5 Helpful Tips to Improve Your Map Reading Skills

Map and compass

It’s National Map Reading Week! I was lucky enough to be taught basic navigation skills at an early age but I appreciate that for many people, maps designed for outdoor activities are about as comprehensible as the financial pages of The Sunday Times. But it’s never too late to learn. If you struggle to figure out which way’s north and whether the brown circles on the map represent a hill or a valley, here are some helpful tips to help you improve your map reading skills. Why not get outside this weekend and try them out?

Tip 1: Pick the Right Map

There are lots of different types of maps at varying scales which can make it confusing to know which one to choose. The scale will usually be expressed as a ratio, for example 1:50,000. The bigger the number after the colon the less detailed the map will be. Ordnance Survey provides a range of maps that cover the whole of UK at a range of scales.

Some people prefer the Harvey maps, particularly in mountainous areas. They look a bit different to the OS maps but are designed to provide a simpler view of the landscape (particularly where there are lots of contours) to help you navigate more easily. Harveys also sell specific maps for long distance walking and cycle trails. You can usually get the whole route printed on one map which can save a lot of space in your pack!

Here’s a quick guide to some common UK maps to help you work out which is best for you:

  • 1:50,000 OS Map – good for people who want a less detailed map that covers a large area. All roads and main footpaths will be marked, but there’ll be less detail to help you navigate off-road than other maps. Useful for cyclists who mainly stick to roads.
  • 1:25,000 OS Map – for many years the OS Explorer range has been the go-to map for outdoor activities. The maps show all rights of way and distinctive features and have a high level of rock and contour detail in the mountains. The only downside is that in mountainous terrain it can be tricky to read the map accurately because of the level of detail. The best map for all-around outdoor use.
  • 1:40,000 Harvey Mountain Map – Harvey focus mainly on mountainous areas of England, Scotland and Wales. Their maps look quite different to OS maps but are great for hiking, biking and running in the more remote, hillier parts of the country. The maps don’t contain all the detail of a 1:25,000 map but this makes them much easier to read. Unlike OS maps that cover the whole country, Harvey maps cover a specific area. This means that instead of having to buy multiple OS maps you can cover the same area with one Harvey map. Best map for general hiking and mountain biking in national parks and upland areas.
  • 1:25,000 Harvey Superwalker Maps – focused on popular upland areas of the UK, these provide a higher level of detail than the Mountain Maps but still focus on readability. If you’re navigating in complex mountain terrain, this is the best map for you.

A lot of people prefer paper maps but if you enjoy getting outdoors in a lot of different places then the OS Maps app is a great low-cost way of accessing all the maps in the country on your phone. However, for learning basic navigation skills a paper map is much easier to use. Plus, it never runs out of battery!

Tip 2: Get Used to Using a Compass

A compass is the second important tool in your navigation toolkit. With a map, compass and some basic skills, you should be able to navigate your way through most parts of the country with ease. Even if you use a GPS device it’s worth carrying a map and compass as a backup. (And know how to use them!). If you get into the habit of taking your compass out with you on walks, runs or bike rides then you’ll keep up your skills and over time they’ll become second nature.

Your compass has a base plate and a rotating bezel with angles marking the 360 degrees of a circle. Inside is the compass needle which will rotate as you move around. The important thing to remember is that the red end of the arrow will always point north – even if it’s not lined up to the north marker on the bezel. (There are actually three different ‘norths’ but this can be quite confusing for people who are new to navigation so for the time being just remember that red equals north.)

The simplest compass skill is to orientate your map to north. Even if you can’t remember how to take a compass bearing, by orientating your map in the right direction, you can pick out features around you to pinpoint your location.

Whichever map you use there’ll be a grid of squares marked over it. The top of the map will be north so the vertical lines that run up the map are on a north-south line. To orientate your map, hold the compass flat on top of the map and turn the map until the red north arrow is pointing along the vertical grid lines to the top of the map. Remember you need to turn the map and not the compass! If you’re facing south this will mean that the map feels upside down, but don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to navigating by the features on the map and this won’t be a problem.

Once you’ve orientated your map have a look at the landscape around you and see how features appear on the map. Can you spot that big hill over to your right? How about the river on your left? If you’re using footpaths or bridleways then most of the time by orientating your map correctly you can follow your planned route without the need for more complex compass skills. In the mountains, it can be a different story and you’ll want to know how to take compass bearings and learn more advanced skills so you can navigate effectively in poor weather.

Tip 3: Understand Basic Topographical Features

Maps can be confusing things full of brown squiggly lines and coloured symbols. It’s no wonder people get confused! But it’s worth taking a bit of time to understand the different features a map represents. Roads, footpaths and water features such as lakes and big rivers are usually quite obvious and easy to see. What most people struggle with are contours. Unfortunately, if you want to go walking in the mountains you’re going to come across a lot of contours and you’re going to have to use them to navigate.

Contour lines show changes in height. On a 1:25,000 map there is one contour line for every five metres of vertical height. Some contour lines have a height marked on them. If you have a GPS device that measures altitude you can use these to help you work out how far up or down a hill you are. Contours are continuous and follow the shape of the land. If you walk along a contour line you’ll always be at the same height.

Contours also tell you how steep a slope is. The closer together the brown lines, the steeper the hill. This makes hills and mountains quite easy to spot on maps as you have concentric circles that get smaller and smaller as you get towards the top of the hill.

Next time you go out walking or running try and match the typographical features you see on the ground to your map. A great way of getting better at using contours to navigate by is to try orienteering. Orienteering maps are much more detailed than OS maps and show almost every feature on the ground. You can learn how different landforms are represented and scale this up to the big mountains when you go hiking.

Tip 4: Trust the Map

Sometimes if you’re lost it can feel as if the map doesn’t match what’s on the ground. Your brain tricks you into thinking that you’re right and the map is wrong. Believe me, from bitter experience I know that the map is always right! If you can’t match the features on the map to the features on the ground this probably means you’re not where you think you are.

If you end up in this situation you have a couple of options:

  • Walk back until you get to a point where you’re certain of your location and the map matches the features on the ground. For example, this could be a path junction or where a path crosses a river
  • Work out your current location using your map and compass.

If you choose the second option then your first step is to orientate your map (see tip 2). Then try and remember your last known location and pinpoint this on the map. Presuming you’ve been checking your map as you go, this shouldn’t be too far away and it’ll give you an indication of whereabouts on the map you might be. Once you’ve done this look for some distinctive features around you – for example, a large hill, a saddle between two hills or a church spire in the valley below. Ideally, you want to pick three or four very distinctive features. Find these on the map and using these points you should be able to narrow down your location. Then look for any small features nearby to help you pinpoint your exact spot.

Once you’re confident about where you are then you can carry on walking or retrace your steps if necessary. Just remember the map never lies!

Tip 5: Get Out and Practice

The only way you’ll get better at navigation is to practice it. Like everything, this takes time and can be frustrating. But you don’t need to go on a full day out in the hills to get some practice in. Get outside in the evening with your local map and walk on the footpaths around your home. Look at what features you pass and how they’re marked on the map. How does the vegetation change and what colours signify this on the map? What buildings are recorded and what buildings aren’t? Can you predict when you’ll pass each five-metre contour line?

As you know the area you’re unlikely to get lost so you can perfect your map reading skills without worrying about whether you’ll make it home in time for dinner.

Happy navigating!

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