Introduction: Print Waterproof Plastic Maps

Make your own Waterproof Maps by Printing directly on Plastic Film...garbage bag film.  This is not simply laminating paper maps.

The end result of this simple project is a 100% plastic map that is thinner, lighter, and more durable than paper. 

Sure, plastic paper can be purchased for printing water resistant maps however, it is expensive, and usually thicker and stiffer than regular paper; making it difficult to fold into a pocket sized, ready reference.

This process produces a map that is only slightly thicker than a garbage bag; that is waterproof, and best of all, can be folded (or crumpled) without damage for stuffing in a pocket.  

Step 1: Size and Weight Matters

Water is the nemesis of printed paper maps.  It creates a pretty rainbow effect as the ink bleeds into the paper. 
Nice abstract art but, useless for orienteering.

I like to print my own maps of an area when we go hiking. A trail map, and maybe a topographical (Topo) map, and  a road map for directions to the trail head or pick-up point.

The approach used for years, to keep hiking maps from the elements involved storing them in a zip top plastic bag. Folded into quarters, it looks like the map on the left below.  It keeps maps dry, however, the folded baggie only seems to fit in the square shaped pockets of cargo pants, and eventually, the folding and unfolding takes its toll on the bag and the paper inside. 

Also, There is always a chance the maps will get wet every time the bag is opened.  And many times, the bag has to be opened to shuffle through multiple pages for various sections of the trail. 

For the most part, this method works, and I will probably continue to carry master maps in this fashion.  But, sometimes, especially when traveling in familiar areas, all that is needed is a quick glance at a map to confirm the trail you want is to the left or right ahead.

This is where this Instructables map technique excels... A ready reference thin enough to be stuffed in a pocket, durable enough to survive multiple crumpling and best of all...weatherproof.

It is important to understand the limitations of this process.  
Plastic film shrinks when heated so, the map scale will no longer be correct (i.e. a 1/4 inch will no longer equal a mile, etc.)
The fidelity of fine map details may be difficult to discern. Printer ink does not absorb into the plastic film so, the surface tension of the ink will will blur small text and fine details. 

Despite these drawbacks,  this process will produce a reusable map suitable to tuck in a shirt pocket for reference on the trail in the worst weather, or as a very compact emergency back-up map tucked away in a survival kit. 

Step 2: Materials

Only a few inexpensive materials are required for this project:
   (4) Sheets of plain printer paper
   (1) One quart, clear plastic sandwich bag
   (1) White plastic kitchen garbage bag

    Access to an ink jet printer*
    Clothes iron
    Ironing board or other heat resistant surface
    Utility knife or sissors

*This process was developed for an Ink jet printer.
Do not attempt with a laser printer. The heat used to fuse the toner will likely have an undesirable effect on the plastic coated paper and may gum-up the printer's internal mechanisms.

Step 3: Cut the White Plastic Film

Cut a White Film Blank from a white kitchen garbage bag.

The White Film Blank should approximatly 10 inches by 7 inches.  

The blank is purposely cut smaller than a standard 8.5 x 11 inch letter sized printer paper.
This is to avoid the plastic potentially overhanging the paper, and coming in direct contact with the hot iron.

Note:  When cutting through the garbage bag, there will be to two sheets stacked together, be sure to seperate the two ply blank.
Only a single thickness of the white plastic film is required.

Step 4: Cut the Clear Plastic Film

Cut off the zip top of the 1 quart sandwich bag.

1.  Make the cut 5 inches from the bottom of the bag.  
This will create a 10 inch long  Clear Film Blank when the bag is unfolded in the next step.

2. Cut down the two side seams of the bag (photo 2) to allow the bag to unfold open (photo 3)

Note: A quart sized bag width is comparable to the width of the White Film Blank cut earlier.  
Again, the final dimensions of both the White Film Blank and Clear Film Blank should be smaller than a letter sheet of paper to avoid the plastic from coming in direct contact with the hot iron.

Step 5: Prepare for Ironing

Place theWhite Film Blank plastic sheet between two pieces of printer paper.

The goal is to create a Paper / Plastic / Paper "sandwich" which will be bonded together in the next step

Be sure to center the White plastic on the paper to make sure it does not extend out beyond the paper.  Any exposed plastic will create a gooey mess if it comes in direct contact with the iron.

Step 6: Apply Heat

A regular clothes Iron is used to apply heat to the Paper / Plastic / Paper "Sandwich"

Pre-heat the iron -  Use the Cotton/Linen temperature setting (it is usually the highest setting).

Note: Iron temperatures may vary so, if you peel back the paper in step 8, and notice the plastic has disintegrated and melted with lacy holes, back off on the temerature setting

Press down on the "sandwich" with light to medium pressure, and keep the iron moving at a smooth gentle pace for about 30 seconds. (like spreading frosting on a cake pace, or painting with a brush)   Keep the iron moving; do not stop on the paper.  

Be sure to iron over the whole page several times during the 30 seconds.  In particular, make sure to go over the edges a few times to ensure the edges of the plastic are bonded to the paper.

Step 7: Clear Plastic

Repeat the Paper / Plastic / Paper "sandwich" and ironing process with the Clear Film Blank.

Use two additional pieces of printer paper and make a new Paper / Plastic / Paper "sandwich" stack.

Iron the Clear plastic sandwich in the same manner as before.

