Map Reading for Beginners

Familiarize Yourself With These Features

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

In an age when mapping apps are commonplace, you may think traditional map reading an obsolete skill. But if you enjoy hiking, camping, exploring the wilderness, and other outdoor activities, a good road or topographic map can be your best friend.

Real maps are reliable. Unlike cell phones and GPS devices, there are no signals to lose or batteries to change with a paper map—you can trust that they'll get you where you need to go. This guide will introduce you to the basic elements of a map.

Legend

Cartographers or map designers use symbols to represent different elements of a map. The legend, also called a key, is the map feature that shows you how to interpret these symbols. Legends are often in the shape of a rectangle. While not exactly the same across the board, many symbols in a legend are fairly standard from one map to another.

A square with a flag on top usually represents a school and a dashed line usually represents a border. Note, however, that map symbols often used in the United States are generally used for different things in other countries. The symbol for a secondary highway used on a United States Geological Survey topographic map, for example, represents a railroad on Swiss maps.

Title

A map's title tells you at a glance what that map is depicting. If you're looking at a map called "A Road Map of Utah", you can expect to see interstate and state highways, plus major local roadways across the state. A "Utah Geological Map", on the other hand, will depict specific scientific data for the region, such as city groundwater supplies. Regardless of the type of map you're using, it should have a useful title.

Orientation

A map isn't very helpful if you don't know you don't know 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. Keep north at the top of your page.

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

Scale

A life-sized map is simply impossible. Instead, cartographers use ratios to reduce a mapped region to a much more manageable size. A map's scale tells you what ratio is being used or, more commonly, depicts a given distance as the equivalent of a measurement. For example, 1 inch representing 100 miles. 

The scale of a map will be smaller for large regions and larger for small regions depending on how much an area has been shrunken to fit.

Color

There are many color schemes used by cartographers for different purposes. Whether a map is political, physical, thematic, or general, a user can look to its legend for an explanation of colors. 

Elevation is commonly represented as various dark greens for low or below sea level areas, browns for hills, and white or grays for areas of highest elevation. A political map, depicting only state and national borders or boundaries, uses a wide range of colors to separate states and countries.

Contour Lines

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

Neatline

A neatline is the border of a map. It helps to define the edge of the map area and keep things looking organized. Cartographers may also use neatlines to define offsets, which are mini-maps depicting magnified important areas or those not within the map's boundaries. Many road maps, for example, contain offsets of major cities that show additional cartographic detail like local roads and landmarks.