Saturday, 30 July 2016

How to Read a Map

To most people over a certain age and anyone like me who spent their childhoods following their parents up mist-cowled mountains, it will be a shocking statistic to read: apparently one in three of us now can’t read a map. According to recent research from Garmin (those GPS technology specialists who you might think would delight at such findings), we have all become worryingly dependent on the kind of ‘guided’ travel technology found in Sat Nav or apps. So much so that 39 percent of Britons are helpless when it comes to finding their way using a traditional map.

Call me a Luddite if you will, but I believe this is terrible state of affairs. In my mind, being able to orient yourself and navigate without resorting to a handset or GPS remains an important skill even in the modern age. I’m not anti-technology in the slightest; anything that can make life easier, more convenient or safer has to be a progressive step. But not being able to read a map? That is an enormous gap in any Human’s knowledge and one that, if it gets out, puts you at a serious disadvantage during directional arguments with your other half. No one wants to be the guy who swears blind it is one way, only to find out he’s totally in the wrong.

Crucially, there’s the usefulness factor here. Lets take road navigation: how many times have you read instructions to a place that strictly tells you not to follow your Sat Nav? Or heard of cars submerged in rivers because the driver was told by a digital voice on their dashboard that what lay ahead was a country lane? Or seen a photo of a lorry wedged under a low bridge? You get the point. As brilliant as it may be, technology fails from time to time. Batteries die. Satellites refuse to connect. Like it or not, maps still provide the most reliable form of getting to A to B – provided, that is, you know how to read them.

But however important they are for road travelling or finding your way around the urban environment, they are way more vital in the great outdoors. Malfunctioning gadgets or dodgy navigation skills can lead to people becoming lost and disorientated, wandering onto steep, dangerous ground and spending longer than planned in the elements, leading to exhaustion and exposure to unforgiving climates. As I’ve found out numerous times in the Lake District, Wales and Scotland, weather can turn quickly; suddenly that nice footpath you were following has vanished under fog, cloud or (as I found once, on Helvellyn) unexpected snow. You could find yourself at the top of a fell or featureless moor with no paths at all. Or there may appear more paths on the hillside than you were expecting. In such circumstances being able to read, understand and interpret factors like contour lines, types of wood, walls, rivers, and fences becomes critical.

But even putting the practicalities to one side for a moment, maps are a pleasure to open and explore. They have been a part of our lives and our understanding of place since the first explorers set forth to chart the lands beyond their borders. They speak of adventure and make birds of us all, capable of taking our grounded, land-locked minds and giving them perspective, allowing us to fly above unknown regions and identify their layout, landscape and resources. They let us plan future trips and jog our memories of past ones. They give the human animal a sense of scale, orientation, angles, and measurement; just reading them boosts our spatial awareness and analytical skills.

Topographic Maps 

Carrying and knowing how to read a map in the outdoors is an essential wilderness survival skill.

One of the most practical types of maps to have, especially when travelling in the outdoors, is a topographic map. Topographic maps present a straightforward, easy to understand visual aid for navigating a landscape. They are organised in a manner to help you navigate and plan routes through even the most challenging landscapes.

In order to help you understand how to read a map, let's start by breaking it down and looking at the basics.

The Four Cardinal Points

Topographical maps are always arranged so that the four cardinal points are obvious and easily understood. As with most maps, North is up on map. South is the bottom, while East is the right side and West is the left side of the printed map. There is also often a compass, arrow or magnetic declination character printed on the topographic map that points to North. Maps are oriented to True North, not magnetic North. Most topographic maps have the difference between magnetic and True North printed on the map for that region.

Contour Lines

This is a feature unique to topographical maps. Contour lines are curved lines that are used to connect points with the same elevation. In other words, contour lines give you a 3 dimensional lay of the land. They are used to define the shape and steepness in elevation of various landforms. To make contour lines most useful to you, you need to determine the contour interval which is generally given at the bottom of the map. The contour interval is the rate at which your elevation changes as you go from one contour line up or down to another, and this is general given in feet or meters.

How to Read a Map's Scale

This is a vital part of the map that tells you have how the map relates to the landscape. Generally, map scale is given in 2 different ways on a topographical map: ratio scale and graphic scale.

The ratio scale is generally given in a number that looks something like this: 1:30,000. This means that for every 1 inch on the map, it is 30,000 inches on the ground.

The graphic scale is given as a line that demonstrates how long a given distance is using a straight line, which can be given as a mile or hundreds of miles. Often, there are multiple lines for this, one given in miles and another in kilometres. This acts as a visual ruler than can be quickly used to estimate distances using straight lines.

Map Legend

The legend is the portion of the map, also known as a "map key," that tells you how to read a map's details. Roads, buildings, waterways, glaciers, open versus forested terrain, and other features will be described in detail in the map legend. Generally, waterways are marked out in blue on topographic maps, while roads are marked out in black or brown.

Further Resources

Using a compass can make a map even more helpful, for information on how to read a compass check out: How to Read a Compass.

No comments:

Post a Comment