Learning the essentials of map reading

Before you even head for the hills, it’s vital you get your map reading basics spot on. From contours to grid references, to knowing the difference between legends and landmarks without a good understanding of how to read a map, it could become a confusing hindrance to your journey, instead of a vital tool.

Here’s our simple terminology rundown of map reading basics:


A Topo Map

What is it?

Also known as Topographic Map, this is a style of mapping that shows the location of roads and trails, but also includes three dimensional terrain, giving you a true representation of the obstacles ahead. 

Why is it useful?

The great outdoors is unpredictable, and SMART technology is often unreliable, particularly in this situation. So in terms of map reading basics, this style will stand you in great stead. They will also stand you in great when looking how to read a map without a compass.


Contour Lines

What are they?

These are the wiggly lines that you will see all across your Topo Map, that indicate the steepness of the terrain you’ll be facing. Getting to know these lines is important for developing your map reading skills. When they are closer together, it means the land on that particular part of the map is steep, whereas the further away they are, suggests you will be on flatter surroundings. If a line is circular, that usually means it is displaying the highest point of your walk. Also, every fifth line of a contour is usually thicker, and somewhere along that line should be the exact elevation listing.

To get a good understanding of contour lines, check out an area that you know well on the Topo Map and examine how the lines differ.

Why are they useful?

Once you understand how to read them, they can be incredibly helpful in choosing what route you and your hiking party plan want to take.


Map Scales

What are they?

Usually maps are drawn to scale, and these are the ratios that give you an understanding of the size detail of your map. The usual map ratio for larger scale maps that cover regions like the one you will be walking across is 1:25000, whereas for smaller scale maps, usually used for countries, will be 1:35000.

Why are they useful?

Much like the previously discussed, understanding the scales are vital for map reading basics and knowing how far a distance you will be walking when planning your route. 


Grid References

What are they?

You may have noticed that your Topo map is broken up into a set of squares. On a UK map, each square represents 1000km, and are labelled with two letters and known as the grid reference, and the lines that make up these squares are grid lines. The vertical grid lines known as eastings and increase in value as the squares go east , and the horizontal lines known as northings, also increase in value as they go north. 

Why are they useful?

On the face of it, map reading can take a long time. Being able to coordinate grid references quickly is the best and fastest way to discover where you are, and where you want to be going. 


A Compass

What is it?

A magnetic tool that helps you navigate your hike. Although there are a wide range of different compasses, some more specified and advanced than others, it’s primary function is to tell the user the direction of north. For those still learning how to read a map whilst out on a hike, having a compass in your bag will be vital. 

Why is it useful?

It helps you orientate yourself and your map reading skills. Whilst on a hike, it’s not always possible to whip out your map and survey your surroundings, but with a compass, you’ll be able to quickly navigate the direction you want to be going in, and can get back on course with ease. 


A guide to map reading symbols 

Legend key

What is it?

A complete listing of all symbols that can appear across the map. The symbols represent a wide variety of different features, including cultural (such as buildings and railways), natural ( rivers, wetlands) and vegetation(forests and cleared areas). 

Why is it useful?

When learning how to read a map, it’s vital to know which areas are dangerous or even impossible to cross, and alternatively, the location of roads and buildings, should you need any sort of help, are very useful to know. It’s rare for map reading symbols to be the same across different maps, so it’s important to get to know your legend along with your map reading basics. 


The north arrow

What is it?

This is a map reading symbol that represents the direction of the north. 

Why is it useful?

While not all maps include a north arrow, they can be helpful in making clear which direction the map is facing. Also, when thinking about how to read a map without a compass, it can prove a helpful graphic. 


The title of the map

What is it?

An element of the map layout that describes the name or theme of the map. It is usually split into three parts- the geographic name showing the base location, the layer name which is the common place of interest and the indicator name is the place of specified interest. 

Why is it useful?

The title is a fast and easy way to find exactly what area you’re looking for when surveying a map. 


