OUTDOORS

Map Reading: Getting Your Bearings Off of Any Map

How to read a map guide
Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

Map reading was and still is considered a vital skill to have when dealing with the great outdoors. One of the major reasons for this being the fact that there are a multitude of styles and types of maps out there, and it can be quite tricky to read them, especially if you are used to a single map style and are unfamiliar with even the most basic notions of universal map reading.

A solid argument can be made in regards to the digital maps. GPS devices and even smartphones that can indeed pinpoint your exact location and help you get your bearings. There is only one problem with that though, the batteries hold a limited, and often times short charge that will inevitably run out.

Map with smartphone

Not to mention the fact that no matter how resilient a piece of equipment is, there will always be a chance that it might get damaged or rendered useless. Another limiting factor here is the signal strength that these devices have with their guiding source, either a cell tower or a satellite, this being especially true for smartphones and tablet devices.

All in all, the good old fashioned map will still be your go-to solution. It will not crash, it is easy to fix in case it gets damaged, it is always available for use and it will never run out of power.

Granted you might want to have a source of light on hand and make sure that it is well out of reach of fires and other such menaces.

The Tools You Will Need

The first thing that you will need to understand when it comes to reading a map is the fact that the map alone will not be enough in order for you to get your proper bearings and orientation.

Tools for map reading

There are a lot of survival and navigation tools that you can use, however there are 3 main things that you will need to have on you at all times. Without them, map reading would be next to impossible. These tools are:

  1. A compass. This one goes more or less without saying. However, we cannot skip over the fact that a compass is more or less mandatory in order to be able to properly read a map. Getting your exact positioning and orientation is key in order to understand both where you are and what is around you when looking at a map. Without a compass, you are basically looking at nothing more than a drawing with cartographic information. See our review of the best compass for navigation for your information.
  2. A wristwatch with all 3 working hands. Although quite a few people prefer wearing wristwatches with only the hour and minute hands, you will actually need to be able to accurately track seconds in order to plan your route and figure out what is the fastest way to your destination.
    Wristwatches with additional quadrants, timers and subdivisions are a welcome addition. But, you need to make sure that you know how to read all the quadrants and that you understand the math behind them as well as the calculations required in order to plan a route using the information that they provide. A special mention can be made here in regards to digital watches.
    If you have a bit of map reading experience, as well as a very advanced digital watch, that is able to accurately display seconds, then you are free to use it. If not, a good old fashion analog wristwatch will suffice. Checkout our piece on how to choose the best survival watch for your needs.
  3. An optical magnification tool. Either big or small, optical magnification tools are invaluable when it comes to reading maps. There are a lot of optical magnification tools that you can choose from:
    • Binoculars
    • Spyglasses
    • Sextants
    • Riflescopes
    • Various other such tools

    A nice tip that you should keep in mind is the fact that these tools are formed of multiple lenses. One of them, the actual eyepiece, is a magnification lens and can be used as a magnifying glass. This means that you can use it to better browse the map and observe small details as well as signs and small marks that would otherwise be hard to make out.

See also: How to Adjust Compass Declination: Go In The Right Direction

How To Properly Read A Map

That being said, once you have your map and your 3 tools at the ready, it is time to learn how to read a map. There are many map types, with different graphics, different markings and different layouts. However there are things that they all have in common which will make things easier for you.

Cardinal points

Every single map out there, has one form or another of displaying cardinal points. They all follow the same rules, North is up and South is down, but not all maps display all 4 cardinal points.

Some maps, particularly very old ones, only display the northern cardinal point and its direction. Most maps display all 4 of them, in the shape of a 4 point star in a corner. The star is usually situated in either the upper right or lower right corners, with the appropriate orientation.

There are some maps out there, usually larger more advanced maps that display 8 cardinal points. Besides the usual 4 (North, East, South, West) there are 4 more points that are added (Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest), representing the medial directions between the base cardinal points. These maps are few and far between, usually very large strategic maps used exclusively by the military.

Cardinal points

Here is where the compass will come in. Maps follow the rule of being drawn in relation to the northern cardinal point. That being said, the only way to properly read a map and figure out where you are heading is to face north while reading it.

You can also look around with the compass in hand, always tracking your heading and orientation while at the same time marking things on your map, or plotting a course.

You will have to always keep track of the direction in which you are going and what cardinal point you are following. Remember to check your map often, with the compass always at the ready.

Scales

Every map has a scale to it, a unit of measurement with which you can measure distances accurately on the map. Every single official map has such a unit of measurement, depending on the scale at which it was drawn.

The scale as well as the unit of measurement is located in either the bottom left corner of the map or the bottom right corner of the map, depending on the region where the map was produced.

Map with a scale

Another thing to look out for is whether the scale and the unit of measurement used are metric (meters/kilometers) or imperial (feet / miles). This is important because of the difference between the metric and imperial systems and a rather basic knowledge of them will help you get a rough idea regarding the distance that it covers.

More modern maps are actually including both a metric and an imperial measurement. However the most predominant one worldwide is the metric system. That being said, the actual unit of measurement is represented by a thin black and white striped line, with the distance that it represents located right next to it. One such unit on the map represents the exact distance marked next to it in the open world.

In order to use it properly, you will have to either use a twig or other easily breakable things to break into the size of the respective unit and use it to measure distances on the map. The best item that you can use for this task is a match stick. It is already pretty close to the size of the measurement units, needing only minor adjustments that can be easily made.

This is also where the wrist watch will come in handy, as well as a bit of basic math.

Map Scales

The average walking speed of a human adult is 5 Km/h or 3.1 Mph. That being said, you can use the watch and determine an estimated time of arrival at your destination as well as an estimated total travel time.

