Map Reading Basics

Map reading Basics

Thinking of going on a hike, do you know the map reading basics? A map and compass should always in your kit list when you are going outdoors on a hike or walk. Even on well marked footpaths and trials, the weather can close in and you could soon get lost. Knowing how to use some basic outdoor skills can save you if you get into trouble.


What Is A Map?

This might sound a bit of an obvious question, but I am going to start with the basics. A map is basically a 2 dimensional picture of a 3 dimensional landscape or area of a country. It can be anything from a sketch you have drawn to show somebody how to get somewhere, up to a detailed map showing city centers and mountain ranges. A map can help you realize and picture what the landscape looks like for real. Maps can help you know what to expect and you can plan routes a few days in advance, which will help stop any nasty surprises turning up.


What are The Different Symbols on a Map

When you look at a map you will notice that there are lots of small pictures and symbols dotted about all over it. They can show where phone boxes, campsites, hotels, post offices and best of all public houses are. There are many different symbols that appear on the map and getting to know what they mean is very useful. Somewhere on the map there will be what is called a key. This will tell you what all the symbols mean if you find one that you are not sure of. Do you know what the symbols mean in the picture above?. Answers at the bottom of the page (don't look now that's cheating.)


Other Things You Will Notice


  • Grid Lines. These are the thin, usually blue lines that run from top to bottom and right to left on the map. The ones that run from top to bottom are called Northings and the ones that run left to right are Eastings. You will notice that along the sides and bottom of the map there are numbers to go with each of the Northings and Eastings. The top of the map is always pointing north as you look at it (the writing will be the right way up.) Using the grid lines and the numbers alongside them you will be able to get a grid reference. There can be 4,6 or 8 digit grid references. Will go into grid references in a future blog.
  • Contour Lines. These are very thin, usually brown lines that you will find all over the map. They are used to show elevation. They might sometimes have numbers on them. The numbers will tell you how far above sea level that particular contour line is. Along the coast and on flat land there will be very few contour lines, but in mountainous area there will be a lot more. The distance between each contour line determines how steep the slope is. If they are very close together it means that the terrain is quite steep, and along with the numbers you will be able to work out how steep and how high it is. This will help a great deal when planning a route.

What Is Scale


Broadly speaking, the scale of a map shows you how much smaller the map is compared to the real terrain. If the map is 1:50000 this means that it is 50000 times smaller than real. Or in other words you would have to make the map 50000 times bigger to get the actual size of the land. Maps come in all different scales. Maybe a map of the world might be 1:10000000 where as a local street map might only be 1:250. The smaller the scale the map the more detail is on it. For hiking and walking I would recommend a 1:25000 scale. This would show enough detail that you need but cover a big enough area. The grid lines can also be used determine distance on a map. Depending on the scale the grid lines are a set distance apart. On Ordnance Survey Explorer Maps with a scale of 1:25000 and the grid line are 4cm apart which is 1km in real terms. There will be rule, usually, at the bottom of the map which will show you this information.


What Else Do Maps Show


Maps show the land on paper. The smaller the scale the more detail. They will show where rivers and streams are and bridges over these. Railway lines, canals, roads and forests. By learning what all the detail on the map means you can plan your route so you can have a better understanding of what to expect when you go out. In the next post I will cover the compass and the different features that can be found.


1 - Cross roads/ buildings. 2 - Campsite. 3 - Public Phone. 4 - Car Park. 5 - Golf Course.

6 - Forest/ Woodland. 7 - Church with Tower. 8 - Footpath. 9 - Railway Station

10 - Viewpoint. 11 - Lighthouse. 12 - Public House (the most important symbol after long walk)

Did you get them all right?

Want to learn more? Join us on one of our NNAS courses or Mountain Skills Days.