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Learn These Map Reading Skills To Never Get Lost Again

One of the few things I remember distinctly from early elementary school was our geography unit on map reading. I loved maps. They let me travel with my imagination while learning real-life facts about real-life places.

As an adult, I now get to use those skills to explore those places on my travels. While maps have evolved electronically, I am sometimes amazed to realize that most of what I learned about map-reading as a kid still applies.

I’ve decided to put together a quick guide to help you learn how to read maps. In the first section, I will cover general map reading skills. In the second section, I will go over some skills and recommendations for reading maps online.

General Map Reading Skills

1. Choose the right type of map for your needs.

    First of all, there are numerous different types of maps. If you pick a map which isn’t suited to your needs, you will have a hard time reading it.

    Some common types of maps include:

  • General purpose maps: Most roadmaps and atlas maps are general purpose maps. They show basic information on cities, towns, roads, railways, parks, water bodies, and so on. They are designed to help you get around.
  • Street maps. Maps which show detailed information at the street level are usually designated as street maps.
  • Geologic maps: These maps help you identify geologic features such as fault lines.
  • Topographical maps: These are maps which show contours and elevation.

Besides these, there are many other types of maps as well: climatic maps, political maps, cadastral maps and so on. But you probably will not be using these less common varieties too often.

2. Look at the key to learn how to interpret the map.

Somewhere on the map, you will find a “key,” also called a “legend.” This small box is your key to interpreting what you see on the map.

On the key, you will discover symbols. Across from each, the key will list what they mean. That way when you see them on the map, you will know how to interpret them. 

The key may also define different colors used on the map. It should show you the scale as well, which tells you how to interpret distances.

3. Check the map’s scale so you can understand how distances are displayed.

4. Check the map’s grid.

Most maps have lines running across them vertically and horizontally to form a grid. Usually, the horizontal lines are lines of latitude. The vertical lines are lines of longitude. There are some exceptions, however. Some mapping companies may use unique proprietary grid systems.

Figure out what type of grid you are looking at, and then make sure you understand how to use it. If you have a set of latitude and longitude coordinates for a location, for example, you can trace across the lines on the map with your finger and find the spot on the map. This is also a good way to tell others where you are.

5. Know which direction magnetic north is in. Turn the map in your hand so that it is oriented the same way you are facing.

“North” seems like it should be a simple concept, but there is actually more than one “north.”

  • Magnetic north is the direction your compass points.
  • True north is north according to the axis of the Earth.

You cannot rely on the grid system alone to tell you where north is on your map. Look over the map carefully to see which direction the map designates as “north.” Then check to see if it is true north or magnetic north. Otherwise, you could quickly become lost while attempting to use your compass and map to find your way.

6. Learn how to interpret contour lines.

Does your map have a lot of wavy lines on it, especially around hills and mountains? These lines follow the shape of the land, and are referred to as “contour lines.” The more space you see between the lines, the more shallow the grade of the terrain. The more densely the lines are packed together, the steeper the incline.

The other useful thing to know about contour lines is that a single line represents a single elevation. Imagine for example that you see a line going around a mountain. If you could walk along that line all the way around the peak, you would be at the exact same elevation the entire time.

Keep in mind that contour lines do not show every single detail of the terrain. Think of them as being limited in terms of resolution. You could see contour lines which indicate relatively flat ground, but a deep ditch which doesn’t appear on the map could separate them in real life.

There are two types of contour lines:

  • Index lines
  • Interval lines

Index lines are thick and include a number designating their elevation.

Interval lines are thin and have no number.

The map should, however, tell you what each interval represents. If the interval is 50 feet, that means that each interval line is 50 feet above or below the nearest topographical line.

So if you are looking at an index line of 1,000 feet, and the map has a 50-foot interval, the next interval line above it is 1,050 feet. The interval line above that one is 1,100 feet. The interval line below the 1,000 feet index line is 950 feet, and so on.

Incorrectly interpreting contour data could result in driving hundreds of miles only to encounter an impassable range. Or it could involve hiking for days just to hit a steep precipice you cannot possibly descend. For this reason, it is a crucial skill anytime you will be navigating uneven terrain.

7. Use context clues in your environment to determine your location.

Hopefully, you studied your map before setting out. Regardless, let’s say you are currently out in the wilderness, and you do not know exactly where you are. How can you figure out your location on the map?

One useful trick is to check your environment for context clues. Say you see three large mountains to your left and a small, distinctively-shaped pond in front of you. 

If you find these features on the map and you check the scale, you should be able to take a pretty good guess as to where you are.

It is vital to make the correct determination about your current position before you attempt to try and navigate to your destination. My example with the three mountains is not a random one. When I was a kid hiking with my parents, I remember taking the time to look for context clues at the start of a trail. I realized the mountain my parents wanted to hike to was not the next one in front of us, but the one after that.

I tried to explain this, but naturally, they thought they knew better. So we hiked to the next mountain, and my parents realized it was the wrong one. We then proceeded to the one after that, and reached our destination. We were woefully under-stocked on provisions for this extra distance. The result was that I nearly passed out before we got back to our car.

8. Align the map with the direction you are facing.

Usually, north is somewhere near the top of most maps. Personally, if I am trying to walk south, and I have the map oriented with north pointing up, I find it confusing. Everything is a mirror image of what I expect.

