Since mapping apps are common today, you might think paper maps have lost their usefulness. But if you want to explore the wilderness, you’ll be leaving cell coverage, and you’ll want to be prepared. In fact, map reading is an important survival skill that frees you from depending on a device whose battery needs charging and whose GPS might fail. You don’t want to wait until you’re in need. Learning how to read a map is easy if you follow a few principles and understand the symbols commonly used.
Beyond getting you to your destination, maps help you get a sense of being oriented and knowing what you’re looking at. Upon arriving at an amusement park, zoo, or museum, you are likely handed a map combining pictures, symbols, and words. You might need a map posted in a shopping mall or hospital. Or you might use a subway or bus map to plan your route to another part of a city.
Choosing Your Map
Different types of maps serve different purposes. A road map will show you all the highways and streets in the area. Political maps will show you the boundaries of cities, counties, and states. A topographic map will show the elevation of each part of a hilly or mountainous area, whereas a tourist map shows local attractions you might decide to visit. A recreational map might even say how challenging the hikes will be. Some maps have pictures of landmarks to help you identify your surroundings and to entice your curiosity.
Florida depicted in four different types of maps
Understanding the Features of the Map
The legend, or map key, is usually inside a rectangle in a corner of the map. It explains important symbols; for example, capital cities might be marked by a star, different types of roads by different colors of lines, and so on. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with these symbols.
Longitude and Latitude
The vertical and horizontal lines forming a grid across your map are lines of longitude and latitude. If you’re heading somewhere closeby, these won’t be necessary. But when you’re traveling across broad distances or searching out a faraway place on a world map, longitude and latitude are essential.
These imaginary lines form a grid that lets you orient and describe any position accurately. Lines of longitude run north to south, from pole to pole. Lines of latitude run east to west, parallel to the equator, and never meet each other.
Most maps will indicate which way North is with an arrow; usually it’s toward the top edge of the map. If so, south is at the bottom, east to the right, and west to the left. Some maps have a full compass rose, which is a symbol showing you all four directions, to remind you where they all fall. Mapmakers don’t use true magnetic north because it changes slightly every year – they use grid north, which is very close to true north (the pole of the earth’s axis).
Cartographers use ratios to reduce a real place down to a manageable size. A scale of 1:25,000 means that one inch on the map equals 25,000 inches in reality. Now, 25,000 inches being hard to imagine, maps using the metric system might make it easier to gauge distance since 1:25,000 means that one centimeter equals 250 meters in real life.
- The scale of a map will be larger for smaller areas and smaller for larger areas.
- On a roadmap of 1:100,000, one inch will equal 1.578 miles.
Neatlines show you the edge of the map and might delineate small offsets or mini-maps that allow you to focus on one area.
Topographic maps (or topo maps) allow you to visualize three-dimensional, hilly terrain by looking at a flat piece of paper. The feature that usually does this is contour lines, which tell you how the land rises and falls, and how gently or steeply. Contour lines show you the shapes of hills, mountains, and valleys.
Where you see contour lines drawn close together, they indicate a steep slope. Think of contour lines as the distance between each incline — the closer together the inclines, the steeper the hill. The farther apart the lines are, the gentler the slope.
Every fifth contour line will be drawn with a thicker line. These are called “index lines.” Somewhere along each index line is a number that indicates the height in feet above sea level. Remember, every point on the same contour line is at the same elevation.
Concentric circles usually indicate a peak; between the peaks, you find passes. Occasionally you’ll see a circle with tiny tick marks all along the contour line: this indicates a depression rather than a peak.
Another type of map that allows you to see elevation is a relief map. Instead of using contour lines, relief maps convey the same information using colors. Often there is a color gradient in which the mountaintops are brown, their slopes go from orange down to yellow, and the lowlands are green.
Using a Map to Get Somewhere
First, figure out where you are. Identifying your surroundings and relating them to the map is the most important step toward making your map work for you, and it may take a few minutes. In a city, this will mean looking around you for street signs; out in nature, you might glimpse mountain peaks, spurs, lakes, or streams. You’ll want to find out right away which way is north. You can use a compass or a cell phone to find north.
Orienting the Map
With a roadmap, keep it turned so that the words are facing up and readable. North will be at the top.
With an orienteering, hiking, or wilderness map, you can find your destination on the map and hold the map turned so that that destination is at the top of the map as you walk. In that way, the landmarks that you see on your left as you pass are on the left side of your map. If you need to follow a trail that forks or turns right, it will feel more natural to see it turning to the right on the map as you hold it.
Circle your destination on the map. On a leisurely trip, you might choose a path that lets you enjoy the beautiful scenery or interesting landmarks. If you’re looking for the fastest route, you’ll choose minimal deviations from a straight line. Remember, paper maps can’t alert you to road closings, construction, or other obstacles, so stay flexible when you can.
Next, follow the path you’ve chosen. If you’re driving, assign someone else to hold and check the map. If hiking, place a pencil mark next to landmarks as you pass them to help keep track of your progress. You can also use your thumb to keep your place along the path.
As you pass a landmark, move your thumb to it. This “thumbing” technique is used by people playing a sport called orienteering, which involves using a map and a compass to reach a number of designated points as quickly as possible in unfamiliar terrain.
- Before heading to a new area, practice map reading skills on a map of an area you know well.
- Pick up roadmaps before you travel. Road maps are often available at gas stations and grocery stores, topo maps at outdoors stores. Mapping websites offer the option to customize your map before downloading and printing it.
Public lands often produce maps of the area inside their boundaries. Check in advance if they offer a hardcopy or a printable version.
- Keep your map handy.
- Update your map collection from time to time; new roads and bridges are built, and others may change their name.
Maps show an area as if seen from above; it’s a bird’s-eye view of the land. It can be a challenge to translate places you’re familiar with looking at and walking through into a bird’s eye view. Some aspects of map-reading we understand intuitively; others require some effort, as a map involves abstraction.
It takes repetition to be able to look at a map and picture its real-life contents. Looking at the map of an area that you’ve walked through or driven by – perhaps more than once – can evoke memories of the place. At that point, the map is helping you integrate your experiences.