Note: This is a separate "sandwich" with the Clear plastic. DO NOT create a double-decker "sandwich" by stacking onto the original White plastic "sandwich".

At this point there should be (2) two individually ironed "sandwiches" - (1) one with the White film, and (1) one with the Clear film.

Step 8: Peel a Page From the White Film

Peel one sheet of the printer paper from the WHITE plastic ironed "sandwich".

Make sure the ironed "sandwich" has fully cooled before peeling.
Don't peel the paper until you are ready to print.

Start at a corner and peel carefully, and slowly. The plastic must remain bonded to the second sheet of paper.Discard the removed single sheet of paper.
The third photo shows a good example of a fully bonded plastic film

The page, with the exposed plastic coating, will curl slightly due to the tension of the cooled plastic. Handle it gently; you do not want to distrurb the bond between the plastic and paper at this point.  

This paper is the substrate that will carry the plastic film through the printer so, the plastic film must be fully bonded to it to prevent jamming the printer.  Some delamination may occur during handling.  The small amount shown in the last photo, should be ok.  The most important edge to be fully bonded is the leading edge heading into the printer.

Note: If, after peeling one sheet of  paper, the plastic film is not fully bonded to the other sheet of paper, replace the top sheet of paper and re-iron the "sandwich" - add a little more time and a little more pressure, and/or increase the temperature slightly, if possible.

Step 9: Peel a Page From the Clear Film

Peel one sheet of the printer paper from the Clear plastic ironed "sandwich".

Make sure the ironed "sandwich" has fully cooled before peeling

Start at a corner and peel carefully, and slowly. The plastic must remain bonded to the second sheet of paper.Discard the removed single sheet of paper.

This is the same process as the White film however, the Clear film will not be going through the printer.

Step 10: Print the Map

Have your map chosen, cropped, and sized so that printing can occur imediatly after peeling the plastic.

Don't leave the peeled exposed plastic coated paper waiting around.  Be ready to print.  It will lessen the chance the film will delaminate before you get a chance to print on it.

Choose a map without fine detail or small fonts. There will be some granularity loss due to the nature of the process.  
Also, reduce the size of of the map. Remember the plastic film does not extend to the edges of the paper so maps should be less than a full sheet of letter paper.

Place the plastic coated paper plastic side down down in the printer paper tray. 
Printer paper loading differs between printers so, load the film coated paper such that the map prints on the plastic film side.

Black ink produces the best results.  Small areas of color are fine however printing in black and white produces the best results.

Print in Draft mode.  The less ink, the better.  Higher quality print settings will deliver more ink; which is normally better on paper however, larger quantities of ink on the plastic will result in more ink beading/migration due to liquid surface tension.

When ready, send the map to the printer and make sure it prints directly on the plastic film. 

Step 11: Seal the Top Film

Place the paper with the exposed Clear film over the printed map and seal with the iron.

After printing the map, the White film (with fresh ink) should still be bonded to its paper.  Lay this paper (film side up) on the ironing board surface.
Then immediately, place the paper with the the bonded Clear film over the map.  The Clear film should now be in contact with the White film.  

This will create the follow "sandwich" layers:   Paper with bonded Clear Film / Ink / White Film bonded to Paper

Avoid moving/shifting the Clear film layer on the map this will smear the still fresh ink.

Iron the "sandwich" as before with the same temperature. Less time should be needed since you are bonding plastic to plastic which occurs readily.

Step 12: Peel the Paper From the Map

After the "sandwich cools both sheets of paper can be peeled from the plastic map.

The Clear top film should be fully bonded to the White film after ironing.  The ink will be sealed in between.
After cooling the map can be peeled from the two sheets of paper.
After removal of the two sheets of paper, any ragged edge from film overlap mis-match, can be trimmed with scissors.

Tips to improve map quality

By nature liquids do not adhere well to plastic.  Printer Ink is no exception; it does not absorb into the plastic like paper.  It sits on the surface and "beads-up" due to liquid surface tension.
These maps only becomes permanent after the Clear plastic film has been bonded over the printed surface.

Reiterated below are, important tips to minimize ink migration and improve map legibility:

1. Have the clear plastic peeled and ready before printing.  Ironing the Clear plastic top film should occur imediatly after printing.  The longer the printed map waits around before being sealed with the top layer, the more time the ink has to bead-up and/or smear.

2. Do not move the Clear film when placing it on the printed surface for ironing.  Try not to adjust or shift the clear film when placing it on the freshly printed map.  Moving the top film over the printed surface, prior to ironing, will drag and smear the floating, still liquid, ink.

3. Print using Draft mode.  Higher quality print settings will deposit more ink on the plastic. This is not good.  Larger quantities of ink will increase liquid beading and smearing.

4. Print in Black and White.  Color maps can be made, as shown, however color ink (at least the ink used here) is much more water soluble; tending to bead the most, and smear the easiest before the Clear top film is applied.  Large fields of color ink will look messy and blurred.  Black ink is more stable and remains more defined; it migrates less.

5. Choose maps without fine details or small fonts.  As mentioned earlier, this process will produce a quick ready reference map that is waterproof however, not a perfect quality master map. Due to the liquid ink and plastic interaction when printed, some amount of ink beading is inevitable.  For the most part this is not a problem;  as well defined routes and details will be clear.  Smaller fine details/fonts however, may be difficult to discern.