In this situation, I recommend that you read the labels you need to, and then turn the map physically in your hands so that the top of the page is the direction you are facing. Following the map should be much easier.


9. As you start walking, keep your thumb on the place on the map where you checked it last (this technique is known as “thumbing”).

This technique may not sound necessary, but it makes life simpler. It can be very easy to lose track of your position on a large, complicated map. But if you keep your thumb on your most recent position, you can check back in a few minutes and immediately see where you have been. Each time you reach a new landmark, you can move your thumb.

Additional Electronic Map Reading Skills (for Google Maps)

You now should have a pretty good idea how to read most paper maps. Online maps are a little different though. The following tips should help you out if you are navigating on Google Maps.

1. Zoom to the most useful level.

One difference between paper maps and electronic maps is that you can often zoom in and out. You might think that zooming to the right level is simple and straightforward, but it is not always all that intuitive.

On Google Maps for example, if you look at the entire state of Virginia and type “Thai restaurants,” you might think this will show you the most extensive selection of results. But actually, it will only show you a scattering of results across the state.

If you want to see Thai restaurants specifically in and around Fairfax, then you should zoom close to Fairfax and enter the query. Doing this will pull up results you would never have seen if you had remained zoomed out.

2. Be aware that the map will not display everything based on any given search.

Imagine you need to find an auto mechanic in your area. Unlike a paper map, an electronic map makes it possible to do this. To conduct your search, start by zooming to the most useful level, as described above. Next, input your query.

Now, here is where things get tricky. Different queries may pull up slightly different results. So instead of just searching for “car repair,” you might want to search for “car repair,” then for “auto repair,” then for “automotive mechanic,” then for “oil change,” then “tire repair,” and so forth.

A lot of the results will be the same from query to query. But you will probably find that each search pulls up a few unique results as well.

3. Click “Search This Area” or occasionally re-type your query into the map to get fresh results as you scroll.

The easiest way to pull up a set of results on a Google Maps search is by looking for “(item) in (area).” So going back to an earlier example, you could type, “Thai food in Fairfax, VA.” This would take you straight to Fairfax, and show you a number of Thai restaurants concentrated in that area.

Suppose though you are not interested in any of those restaurants, and you want to look for other Thai places nearby. You might try scrolling to the left and centering your map on Gainesville, or you might scroll right toward Alexandria.

Sometimes I have noticed the map results update on their own, but if they do not, you need to click on “Search This Area” at the top of the map.

4. Make use of street view.

Google’s street view feature is fairly amazing, and an excellent tool for a couple of purposes. To start with, you can use it to help you locate something you forgot the name of.

You might know for instance that there is a particular mechanic you want to use somewhere on a particular street, but you cannot recall the name to look it up. You can search for “mechanic” while hovering over that street, and the business should show up. You can then check to make sure that the result in question really is the mechanic you wanted by checking the image in the street view.

Another way to use street view is to orient yourself before you visit a destination. You might be heading to an area which you find confusing. Perhaps the roads there are complicated, and you do not want to take a wrong turn when you arrive. In some cases, even Google’s driving directions may be baffling.

In these cases, clicking along your route on street view can help you out. First, it will provide visual clarification on the directions. Secondly, it can help you search for visible landmarks which you can spot on your actual drive later. These landmarks might not be on the map because they may not have been relevant to your search. But you can take notes as you explore using street view. Then when you are driving, you can use those landmarks to remind yourself that a turn is coming up, or so forth.

This system is one I have found to be especially helpful when planning cross-country trips where I will be on the highway for hundreds of miles before making a single critical turn. Keeping track of how much time has passed or how many miles I have been driving may be a challenge. But keeping an eye out for distinctive geographical landmarks is easy.

5. Don’t miss out on the other types of maps which are available on Google Maps.

If you are more interested in the lay of the land than you are in a simple image showing only streets and businesses, look in the lower left-hand corner of the map for the little square marked “Satellite.”

Clicking on this will bring up a satellite map. This gives you a detailed overhead view of the landscape taken from a satellite.

 You can zoom way in and see fantastic detail, kind of like street view, but from overhead. You can make out individual trees and buildings in many locations.

There are a couple of extra controls in the lower right. One of these is the 3D button. This allows you to tilt the map so that you are looking at the landscape from an angle. Right above that is a button which looks like a dial. The dial is for rotating the view. The easiest way to rotate the view, however, is to hold down the “Ctrl” key on your keyboard, and then click and drag on the screen.

This 3D tool is particularly satisfying in regions which feature changes in elevation. Try heading to a mountain range and playing with these controls. They will give you an amazing topographical 3D view of the area. Obviously, this can be a huge help if you are planning a drive or a hike through rugged terrain. You can even print out some images from the map to bring with you on the trail. That way you will have some familiar views to look for along the way.

Conclusion: The Key to Getting the Most Out of Maps is Knowing How to Read Them

When you go out on a hike or a drive, taking maps with you is essential—but if you actually need to use a map, merely possessing it will not be enough. You need to know how to interpret it to find your way safely to your destination. Thankfully, learning to read maps is pretty straightforward. Study some maps and practice close to home a few times before you head out on a journey. That way you will be prepared wherever you go.