Map Reading: Learning Old Skills for Modern Times

Map Reading: Learning Old Skills for Modern Times

Have you ever tried to read a map that was not in a GPS or Google Maps? Unfortunately, our generation is losing its natural sense of direction because there are so many gadgets that tell us where to go. Can you know where the North or West is without taking your phone and using the compass application?

As a survivor, you should already know that reading maps is an essential skill that can save your life in the desert. As a beginner, it may seem redundant to learn to interpret a sheet of paper with colors and lines when there are so many devices that can do it for you, but make no mistake, that sheet of paper will be the best possible. Pal on many outdoor adventures. A GPS may suddenly stop working or you may run out of batteries or signal when a map does not need any of them.

Imagine you are on a hiking trail and use your phone to follow the path. Suddenly, you realize that your battery is about to die and you forgot to take a spare (it does not seem plausible, but sometimes it happens). What will you do to get to the cabin or the campsite? Well, I hope you have a map with you and that you have read our instructions on how to correctly read and understand a map. While at first it may seem complicated, the maps are incredibly easy to interpret once you manage to understand what it is all about.

Reading maps for beginners.

Do not worry if the multitude of lines and colors in front of you make you feel nauseous. With a little study and practice, you can understand all the signs and symbols used on the map and interpret them accurately.

Warning: If you are at the beginning of your relationship with a map, practice at home before deciding on an outdoor adventure without a GPS or a smartphone! Just reading about how to read a map is not enough to do it in the desert.

If something bad happens and you lose, it will be very difficult to remember what you have read and the map will not do you any good. Practice at home first and only when you feel safe enough, you can practice while walking. It is also recommended to bring a more experienced partner with you during your first outdoor adventures with a map.

Map Reading: Learning Old Skills for Modern Times

Let’s start slowly and start with the basics of reading maps.

Choose the correct map

The first step is to make sure you have the correct map. There are a variety of maps in this world such as: road maps used by drivers to get to their destination, tourist maps where you can see the best places to visit and how to get there, topographic maps for hikers that show routes and places to camp, or general maps of the area.

After finding out what map you will need for your exploration, check if it is updated. We live in a constantly changing world, so if you have a roadmap, make sure that the latest changes have been recorded. The same applies to a hiking or topographic map. If your map is old, connect and check if there have been changes since the date the map was created. You can definitely use Google Maps for this.

Understand the basic elements of the map.

Now that you have the map in front of your eyes, you should look for some items that can be found on a map:

Orientation of the map. – To orient yourself in space using a map, you must first find out how the map is oriented. Most maps have a compass that shows the main cardinal points and how the map is oriented according to them. This rose can be found in one of the corners of the map, but if you do not see it, you can safely assume that the north is pointing towards the top of the map.

The scale – Each map is drawn using a scale that shows the correlation between the map and the distance in reality. It would have been very difficult to draw a life-size map and it would also be impossible to carry it in the backpack. This is the reason why each map uses a certain scale and to calculate correctly the distances you need to know what scale was used for your map.

Usually, you can find the scale on the side or bottom of the map, and it looks like this: 1: 100,000. This means that a unit on the map corresponds to 100,000 units in real life. According to the map, you must choose according to the best scale:

  • The maps for walks and hikes are better on a scale of 1: 25,000 because they can show more details;
  • Route maps for driving are better on a scale of 1: 190,000; they do not need to show so many details, only those that are relevant to the road;
  • A general map of the world is best seen on a scale of 1: 24,000,000, less details and a better overview.

If you want to know how much there is from point A to point B on a map, you will need a ruler and scale. Measure the distance between the two points on the map and multiply the result with the scale (250,000 if the scale of the map is 1: 250,000 or 190,000 if the scale is 1: 190,000). You will get a result in inches that can transform into miles or kilometers.

Map title – All maps have a title that summarizes their main objective. For example, if a map is called “Global Geographic Map”, it is expected to see a general map of the world with continents and landforms, but if a map is called “Demographic Map of the United States of America”, that map will represent the population density and trends. about USA.

Longitude and latitude – I’m sure you’ve heard about these two terms, but have you ever seen them on a map? Usually, when you travel short distances and you know the route, you do not need them, but when you try to point to an exact location on the map or you’re navigating or flying, longitude and latitude are extremely important.

First, let’s see what the longitude and latitude are. When you look at a map, you can see that there are horizontal and vertical lines drawn at equal distances. These are called parallels and meridians. The parallels start at the equator and move horizontally towards the North Pole and the South Pole, and the Meridians join the two poles vertically. These are imaginary lines drawn on the map to help us orient ourselves better in space and each one is noted in degrees.

Map Reading: Learning Old Skills for Modern Times

Now that we have learned what these lines are, let’s finally analyze the subject in question: longitude and latitude.

  • The latitude expresses the distance in degrees North or South from the Equator. So when we say 45 degrees to the north, we start from the equator and go towards the north pole until we find the 45 degrees parallel.
  • The length expresses the distance in degrees East or West from the Meridian Zero or the Meridian Line of Greenwich. This is the standard starting point for all Meridians anywhere in the world.

