Map reading for beginners (despite the spring showers!)

We can all carry a smartphone with GPS to help us find our way through the undergrowth. You can even download apps like View Ranger which allow you to locate yourself, see the direction you’re following and quickly work out where you should be heading.

Technology like this has opened up the British Isles to many people who might not have felt previously confident enough to explore our hills, valleys and mountains. It can only be a good thing for getting more of us outside.

But what happens when your battery dies? Maybe you have a battery pack, but maybe not, and it’s always healthy to take a break from our phones. If there’s one thing that all outdoor adventurers agree on, it’s the benefits of a paper map. And, more importantly, understanding the basics of how to read said map before you get lost!

If a paper map looks like a foreign language to you, read on to learn the basics of map reading. Next put your new theory into practice, because the only way to get your confidence is to go for a walk with your phone turned off!

The very basics

A map is a pictorial depiction of a landscape looked at from above. It’s an accurate representation, scaled-down depending on how much detail you want to see. Points in the landscape like rivers, forests, ancient monuments, places and mountains are all marked enabling you to locate yourself and work out where you would like to go and what you would like to see. You can buy different maps including those for walking, as well as road maps, tourist maps and historical maps.  

Understand scale

When you buy a map, you will see that it shows a scale – which will look something like this 1:25 000. Most OS Explorer maps use this scale as it shows the best level of detailing for walking – including footpaths and rights of way.

That number is the scale of the map size versus the ‘real world’. So, for every 1 cm on your map, it’s representing 25,000 cm on the ground – or 250 metres. This helps you to understand distance and how far you will have to travel to get somewhere on the map.

If your map has a 1:50 000 scale then it won’t be as detailed. You’ll notice this difference on a road map, for example. Whereas if you go for a scale of say 1:1 250 (known as a Mastermap by Ordnance Survey) you will be able to see the accurate positioning of individual buildings.

Understanding grid references

Grid references are really important when it comes to map reading especially if you need to tell someone else where you are – like the emergency services. When you want to know the location of a house, then you use a postcode but when you’re out and about on the hills, you need a grid reference.

The National Grid (above)
Photo credit: Ordnance Survey

Grid references are six-figure letter and number combinations. Any map you use is covered with horizontal and vertical lines running across and down the map which form square boxes. Each of these lines has a number – at either end of the map and somewhere in the middle. Horizontal lines increase as you head further east and vertical lines increase in number the further north you look.

Wherever you are on the map, the cross-reference of these two double-digit numbers (vertical first and then horizontal – people remember it as ‘along the corridor and up the stairs’) is then combined with a prefix of two letters. These can be found in each of the four corners of your map. 

The grid reference for the above would be: TL63
Photo credit: Ordnance Survey

Remember what each of the features means

You’ll notice that your map is covered in tiny images, symbols and lines. Each of these means something and relates to whatever is around you when you’re in that location. Before you head out into the hills, memorise what these are showing, especially footpaths and rivers.

All maps will have a legend giving you a description of the markings. It’s particularly important to know what represents a right of way, rather than private land, but you can also see roads, railways, water, woodland and sand. It’s also useful to know the signs for public houses, toilets and campsites. If you’re interested in history, look out for churches, windmills, castles and Roman villas.

Read your landscape

Now that you know what these images and markings mean you can equate these to what you’re seeing around you. As an initial practice, stand somewhere that’s familiar to you. Now find your location on the map and look at the features around you and equate these to what you are seeing on the map. Can you see where the footpath is heading?

Fold your map in a useful way

Maps can be quite large and if it’s windy and raining they can quickly become difficult and cumbersome to deal with. Fold your map so that you can only see the area you’re walking in at that time then place it into a waterproof cover like Aquapac’s (shop here). This means that every time you bring it out, you don’t have to search around the entire map to find your location again and it’ll stay dry and easy to read.

You can even go as far as ‘thumbing’ – which means to leave your thumb on the map in your last known location whilst walking. This is especially useful if you are struggling with the landscape or worried about footpaths disappearing.

Regularly look back at your map 

Bring your map out regularly and keep checking it to prevent getting lost; use it as often as needed to keep you confident that you’re in the right place.

Know how to read contour lines

Contour lines are very useful because they tell you how steep the landscape is going to get. This is important both for knowing where you are, but also knowing whether you are able to complete the walk you would like to do. Essentially when looking at contours you need to know that the closer the lines are together, the steeper the climb or the descent will be. Each contour line represents a number of metres above sea level – depending on the scale of your map.

Get out and about

Get practising! Try out a map on your favourite walk so you’re familiar with the area but always remember to tell someone where you’re going and take a phone with you with a fully charged battery (in an Aquapac Waterproof Phone Case, of course!) just in case.