Mountain navigation in Torridon
Navigation Lessons

Compass Corner: Lesson 1 – How to Read a Map

Are you interested in brushing up your navigation skills or learning how to read a map for the first time? This lesson will cover common maps used for outdoor activities in the UK, have a quick look at the common types of map symbols, and explain different map scales. The aim of this lesson is to help you to choose what type of map to use for your adventure and how to start using it for simple navigation and route planning. Learning to navigate in different circumstances will increase your confidence and allow you to move in the outdoors safely and independently! Learning how to read a map does not need to be difficult and with the bite-sized Compass Corner lessons, I hope to make it easy and simple for everyone.

If you have any questions or comments related to this lesson or series, feel free to comment below or email me! To find out which skills I plan to cover over the course of the Compass Corner series, have a look at this post.

Why Have I Chosen to Write the Compass Corner Navigation Lessons?

I love maps. And I love the puzzle which navigation presents me. I also love the independence and sense of freedom which solid navigation skills give me. There is never a necessity to rely on anyone else to take me out to do the things I enjoy, because I am more than capable of doing it myself! And that is both empowering and freeing. While there are always a number of things which can go wrong in the hills, getting lost is not one I have to worry about. And that is what I want to help others achieve too; the confidence to venture out on their own with the knowledge that they have the skills to safely do so.

My background

Personally, I struggle to remember a time when I didn’t know how to read a map or do some basic navigation. But that’s what you get growing up in a country which is mad about orienteering. (If you don’t know what that is have a look at British Orienteering). My earliest memories of structured learning in relation to navigation are from a classroom in my primary school. We were learning to identify map symbols projected to the whiteboard. Since then there have been years and years of actively participating in orienteering, hillwalking, mountaineering, trail running and general rambling. Therefore, my navigation skills have been honed by years of use and practice.

But that is not the only thing. I have also participated on numerous skills courses, workshops, practice days, and so on. The most recent one of these was the Mountain Leader training I undertook in August. I have written more about that experience in here. Therefore, this course is my way to share my knowledge and hopefully help you along on your outdoors journey! But it is also a great way for me to summarise the basics of navigation leading up to my ML assessment. For the full plan for this series (I’m hoping there will be around 15 lessons in total) see this post.

Common Map Types – How to Choose the Right Map

The most common map type almost everyone is familiar with is a classic road map. From an old-school road atlas to google maps and your car’s GPS – maps are everywhere. And most of us know more about how to use them than we might realise! While road maps will not help you to venture into the wilderness, they can be all an urban adventurer needs. Road maps commonly depict roads, streets and other paths, as well as the general layout of the land including features such as buildings, fields and water ways. They are convenient guides for finding from place A to place B by using road names and numbers to identify locations. However, they can be incredibly unhelpful for rural locations, or anything even remotely off road.

Therefore, the map of choice for outdoor use is usually a more detailed Ordnance Survey (OS) map or a Harvey map. More about these below!

Ordnance Survey (OS) Maps

Ordnance Survey (OS) Maps are the most common maps used for outdoor activities in the UK. The OS maps cover the whole of the UK and come in two different types: the Explorer and the Landranger. The Landranger covers more area but gives less details about the landscape. It is, therefore, more suitable for days which cover a lot of distance but do not require very intricate navigation. Whereas the Explorer maps cover less area but go into more detail. This is especially useful for detailed navigation or for use on complex ground.

Harvey Maps

Harvey Maps are a little less known choice compared to OS maps – but one you should definitely consider. This is especially the case if you end up adventuring in areas like Scotland or get into long-distance hiking. Many people swear by the clean look of the Harvey maps. They are specifically designed with walkers in mind and have a contour interval of 15m. This reduces the cluttering of contours on steeper ground. (If you don’t know what that means yet, don’t worry – we will get to it later! Basically, it just means that the Harvey maps have a little less going on visually than the OS maps.)

I personally love the fact that Harvey maps come in conveniently designed sheets which cover common long-distance hiking routes and outdoor areas. With OS maps you might end up having to buy several maps to cover routes such as the West Highland Way which requires a whopping 6 OS maps. Simultaneously, you can get a Harvey map which covers the whole route for you. Convenient, right? They are also printed on weatherproof paper, which can be extremely handy in the UK.

Orienteering Maps

I wanted to spare a quick word on orienteering maps. Which, while they are very activity specific, cover a range of scales and can be very useful for practicing navigation. I definitely recommend orienteering either on a set course, which can be found throughout the UK, or with a local club. It is an excellent way to build up your skills and learn how to read a map with confidence in a friendly and supportive environment. See here for more information on permanent courses and local clubs.

How to Read Map Scales

A simple explanation of what map scales are, how they work, and why it is important to understand them:

The most common map scales used for outdoor activities are 1:25 000, 1:40 000 and 1:50 000. A map scale simply means how big things are on the map as compared to real life. On a 1:25 000 scale map, 1cm on the map represents 250m on the ground. The equivalent for 1:40 000 and 1:50 000 maps are then 400m and 500m. It is also useful to note that one square (often outlined by thin blue lines) on a map is usually 1km. Therefore, rough estimations of distances on a map can be done by counting the number of squares. For more detailed estimations, the distance can be measured when the scale of the map is known using the system below.

For example, on a 1:25 000 scale map – a distance of 5cm on the map is 5x250m on the ground. This means the distance is 1250m (or 1km and 250m). Equally, on a 1:50 000 scale map – a distance of 5cm on the map is 5x500m on the ground. This means the distance is 2500m (or 2km and 500m). Knowing how to measure distances between different points on the map is a key skill. It will become very important for navigating and planning your routes.

