Map Reading for Beginners

Don't get lost. Learn the basics with this guide

Friends reading map in woods, France
Bernard Jaubert / Getty Images

In an age when mapping apps are commonplace, you may think that learning how to read a paper map is an obsolete skill. But if you enjoy hiking, camping, exploring the wilderness, or other outdoor activities, a good road or topographic map is your still best friend. Unlike cell phones and GPS devices, there are no signals to lose or batteries to change with a paper map, making them far more reliable.

This guide will introduce you to the basic elements of a map.

Legend

Cartographers, who design maps, use symbols to represent the different elements used. The legend, sometimes called a key, tells you how to interpret a map's symbols. For instance, a square with a flag on top usually represents a school, and a dashed line represents a border. Note, however, that map symbols used in the United States are often used for different things in other countries. The symbol for a secondary highway used on a United States Geological Survey topographic map represents a railroad on Swiss maps.

Title

A map's title will tell you at a glance what the map is depicting. If you're looking at a road map of Utah, for example, you would expect to see interstate and state highways, plus major local roadways across the state. A USGS geological map, on the other hand, will depict specific scientific data for a region, such as groundwater supplies for a city.

Regardless of the type of map you're using, it will have a title.

Orientation

A map isn't very useful if you don't know where you are relative to your position on it. Most cartographers align their maps so that the top of the page represents north and use a small arrow-shaped icon with an N beneath it to point you in the right direction.

Some maps, such as topographic maps, will point to "true north" (the North Pole) and to magnetic north (where your compass points, to northern Canada). More elaborate maps may include a compass rose, depicting all four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west).

Scale

A life-sized map would be impossibly large. Instead, cartographers use ratios to reduce a mapped region to a manageable size. The map's scale will tell you what ratio is being used or, more commonly, depict a given distance as the equivalent of a measurement, such as 1 inch representing 100 miles.  

Other Elements

Just as there are many types of color maps, there are also many different color schemes used by cartographers. The map user should look to the legend for an explanation of colors on a map.  Elevation, for example, is often represented as a sequence of dark greens (low elevation or even below sea level) to browns (hills) to white or gray (highest elevation).

A neatline is the border of a map. It helps to define the edge of the map area and obviously keeps things looking organized. Cartographers may also use neatlines to define offsets, which are mini-maps of an expanded area of the map. Many road maps, for instance, contain offsets of major cities that show additional cartographic detail like local roads and landmarks.

If you're using a topographic map, which depicts changes of elevation in addition to roads and other landmarks, you'll see wavy brown lines that meander around. These are called contour lines and represent a given elevation as it falls upon the contour of the landscape.