Getting started with maps

If you have never seen or used a map before then this is the place to start. If you understand what a map is and why it looks like it does then please feel free to skip this bit.

What you will learn:

  1. What a map is.
  2. What the main features of a map are.
  3. What some of the key pictures on a map represent.

Maps come in a variety of different forms but the kind of map we are thinking about is the kind of printed maps that walkers might use to navigate on the hills. In the U.K. these are typically 1:25 000 scale (see below for information about scales) Ordnance Survey maps (aka OS), although some areas of the country are also covered by Harvey Maps. Although it is possible to navigate with a lower scale map (when I started out we all use one inch to the mile maps) the bigger scale gives you more information and in particular field boundaries. Field boundaries, shown as thin black lines on the map, are invaluable to navigation in many of our hills and moorlands.

image of a map

Example of a map (Ordnance Survey)

A map would be useless without being to scale. The scale simply means that it has been shrunk down as many times as the scale suggests. So a 1 to 25000 scale map means that everything is shrunk down on the map 25000 times. Can you imagine what a full size map would be like? Completely useless to use. If the maps were not exactly to scale then it would be impossible to tell how far apart things really were and impossible to take a bearing – not much use on the hills.

So then a printed map is a 2-dimensional representation of a landscape. Each road, track, river, field, house, etc is drawn onto the map to help us see its location. Maps use special symbols to represent the landscape and by learning what they are we can get a clear idea of what the land will look like. We use maps to navigate our way through the landscape.

It should be noted that sometimes maps are wrong but the vast majority of the time are very accurate and reliable – it is better to trust a map than not. I sometimes come across people who don’t trust maps at all and they seem to have no end of trouble navigating and are forever getting lost – it is far safer to trust the map but be aware that sometimes it is wrong.

Every map has a key (often in the top left hand corner). They key gives you all the symbols you will need to read the map. There is often some useful information provided with the key like the scale of the map and how the map relates to magnetic north (something you will need to know when using a compass).

At the bottom of the map is usually a line that can use used to measure distances on the map.

There are also straight blue lines that run from the top to the bottom of the map and the left to the right, forming squares. This is the grid system that allows you to pinpoint a location on a map – more of that later.

OS maps also have contours, thin brown lines that indicate height. By tracing height they enable us to see on the map the shape of the hills we will want to navigate over and often prove very useful when you are trying to decide which hill is which or which valley you are in. Learning to read contours can take some time but is well worth the effort.