How To Read A Map – Beginner’s Guide

how to read a map

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Reading Time: 8 minutes

The idea is usually terrifying. Many of us shiver at the mention of a map. It is one of those things that look very difficult until you actually get into it.

“All I can do on a map is see things around me”, says my friend. But a map can do much more. Be rest assured,I’ll get you up to speed.

Maps are visual representation of an area showing selected characteristics.

In this age where digital mapping is now the order of the day, people tend to overlook the paper maps. But what if your digital map fails you when you are outdoors? Your knowledge on how to read maps will come in handy. So let’s get started

Types of Maps

There are many things on the surface of the earth to stuff into a map all at once. So there are different maps that serve different purposes. Some include political maps, physical maps, road maps, topographic maps, timezone maps, weather maps,even income maps….yeah.

Political map

It is one of the most widely used maps. It is also probably the first map every kid in school sees because it is always hung in classrooms. It mainly shows the boundaries between political units such as countries, states, cities etc

It does not show any topographic features of the landscape. But it may include some physical features such as major lakes, rivers or mountains. It may also contain major roads.

Physical map

physical map

This map is designed to show the geographic characteristics of an area. It also shows major boundaries between political units. Though it’s main objective is to show the land and water features of a particular area. Such as desert, mountain, etc

It also shows topography in colours. Elevation is usually illustrated with ranges of colors from green to brown to Gray. Green is usually for lands at almost sea level. As elevation increases,the colour code blends to brown until it terminates at grey. Grey is usually used to show mountain tops.

Physical maps shows water bodies as blue. Light blue for shallow water and darker blue as the water deepens. Ice caps are shown as white on this map.

Topographic map

topographic map

Topographic maps are like physical maps. But it uses contour lines to show elevation not colour. Therefore elevations can be measured using this map. That’s why it is especially used by hunters, hikers or any other group that engage in outdoor activities. The closer the contour lines are,the steeper the area is.

Important natural features are shown in the topographic map,such as rivers and lakes. Major roads or places can also be shown as well.

Road Map

road map

It can also be called route map. It is more navigational in nature as it doesn’t show much of the natural features of an area. It mainly shows roads and links to different areas on the map.

It is one of the most popular maps used. It shows major and minor roads with other things like parks, airport, train station and interesting places in the area.

Major highways on the map are usually bigger and in red while minor roads are a smaller line and drawn in a lighter colour.

Features of a Map

Of course we can’t just pick up a map and magically read it. Every map has features that make it readable and quite easy at that. To mention a few,they are;

  • Title
  • Legend
  • Scale
  • Compass rose
  • Grind


Every map has a title to show you what it’s about. And yet,some people do not care to look at it to know what map they are holding.

The title is usually always written at the top of the map. Yeah…it’s that simple….. just look for the title and put the map in the right position.


This is the key to all the symbols used in the map. In maps, natural features are usually represented with symbols. For example a mountain might be represented with spiky lines while a river is represented with wormy lines.

This means wherever you see a spiky line in the map,it signifies a mountain. So by the side of a map, there’s always a column where all the symbols used in the map are explained.

legend of a map


It’s just impossible to to draw a map the same size of the represented area. So a mapping scale is the relationship between the distances in the map and in real life. Is that difficult?

Okay, let’s say a map has a scale of 1:50,000. That means for every one unit in the map there is 50,000 units in real life. Or better put, If the distance in the map is 1cm then in real life it is 50,000cm or 0.5km. Got it yet?


Ever wonder what those vertical and horizontal lines in maps are for? Well,the vertical ones that run from north to south are called longitudes. While the horizontal lines that run from east to west are called latitude.

These lines are used to pinpoint the exact location of a place in the map.This just reminds me of military movies and how they blurt out co-ordinates.

The longitudes and latitude on a map are mostly given numbers or assigned letters. This makes finding a location on the map easy. The horizontal line is read before the vertical.

Compass rose

compass rose

This just goes to show you the right way to position your map. It’s usually like a star pointing in different directions.

Your Companion- The Compass

To allow you navigate your way with a map requires a compass. So I’ll talk a bit about the parts of a compass. There are many types of compass but the most common is the baseplate compass.

Parts of a compass

parts of a compass

Baseplate: it is the clear base of the compass with straight edges. It can be used to transfer bearings onto your map.