The most popular and at the same time easiest method is to use the black and white stripes, which split the unit of measurement into equal parts, and designate 1 second to them. Then add up the total stripes on the map and using a small stick, a match stick or anything of that nature, drag it on the map in a slow stable rhythm that encompasses 1 stripe per second.

This way you will be able to even out a probably curved and irregular trajectory. This method will give you a rough estimate of how long it will take you to travel to your destination, provided that there are no extra obstacles or delays.

Marks and colors

These play a very important part in reading a map, even though most people don’t really give them the credit they deserve. This is also where the optical magnification tool comes in handy.

First of all, the marks. They are obvious and usually indicate a landmark, a point of interest, a specific terrain formation and various other such things. These marks are there for a very specific reason: to be seen and found easily. This means that you would have a much better and easier time if you would use them to get your bearings.

Again, with the compass in hand, use the optical tool to scout around and find said mark, if present. Usually these marks are represented on the map using special indicators, signs and icons.

The map legend, located in one of the corners of the map, will always contain information about them. One of the most common marks is water in general, commonly marked with the light blue color. It can be either running water, like a river, or stagnant water like a lake.

One of the key things to remember is the fact that the map that you are reading depicts the shapes of lakes and rivers accurately, meaning that it can be easy to tell where exactly along the river or lake you actually are, if you pay close attention to the details.

Map Legend

One very important thing to note here is the fact that rivers, particularly large ones, on some maps, have the direction in which they flow marked along their length with thin blue arrows that stand out above it.

Color, however, is a bit more tricky to manage. First and foremost, regardless of the map that you will be using, the general color coding will apply. Water is blue, grasslands are light green, forests are dark green, deserts are yellow,  snow is white, and so on…

However the simple part ends here, because depending on the map that you have the shading and color transition will vary. This is done to differentiate height and terrain levels, making it a lot easier to get your bearings as you go along. However, there is a small twist: there are 2 main map types here that you will have to keep in mind, geographical maps and terrain maps.

Geographical maps, the same maps that we see in schools, have the colors grow increasingly darker as the height of the terrain increases. Meaning that, for example, a meadow just a few feet above sea level will be shown as a very light shade of green, while a high mountain will be shown as a very dark shade of brown.

Terrain maps, on the other hand, work in the exact opposite way, the colors growing increasingly lighter as the elevation increases. That being said, on a terrain map, the meadow in question would appear to be a very dark shade of green while the top of the mountain would be a very light and pale shade of brown, if not white all together.

The purpose that these colors is to not only help you figure out where you are as well as what is around you, but also to help you figure out your route as well as what lies before you well in advance.

Sectioning

Some maps you will find sectioned into quadrants, zones, polygons and various other forms and shapes. This is done for various reasons, either to split the map up for easier navigation, or simply to show different limitations, areas and zones. Often times these sections are as obvious as they can be, relying on special terrain, major natural barriers and even man-made landmarks.

Map sectioning

It can be quite tricky when reading such a map, however a good tip in order to take full advantage of the sectioning is to focus on the actual limits of the sections, not the sections as a whole. This is a great way of figuring out not only where you are but also quick and stable pathways that will lead you to where you want to go.

These are also great guidelines and great ways of getting your bearings while comparing your position with them. But there is a bit of a problem if you stray too far from them.

Various Measurement Marks

There are other kinds of marks that you might find on maps, especially specialty maps and advanced detailed terrain maps. These include things like geological marks and markers, agricultural and horticultural markings, and various other such elements.

They are not vitally important to your navigation or to understanding the map itself, however they can prove useful in different situations. A great example is the hydrological markings that certain maps have around rivers and lakes. These marks are actually incredibly useful because of the fact that they will help you understand the actual size of the banks and beds that these bodies of water occupy.

Various measurement marks

This is incredibly useful for figuring out where the shallow water is, thus determining whether it is safe to cross or not.

Another such example is the geological lines that map the very terrain itself. Again, present on only a few rare maps, usually found in specialty fields, these marks can be useful to understand the actual shape of the terrain in much more detail.

Even though these maps are rare and usually used in special fields, they can still provide very important information, like the location of cliffs, steam falls and inclines and other such elements.

Why It’s Important To Know How To Read A Map

Reading a map at first glance seems a simple and mindless task, however once we start noticing details and come properly equipped with the tools that we need, it soon becomes a rather complex and fruitful task. Map reading allows you to extract more than enough information in regards to both your position and your route.

It might be a more outdated way of getting your bearings, however it is still the most reliable and the most effective way of staying on track and reaching your destination safely and effectively.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Owens
Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.

  • Mickey

    I never thought that the ability to read a map – a complex technical skill, the development and improvement of which requires a lot of time including practicing orienteering.
    Thanks for the article, It was interesting. I think other readers liked it too. I guess I will print some maps of my region and learn them with my son, he is even a better hunter than me 🙂

    • Dennis Owens

      Map reading is more complicated than it seems, yet more helpful than it looks. It takes a significant level of skill to master, but once you get the hang of it, it will be one of the best skills you’ll ever have as a backpacker.

  • Alan Peterson

    It’s always great to have theoretical knowledge about anything. When we talk about map reading, going out there and doing it is equally important. That’s the only way to learn how to navigate in wilderness. Thinking about some forest is completely different from spending 2 or 3 days in it. It takes a lot of time and practice to master orienteering skills. It’s also important to know your limits and abilities and keep a cool head.

    • Dennis Owens

      We live in a great era where technology has provided us so much convenience. However, this convenience that we are experiencing right now detaches us from the basics of a lot of things – and that includes the utilization of maps. We become overdependent with GPS and other devices that provide direction. Map reading will never get out of style, and mastering the complex yet rewarding art of reading and understanding maps will definitely give you a survival skill not everyone is willing to learn.

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