Hiking - Knowledge

How to Read a Map: Tips and Tricks to Help You Learn Quickly

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For most of the adventurers these days, a GPS system is the way to go. Well, it has to be. All you need to do is type in your address, your destination and then you can sit back and watch the stunning scenery as it goes by. In times when mapping apps are common, you might wonder that learning how to read a map is an antiquated skill. However, you need to understand that not all of the routes are going to have excellent wireless service. This is why it is beneficial to learn map reading.

This is especially true if you enjoy camping, hiking or exploring the wilderness. In such situation, an excellent road map would be your best friend. This is why you must consider learning how to read maps, and we have done the work easier for you by explaining the basics of reading a map. So, let’s get started.

Table of Contents


Choose the Right Type of Map

When it comes to learning how to read a map, you first need to know that there are various kinds of maps which exist for numerous uses. Now, before you can take the help of a map to aid you in finding your way, you need to make sure that you have one which is appropriate for the kind of traveling that you are doing. For instance, there are topographical maps that help campers in reaching their campsites. In case, you are wondering what is a topographic map, it is a map where there are lines at set elevation distances which trace the contours of the terrain.

how to use latitude and longitude
Topographic map(Source)

The roadmaps are to aid drivers to navigate interstate highways and back roads and similarly there are tourist maps which highlight the popular landmarks. Topo maps are the only map you should use if you’re trying to navigate outdoors. Therefore, make your choice carefully.

Verify the Map’s Orientation

Once you have your correct map, make sure to verify that you are studying it from the right perspective. Almost all the maps have a “compass rose” in one corner which depicts what directions are pointed out by the various markers. When it comes to understanding how to read a map, the top of the map corresponds with the North unless otherwise specified. North is generally regarded as a “neutral” orientation that provides a reference for all the other directions.

map reading basics
Compass Rose(Source)

Apart from learning how to read a map, you should always carry a compass, even if you know east from West. In case become disoriented, you are going to need all the help that you can get.

Understanding the Coordinates

One of the most important aspects of the process of learning how to read a map is reading and comprehending the coordinates. If you understand those, you would be able to determine your location, your destination along with the whereabouts of other people. For instance, if you are wondering how to read coordinates on a topographic map, the coordinates would be the latitude and longitude.

The latitude runs horizontal and moves from 0 degrees to 90 degrees, North and South. The North Pole is 90 degrees north while the South Pole is 90 degrees south. Longitude, on the other hand, runs perpendicular to the latitude lines.

However, on a roadmap, the coordinates are listed in the index and would let you know about the exact location of the cities. For instance, take A, 14. Once you have the coordinates, you could follow each row (14) and the column (A) until they come together. That is the exact point where the city is situated. Before you head out on your hike, make sure that you know your current location first.

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Determine your Route

When you choose a GPS system, you get to follow a certain route. However, when you are using a longitude and latitude map instead, you can choose your own route. In case you would like to drive to a scenic spot, you can use the symbols present on the map so as to determine the route that meets your needs. When you are learning how to read a map, make sure to use general knowledge. For instance, the interstate route would undoubtedly be the fastest while a state road would be slower but would let you enjoy the scenic beauty.

While you are hiking, the route can be determined by understanding the contour of the map (the easiest way to understand the contour lines have been discussed below). Use these lines to determine how easy or hard you want the hike to be. Most hikes already have the trails well marked, in which case a map would be beneficial for emergencies.

Locate and Understand the Legend

For both the maps, road and topographic, the legend, also referred to as the key would be a small box present either in the front or the back. This is where all the symbols and the scales are located. All of these would aid you in identifying the crucial points and determining the total travel time.

The symbols generally depict a landmark which would make the process of reading a map and navigating much easier. It could be anything like a hospital, a water body, picnic area, state park, a state park or something else. A scale is beneficial as it aids in calculating the distance so as to determine the ETA. You could use a piece of paper or your finger to point this out on the map. For instance, if the scale says "1 inch=25 miles", you would mark that one inch on the paper and then move it along the map so as to calculate the distance.

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Understanding the Contour Lines

The simple trail maps might be useful when you are planning for trips but isn’t a convenient option when we talk about navigation in the field. Topographic maps go further and give you the chance to visualize three-dimensional terrain from a flat piece of paper. The feature that makes this possible is contour lines. It might seem pretty complex when you look at it first but when it comes to reading a map, you need to understand what these lines represent. By doing so, you would be able to look at them and point out mountains, valleys or other similar things.

how to read a map latitude and longitude
Contour Lines of topographic map(Source)

So, what do the contour lines depict? Contour lines indicate the steepness of the terrain and connect points which share the same elevation. The point where the lines are wide apart, the elevation is changing slowly and that indicates a gentle slope. The point where the lines are close together, it depicts that the elevation is changing rapidly in short distance and the terrain is steep.

Contour lines can also show the terrain’s shape. Roughly concentric circles generally depict a peak, and areas between the peaks are passes. An excellent way to learn how to read topographic maps is to study the map of a familiar area. This way you would be able to match the terrain features with the contour lines.

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Map Scales

When it comes to reading map, understand that the scale of the map depicts how detailed the map is. A 1:24000 scale, for instance, usually means that one inch equals 24,000 inches in reality. A larger scale, like 1:65,000 means that a map covers a larger area, but that it would have lesser detail. Usually, maps have a representative scale so as to aid you in having a clear idea of the real-world distances.

how to use latitude and longitude
Map Scale Types(Source)

The easiest way to get a rough estimate about hiking distances on your map is by using the given scale and the edge of a compass or a string.

Easiest Way to Find your Location

Most people often wonder as to how to use a compass. Well, it isn’t as complex as it seems. To begin, you would need to pick out two prominent features of a terrain be it a bend in the river, a mountain peak or anything else which you can see both in the real world as well as on the map. Now, hold your compass level and point it at the first object in front of you. Once done that, twist the bezel in such a way that the big red arrow aligns with the red north needle.

Your next step in learning how to read a compass would be to locate that object on the map and rest the long edge of the compass on it with the north still present inside the red bezel arrow. Keep rotating the map until the orienting lines align with that of the compass bezel. Through that object, trace a straight line. You are somewhere on this line. Now, attempt to do the same for the second object too. The point where the new line intersects with the line drawn earlier is your exact location.

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Once you actually learn how to use a compass and map and gain some experience, you would be able to do this calculation mentally. Remember that you when first you are learning how to read a map, it would be best to use Google Maps on your phone as a backup.

Towards the beginning, try to guess the location and then cross check with the location on your phone. Digital maps might, of course, be very useful but when it comes to facing difficulties in the real world when there might not be internet connection especially when you are hiking in mountainous areas; it is always beneficial to know how to get out of trouble in the traditional way.

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