Now, to get a specific point on the map, you need both the longitude and the latitude (like when you play chess and you want to specify a certain cell). Where the two imaginary lines intersect, there is your location.

To further complicate things, you should know that each grade is divided into 60 minutes, so you should not be surprised if you run into a location that looks like this: 45 degrees and 50 minutes North (or 45 ° 50’N). In addition, each minute represents one nautical mile.

The simple part these days is that, if you have a GPS, you can simply insert the longitude and latitude and it will show you the location. Otherwise, you would have to calculate and use geometric tools to find the location on the map. Who would ever think that geography and mathematics go hand in hand?

Contour lines – These are another type of line with a totally different meaning. Level curves are used to show the general height above sea level in an area. Each line represents a height standard. To understand what they mean, you should know that the further apart they are, the flatter the terrain actually is and the closer they are, the more inclined they are on the map.

Contour lines are extremely important for hikers and outdoor adventurers, as they need to know what is a mile ahead. This way, if an area is too steep, they can surround it. Maps that show contours are called topographic maps because they show the topography of a place.

Map Reading: Learning Old Skills for Modern Times

Legend – Each map has one because it is difficult to represent objects and reference points in writing. The symbols are the best way to make sure that the map does not get too full and you still know what to look for in reality. There are some general symbols that are used universally, but there are symbols that differ from one map to another. This is why you need to review the legend and make sure you understand its symbols.

The universal symbols are the following:

  • The lines are the universal symbol of roads, lanes, highways and everything that can be used as such. Thick lines are used to represent modern roads such as highways and, as the line becomes thinner, the highway is less modernized;
  • Colors are used on maps to highlight areas such as mountains (brown), bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, seas, oceans (blue), forests, parks, forests (green), black and gray for buildings;
  • Tourist maps use various symbols to represent churches, museums, castles and other places that are worth seeing.

How to read a map: go from point A to point B

Now that we discuss the basic elements that you can find on a map, it’s time to discuss how to use them to go from point A to point B and then point C and so on.

The first and most important when trying to use a map is to find your current location in it. If you know where you are on the map (point A), you can look for the best way to get to point B.

Find your current location on the map

There are three ways you can find your location on the map:

  1. Identify landmarks (usually two are enough) like a mountain that is near or a river. When you only have one point of reference, it is a bit more difficult to orient the map accordingly, but when you have two you can see where you are in relation to each of them. Align the map so that the reference point you see in front of you is at the top of the map and draw a straight line down with a pencil and a ruler.
    Keeping the map position, find the second reference point on the map and draw a line from that point to the first line. The second line that you draw must be inclined, since the second mark is in relation to your current position. For example, if the second reference point is 90 degrees to its right, its line must be perpendicular to the first, but if it is at 45 degrees, the line must be diagonal. The point where the two lines intersect is approximately your position. It is not an exact science, but it is a way of finding the area where it is currently on the map;
  2. Using a compass, all you have to do is to orient the map in the direction shown by the compass;
  3. Using a GPS (although it is not recommended to base your map reading skills on a device) you can get the longitude and latitude of your location. Apply the data on the map and you will have your precise location.

Mark your location on the map to make sure you do not forget it and start working on the second part of this problem: find the destination.

How to get to point B, C, D, E

Going from point A to point B is quite easy. All you need to do is identify point B on the map and use a ruler, to calculate the distance between the two points (this we analyzed earlier, in the scale of the maps). Now that you know the distance, you should look for the shortest or easiest route to get there. You can use a road map to see the main access routes or a tourist map with trails.

If before you reach point B, you also want to visit points C and D, you must plan ahead. Mark on the map the roads you want to follow and be sure to take into account all the necessary factors:

  • Calculate the time you will spend on each highway and how much you want to spend visiting each point of interest;
  • Consider the accommodation possibilities in case you need to stay overnight (the tourist maps also show places for camping and hotels);
  • Try to find the shortest route to join all the places you want to visit, but also look for alternative routes in case your plans change or a traffic jam occurs;
  • Set up checkpoints to follow the route when you are on the road. Sometimes it happens that you lose a turn and, before you know it, you lose yourself.

Now that everything is planned step by step, it’s time to start packing! Do not forget to put the map in your backpack, otherwise, all the planning will be in vain.

Map Reading: Learning Old Skills for Modern Times

General reading of maps

In the end, we should discuss some additional things that may be useful when trying to read a map:

  • Most of the maps used for orientation use 5 standard colors to show landmarks and other important objects: blue for water, brown for earth features such as contours and land banks, black for man-made objects or cliffs and rocks, yellow for fields and power lines, green for the thick vegetation you might want to avoid and white for open forests that are easy to traverse;
  • Colors are also used to signify height. In this way, the color is darker at the bottom, where the height is lower and lightens as the height increases. The top of the high mountains is usually white;
  • For easy storage and use, the maps are folded, so after you have planned the complete route, you can follow it piece by piece
  • When hiking or on an outdoor adventure, it is always recommended to take a waterproof map. In this way, you can make sure you have the map for the entire trip and not just until the first rain or the river you have to cross;

As you can see, although we live in the era of touch screen and portable devices, paper maps are still a reliable element that should be in every survival backpack.


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