping does rather get in the way of this but it they could make it work as a towel as well I’d happily use one to try and get to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Scale permitting of course…