DIY Adventure Gear: Field-Notebook Hacks

The notebook or journal as part of the adventurers kit is a compelling image: Leather and oilcloth bound journals, wrapped in a strap or twine, and filled with drawings of lost cities and ancient wonders. In reality, whether you’re working away from your desk, or adventuring, a notebook is just a damn useful thing to have, no matter the grandeur of the work or content.
I try to never go anywhere without a notebook. If I am out and about in the city, relaxing at a coffee shop, or attending a talk I’ll typically carry a couple of small Moleskine journals in my bag or a pocket. But for adventuring, spending time in the backcountry or any harder use, regular notebooks don’t always cut it. My longstanding favorite for these uses have been Rite-in-the-Rain brand all weather notebooks. Their waterproof pages and tough covers and bindings have yet to fail me across a variety of uses over the years: The first one I picked up was when I was a new EMT, and I’ve carried the habit over into geology field work, hiking, cowboyography, and abandoned mine exploration.
My favorite of the Rite-in-the-Rain products is their No. 350 all-weather Field notebook. The 350 is a classic field book, 4 3/4” wide by 7 1/2” tall, with 160 pages featuring the Field pattern in a sewn binding under a heavy Polydura cover. Between the heavy weight waterproof paper, the useful page pattern, and the heavy plastic cover, these are a highly useful, robust and hard to kill notebook – Ideal for any rough, wet, use.
Tough to kill, however, is not always indestructible or perfect. The way I use notebooks in the field is rarely good for the notebook. Simply sticking it in a pack, and putting loose sheets of ephemera necessary to what I’m doing within it, tends to take its toll over time. The loose sheets fall out and get damaged; The book itself becomes damaged in the pack when its covers and pages get folded and torn against other gear. Notebooks I’ve used with elastic keepers to hold them closed have fared somewhat better, but in the end they too suffer. With my Rite-in-the-Rain No. 350 I’d taken to wrapping a heavy rubber band around it to hold it closed, and hold few loose sheets within it when necessary. That worked, but wasn’t as perfect as I’d have liked.
I was unpacking my mine exploration gear after a trip when the idea hit me. I’d dropped the 350 next to some gear straps I’d sewn up to hold my bivy-roll, and the folded up bits of map and ephemera related to the mine trip fell out of it. Seeing the scattered material, book and straps together gave me the idea of adding a strap to keep everything together. As I set about doing that, a couple of other things occurred to me that greatly increase the functionality of my favorite field book.

Building a Better Notebook:

The necessary ingredients and tools.

To add a strap, I grabbed a section of lightweight webbing I had left over from another project, and added a tri-glide buckle from ITW. In doing so, I forgot the golden rule of measuring twice and cutting once, and ended up with a strap that was barely long enough to fit through the buckle once around the book. To fix this, I found another section of the same webbing, and after reducing the length of my original (so the joint wouldn’t jam in the tri-glide) sewed on the extension. Sewing on the extension I realized that if I stitched down each end, where the two pieces overlapped, it would leave a small sleeve between stitch rows into which a writing utensil could be inserted.

The Pen Slot

Once I’d fabricated the strap, to mount it to the book I decided to cut two slots in the rear cover and simply thread it through. On a less durable material, this might not work, but the heavier Polydura material made this an ideal solution. I centered the strap by eyeball, and marked along each edge with a black marker. Once evening up my marks into an eyeballed symmetry, I used a small cutting wheel in the Dremel tool to cut each slot. Once the slots were cut, I deburred them with a knife edge and then threaded the strap through.

Cutting the Slots and Threading the Strap

While working on the strap, I also noticed that the glue securing the cover to the sewn binding was both still sticky, and spilled over a bit at the edges. One of the crew had made up several laminated index card sized reference sheets for things like Morse code, which I was keeping inside the no. 350 book. Opening the front cover wide allowed me to slip the edge of one of these cards into the glue-line, and stick it in place. Adding a small line of fresh glue provided extra security.
Along with the one pictured, I’ve glued a couple other reference items into the front and rear of the book for fast access. Once the book is filled, if I want to remove these items, it should be possible to do some without damaging either them, or the field book.

Further Improvement:
There are a couple of things that might be done different, or in addition to what I’ve done here.
The pen loop I sewed was an accident that worked out, but it is a little small; When sewing yours, check your spacing against the type of pen you’d like to carry (some types don’t write well on the waterproof paper).
The strap could be fastened with a side-release buckle, rather than a tri-glide for quicker access and closure. The tri-glide works, and allows you to adjust the strap sizing to fit any additional contents by default, but it is not necessarily fast. A side-release buckle would also allow adjustment, and be easier, particularly with gloved hands.
In addition to the little laminated cards I’ve glued into the binding, I’m adding some essential data to the first few pages of each of my field-books; Information pertinent to whatever activity, or location, I’ve designated that book for. As time goes on and I make more notes, sketch more maps and features and add more information about places, events, and discoveries I may find I want to be able to easily index those areas of each notebook. To that end, I may make some indexing relief-cuts in the edge of the pages at various sections.
[Edited to Add] Don’t know why I didn’t add this before, but in the improved notebook hacks department, Pig-Monkey had good ideas.

Notebooks of all sorts are fantastic objects, and useful tools, even in our highly digital world. They tend to inspire a great deal of creativity within their pages, but don’t forget, that creativity can be extended to increasing their functionality as well! Have fun!

5 responses to “DIY Adventure Gear: Field-Notebook Hacks”

  1. Pig Monkey says:

    Great idea! I might perform this mod myself.

    I think a traditional side release buckle would be too bulky for my tastes, particular when placing the notebook in a pocket. Perhaps a low profile center release buckle would be better.

    I’m also wondering if it might be better to use one continuous piece of webbing for the strap and then create the pen loop by sewing a small piece of elastic webbing on top. It might hold the pen better, and be able to adjust to different sized tools.

  2. BFE Labs says:

    Awesome thought on the center release buckle. I think thats right on, as you’re right, every side release buckle I can think of is pretty bulky.

    Yeah, the pen loop could definitely be improved. This was more accidental than intentional. When I do this again, I’ll probably use something like that rather than the two pieces.

  3. […] an idea I stole from the excellent BFE Labs: hacking […]

  4. dan says:

    I just use rite-in-the-rain’s cordura notebook cover, but you definitely get points for creativity.

    one neat thing they’ve come up with is a EMS-specific notebook with a vital signs form printed on the pages.

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