How to read a map and why is it important

Let Curiosity Lead the Way!

From cave paintings to ancient maps of Babylon, Greece and Asia, through the age of exploration, and on into the 21st century, people have created and used maps as essential tools to help them define, explain, and navigate their way through the world. The first world map was made in 6th century BC thinking that the earth was cylindrical. Since then, maps have become a universal mode for communication, easily understood and appreciated by most people, regardless of language or culture.

Latitudes, longitudes , myriad lines criss crossing  thousands of miles of planes, landscapes,valleys ,canyons , mountains. These represent what we commonly call Maps. Maps have been guiding the curious traveler for thousands of years- enabling the discovery of new routes, providing vital information to those traversing lesser known roads or helping the traveler plan their next pit stop, maps are crucial elements connecting the known/unknown world to  generations of explorers and travelers.

In the following lines we  attempt to dissect the art of map reading.  Though we cannot cover all the aspects of map reading in this write up, we will attempt to cover some important thumb rules , tips and quick references to get you started.

Choosing The Right Tool

Sure, today, we all have access to the very popular app Google Maps and many other tools  like it, but what does one do when these apps which rely on internet connectivity, can’t operate which is the norm in wilderness mostly. On the other hand knowing how to choose and  read a map enables for a more carefree and informed travel.  

A number of maps and their uses are penned down for your reference-

Political Map– focuses solely on the state and national boundaries of a place. They also include the locations of cities – both large and small, depending on the detail of the map.

Physical Map– Shows the physical landscape features of a place. Mountains, rivers and lakes and water is always shown with blue. Mountains and elevation changes are usually shown with different colors and shades to show relief. Normally on physical maps green shows lower elevations while brown’s show high elevations.

Topographic Map– Similar to a physical map in that it shows different physical landscape features. They are different however because they use contour lines instead of colors to show changes in the landscape. Contour lines on topographic maps are normally spaced at regular intervals to show elevation changes (e.g. each line represents a 100 foot (30 m) elevation change) and when lines are close together the terrain is steep.

Climate Map-A climate map  shows things like the specific climatic zones of an area based on the temperature, the amount of snow an area receives or average number of cloudy days. These maps normally use colors to show different climatic areas.

Economic or Resource Map- Shows the specific type of economic activity or natural resources present in an area through the use of different symbols or colors depending on what is being shown on the map.

Road Map-A road map is one of the most widely used map types. These maps show major and minor highways and roads , as well as things like airports, city locations and points of interest like parks, campgrounds and monuments. Major highways on a road map are generally red and larger than other roads, while minor roads are a lighter color and a narrower line.

Thematic Map- focuses on a particular theme or special topic and they are different from the six aforementioned general reference maps because they do not just show natural features like rivers, cities, political subdivisions, elevation and highways. If these items are on a thematic map, they are background information and are used as reference points to enhance the map’s theme.

Basic Map Skills to read any Map

Reading maps is not usually difficult because there are some rules that are generally followed when creating and reading maps:

  1. North, South, East, and West are the four main “cardinal” directions.
  2. On a map, North is at the top, South at the bottom, West to the left, and East to the right.
  3. Every map has a Map Scale which relates distance on the map to that on the ground. For example, one inch equals one mile.
  4. Using the scale of a map, you can tell the actual distance between two points for real.
  5. Maps use map symbols to represent real-world things, such as buildings, trails, roads, bridges, and rivers.
  6. Colors are used to share more information – Blue often means water, green means forest, and white means bare land.
  7. A map has a Legend which lists the symbols it uses and what they mean.
  8. A grid of imaginary lines wrap around and over the earth. These lines are called Latitude and Longitude and can identify the exact location of any point on earth.

Keeping those things in mind, you can read pretty much any map and especially learn how to read a topographic or topo map for navigation in the Wilderness.

Orienting Your Map

The first step is to understand the different parts of the compass. We’ve highlighted the most crucial features in the diagram above.

A Regular Compass

The direction of the travel arrow, highlighted in yellow, points in the direction of your route on the map. The red half of the compass needle, highlighted in green, will point North. The orienting arrow, highlighted here in blue, need to be lined up with the eastings. Eastings, are the vertical blue lines on your map.

The next step is to orient your map. Make sure you have marked out the route you want to take. Now line up the direction of travel arrow with the first part of your route. Keep the map flat and hold the compass still while the compass needle settles on North. Then rotate the black circle until the orienting arrow and the lines beside it line up with the eastings (vertical blue lines on the map). Now, while holding the map and the compass, rotate your body until the compass needle matches up with the orienting arrow.

Getting from Point A to Point B

To demonstrate this, take a look at the diagram below. Imagine you are beginning your journey at Ludwell Farm Cottages, circled in yellow, and you want to go to Church Farm, circled in red. The route we want to take is marked in blue. Let’s go through the process again using this example.


  1. Place the compass on the map with the direction of travel arrow following the first   section of your route.
  2. Turn the black casing until the orienting arrow lines up with the eastings.


  1. Holding the compass on the map, rotate your body until the compass needle lines up with the orienting arrow.

Summarising this write up- Map reading and usage takes practice, so the next time you plan a hike or a road trip, pick up a map and refresh your skills. You may not rely completely on this piece of paper, however when all else fails  it just might save you the trouble to find yourself in the middle of nowhere.

As always we hope that this write up was informative. Please feel free to leave your suggestions/comments.

Article Contributor: Macs Adventure


  1. Kaylana

    I am not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or undetsranding more. Thanks for wonderful information I was looking for this info for my mission.

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