Introducing Common Types of Map Symbols

These categories are loosely based on those used by OS. I really recommend having a look at this handy guide for more detailed explanations on the map symbols used on their maps. I will focus on ones which are relevant for walkers and hikers in order keep this lesson concise. It is also good to note that every map includes an explanation of the common map symbols used on it. This can be very handy for checking something mid-hike! I have included examples of some of the symbols here, but it is important to check which conventions your map uses.

Roads and Paths

The most obvious feature of most maps is roads and paths. The OS maps include roads from motorways, to A roads, all the way down to little single tracks. More conveniently for a walker – they also include bridleways, footpaths, national walking routes and many other roads and paths! More importantly, they also highlight the Public Rights of Way (on English and Welsh maps). It is good to notice that not all footpaths etc. are actually PRoWs. And that not all PRoW actually have paths along them which are visible on the ground. (Although the latter is more rare and usually means a path has faded or overgrown due to the lack of use).

Boundaries and Walls

Maps also show a multitude of boundaries. These could be administrative boundaries, such as civil parishes, counties, national park borders, or areas denoting access land. Or they could be physical barriers such as walls and fences, including walls which form buildings or enclosures. It is important to learn to distinguish which borders are there on the map. And which ones of them are also present in the landscape.

General Features

Maps also denote a number of general features. These can include features such as buildings, footbridges, wells and many other structures which are often visible on the ground. They also often go to more detail about certain features, denoting schools, churches, youth hostels, post offices, phone boxes, etc.

Points of Interest

On top of these, maps often also have a range of points of interest. These could be anything from parking places to nature reserves, museums and information centres. Look for little blue symbols on your map to find the points of interest on your route. There are also small, usually black, symbols and texts which denote archaeological or historical sites of interest, such as battle sites or castles.

Vegetation

Maps show different areas of vegetation. And very usefully, they are often denoted using symbols of the plants you are likely to see on the ground! Different types of vegetation often indicated on maps, by either colours or symbols, include fields, forests (deciduous and coniferous), bog, moorland, and so on.

Natural Features and Heights

One of the most crucial details on maps are natural features and heights. This means that maps show the shape of the land from hills and mountains to valleys and hollows. In an upland landscape with little man-made features, the heights and shapes of the ground are an important way of telling where you are. Maps also show features such as cliffs, crags and outcrops, which are useful in identifying locations. Height differences on a map are denoted either by writing out a number, which is the height of the location from sea level, or by contour lines. These, usually light brown, lines are 10m apart on OS maps – and it is through their shapes that information such as height, formations of land and the steepness of slopes is indicated.

Contours are crucial but they can also be complicated. Therefore, I have planned two full contour lessons for later in the series!

Examples of the map symbols mentioned

These are examples of some of the map symbols covered here. For a more exhaustive list, check the map key on the map you are using – or have a look at the OS or Harvey maps websites. (This section works best on a desktop or a tablet, however, I am currently working on improving the mobile compatibility.)

How to Read a Map – the Basics

All map reading starts by finding your location, or the starting point of your walk. There are no big ‘YOU ARE HERE’ dots to help you here, and therefore it can be a little difficult at the start. One way to avoid this is to start from a location you are already familiar with or start by an obvious landmark on the map. Or you could cheat and use a GPS, or the map on your phone, to give you your starting location when you are still learning how to read the map.

Secondly, at the beginning follow the obvious paths on the map. It is not time to freestyle it in the wild yet. Instead, grow your confidence and familiarity with handling the map on roads, bridleways and footpaths. In many places of the UK footpaths are marked with very minimal signs. Often there is just one at the start of the path – sometimes not even that. Therefore, it is important to keep track where you are; stay attentive to your surroundings and track them on the map. Remember which direction the path turns or which direction you took from a junction. In a future lesson, I will talk about a trick which will make it easier to keep track which way you are walking!

How to Start Planning Your Walks Using a Map

The old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ is very much true when it comes to navigating and knowing how to read a map quickly and efficiently. Even experienced navigators need to do it frequently to keep up the skills. Therefore, it is good to start planning little walks using a map. There is nothing wrong practicing in a familiar environment – get a map of your local area and do walks you already know! Plan trips between points A and B and consider which intermediate landmarks you should pass by on your way. Are there junctions, streams, walls, buildings, or any other notable features around you? Choose short legs (less than 100m) and long legs (more than 500m) to get a feel for how different distances feel on the ground as compared to the map. Do this on different types of terrain to learn how elevation affect your feel of the distance.

It is good to have a plan b when you are still learning how to read a map

Have a backup plan – when you are still learning, do it in locations with good mobile/internet signal. This way you can have various mobile apps (such as OS Locate, ViewRanger, Strava or any other!) as a backup plan in case you lose your location on the map. They also provide you with the security to be able to start pushing your new skills into more challenging environments.

Next Lesson

Now that you know the basics of how to read a map, it is time to learn more detailed navigation skills. The next Compass Corner lesson will be published next Monday and looks at what are grid references and why it is so important to know how to use them in emergencies. I will also discuss why some rescue services recommend you use grid references instead of commercial services and apps like the recently popularised What3Words. In the following lessons we can get properly started on useful navigation skills, such as how to keep your map oriented to the ground!

Follow my adventures in the wild spaces of the UK through Instagram and Pinterest. I have recently focused on practicing for an upcoming ML assessment, which means lots and lots of nav practice!

2 Comments

  • Laurel

    This is one of the most comprehensive lessons on map reading and compass work I have ever seen. I a a scout leader in Australia and I am getting a lot more from these lessons than have ever received anywhere else

    • Ina

      Thank you for the lovely message Laurel! I am happy to hear that you’ve found the lessons helpful. I look forward to finishing the series over the next couple of months so there will hopefully be more useful info coming up shortly!

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