Direction of travel arrow: This tells you what direction to point your compass when taking or following a bearing.

Rotator bezel: it’s the ring that encircle the needles and has 360 degree markings on it.

Index line: it is located on the outer part of the bezel. It is used to mark the bearing you set while rotating the bezel.

Magnetic needle: it’s needle inside the rotator bezel. It moves around with you due to magnetic influence. It is painted red or white.

Orienting arrow: it is designed in a shape to house the magnetic needle. It is used to orient the compass. This is done by turning the bezel until the orienting arrow aligns with the magnetic needle.

Orienting lines: these are vertical lines found inside the within the bezels.

Now what?

From this I trust we’ve know the features of a map and basic structure of a compass. I can already hear you asking what you’re gonna do with it.

Let’s talk about putting all these into good use. The plan is to get you from point A to B without getting lost. So you’ve gotten your selected map and gotten your compass. Now let’s get you to your destination.

Magnetic north Vs Real north

Real north is at the North pole as you see on globes. Where all the longitudes meet. While magnetic north is where the magnetic needle of your compass points to as north.

Bottom line is real north and magnetic north are not the same. The difference between the real north and magnetic north is called declination. Most topographic maps would have the declination for the area.

So make sure your map is up to date as magnetic north changes over time. So before you can start anything,you would have to adjust the declination of your compass.

Once you check for the declination in your area, you add or subtract it from your compass bearing. Different compass have different ways to adjust for declination. So you’d have to check yours up.

Always remember to adjust for declination before you do anything with a compass.

Orienting your map

Now you want to put your map in the right way before doing any work.

orienting you map
  1. Place the compass on the map so that the direction of travel arrow is pointing to the top of the map.
  2. Turn the bezel until the index line or  “N” is in line with the travel arrow.
  3. Slide the baseplate of the compass to the right or left of the map. So that the straight edge is aligned with the margin of the map.
  4. Gently pick up both the map and compass while holding the steady. Rotate your body until the magnetic needle is within the orienting arrow.

After doing all these,you have your map oriented and ready to take a bearing.

Taking a bearing

This is assuming you know your location on the map. Bearing is another way of saying direction. Normally you’d say go Northwest or southeast but you could also say follow a bearing of 180 degrees. Bearing is relative to your current location. As  following the same bearing from two different locations won’t lead you to the same place.

To take a bearing;

1. Put the straight edge of the base plate of your compass from your location(1a) in the map to your destination(1b). As if you want to draw a straight line between the two points.

2. Make sure the travel arrow is generally pointing to the top of the map.

3. Now rotate the bezels until the orienting lines in the compass aligns with the vertical lines on the map.

4. Read off the number at the index. That’s your bearing.

taking a bearing

5. Pick up the compass. Hold it in a way that the direction of travel arrow is pointing away from you.

6. Rotate your body till the magnetic needle is aligned with the orienting arrow. Then you can go in the direction of the travel arrow as it is now facing the bearing you captured.

Find Yourself

“Not all who wander are lost” won’t be a funny quote if you can’t find yourself on a map. You can also take a bearing to find where you are.

The little problem here is that you’d have to find known landmarks like lakes or mountains. Once you can see those then you’re almost home and dry.

1. Hold out your compass with the direction of travel arrow directly pointing at the landmark.

2. Turn the bezel of the compass until the magnetic needle aligns with the orienting arrow or index.

3. Now put the compass on the map with the travel arrow pointing to the top of the map. Bring the straight edge of the compass on the landmark. Shift the baseplate until the orienting lines align with the vertical lines on the map.

4. Using a pencil draw a line down that across the edge as far down as possible.

5. Repeat this with a second and probably third landmarks.


At this point if you’re using two landmarks, you’ll see where the lines meet. That’s where you are. If using three landmarks,the drawn lines usually forms a small triangle. And your location is somewhere in that triangle or near it. This is called triangulation.


Phew…it’s been a long one. Reading a map is something that’s easy to master once you do it a couple of times.

Sure,now we have digital navigational maps that will show us where we are and where we are going. Heck,it even gives us alternate routes.

But what if you’re an outdoor person? The major drawbacks here would be power and connectivity….you don’t expect to get those in the desert or rainforest. The good old paper map saves the day again.

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