Putting your map reading skills into practice 

Now you’re well versed in map reading basics, it’s time to take your skills outdoors and reconnect with nature. It’s time to put your map reading skills to the test with these simple steps.


Always look north

  • Upon reaching the start of your hiking route, take your map and compass out of your bag. If the weather and surface permits, lay them out in front of you, with your compass resting on your map. 
  • Whichever way your compass is pointing, point your map in that same direction. 


How to read a map without a compass

  • If you have decided against or forgotten to bring a compass along with you, the simple way to orient yourself is by looking at the position of the sun. In the northern hemisphere, the sun’s highest point will be in a southerly direction, so north will be of course in the opposite direction. If you are in southern hemisphere, the opposite applies. 
  • If you are hiking at night and working out how to read a map without a compass, the best tip is to look for the north star, also known as the big dipper. It looks like a big scoop, and will be perfect for helping you get your sense of direction. 
  • Alternatively, using a topographic map means it easier to identify locations, and therefore simpler to work out which way is north. 


Find yourself on the map 

  • Begin by getting a good sense of your real world surroundings by picking out large and famous landmarks nearby. If you can’t do that, try spotting a pub or something similar, and then finding that on the map. 
  • It can also be tricky locating your grid reference straight away, so it can be good to locate a grid reference of your chosen landmark and work your way back from there, to your starting point.


Understanding the contours

  • As you are working out your route, taking into account the varying contour patterns is a must when developing your map reading skills. How steep they are may have an impact on the nature of your walk. 
  • Discuss with your walking party, see how they feel about it, and once you all decide on a fun but not too demanding route, you’ll be good to go!


The art of thumbing 

  • Another thing to add your now wide range of map reading skills is thumbing. When holding your map out on your hike, place your thumb on your current location on the mad and hold it there. 
  • The next time you check out your map, you’ll know immediately where you were last. Simple!


Know your map reading symbols, know your route

It isn't always ideal to be repeatedly checking your map for directions throughout your hike. If you’re able to identify key features before you get into your hike, it’ll mean you can get a good sense of where you are, or where you may even be going of course during your journey 


Some easy-to-remember terms for map features


  1. Spur - this will be spottable in real life as a feature that slopes upwards on one side, with the rest sloping downwards. An example of this would be seen descending from a mountain trail, or another hill. To indicate a spur, contour lines will usually point away from a mountainous or hillside range. 
  2. Re-entrant - a terrain of land formed by two parallel ridges with low ground between them. They are similar to a valley, although they are usually more sloped. They often feature a water-flow such as a stream. On a topographic map, the contours will be pointing against the natural slope. 
  3. Saddle - this is the lowest landform between two highlands. It is usually known as the lowest route when walking through a mountainous region.The contour lines will slope down on two sides, and slope up two sides. 
  4. Summit - the name for the highest point of the region, usually a mountain top. It can be distinguished on a map as a ringed contour. 


Map Reading for Kids 

Getting your little ones to understand map reading basics is an excellent way to get them engaged with your hike. Here are some easy tips to teach your kids map reading skills:


Start by teaching them how to read a map without a compass

Get them focusing on simple map reading basics first. The inclusion of a compass early on will just distract them, and potentially make them too reliant on it when it comes to the final details.


Work your way up

Kick off your ‘how to read a map’ lessons with a much smaller map. It means that they’ll be able to apply the information they’ve learnt to something more detailed, and not get immediately overwhelmed. Using OS Maps could be a great place to start.


Teach them symbols and contours

Breaking down the map into simple drawings and squiggly lines will make learning map reading skills so much easier. Making sense of what a road or church looks like, and understanding a circle means a mountain will mean maps can easily be decoded for your little ones.


Get outside!

Understanding map reading basics is one thing, but having your kids get a sense of their surroundings and be able to relate their map reading skills is totally different. Have them fall in love with hiking early, and they’ll never want to stop.