Map reading is somewhat of a lost art in our modern age, but in some places, where man’s technology can’t be relied on, it becomes a powerful tool. This article discusses the five essentials of map reading so you can start your trek through the wilderness in no time.
Reading a Topographic Map – Essentials
All hikers should take maps with them. Although a regular map works just fine, it is ideal to bring a topographic one for a better and more accurate orientation. For those of you who are not initiated in reading this type of maps, a topographic representation can be quite tricky to read. It has all kinds of contour lines that indicate the type of land you will have to deal with during your hiking adventure.
For example, you can easily keep track of where you are at a certain moment of your trip only by looking at the contour lines on the map. They inform you the elevation level of the land. One part of a contour line represents uphill while the other is downhill.
All contour lines create a circle. The are in the middle of the circle is usually higher compared to the contour line. When you see lines that are drawn close together, it means you are on steep ground. Lines that are farther apart on the map show a flat ground. But let’s take a look at a more detail approach of how to read both topographic and regular maps.
5 Tips on How to Read a Map
Tip 1: Become Familiar with the Map’s Symbols
Thanks to elementary education, almost everyone is at least familiar with the concept of a map. A map is a representation of an area that serves to help you find your way from point A to point B. Most maps follow the same basic guidelines. A scale is shown at the lower corner of the map, along with a compass rose. Green indicates vegetation or forests; blue indicates water and white displays bare land.
Aside from that, you might feel a little confused when viewing a map’s symbols. Fortunately, most maps will have a legend to indicate what the symbols mean. If not, there are several guides to help you become more familiar with common symbols.
Tip 2: Reading a Map Scale
Reading a map’s scale is essential to map reading. A scale indicates how the map correlates to the depicted area. For example, a scale might indicate that one inch is equal to 10 miles. The larger the scale, the less detailed the map.
Translating the scale for real world application of the map reading is a little more difficult. You can use your finger to measure the distance on a map, but a ruler is more accurate. Once you’ve measured the scale, you should check your compass to ensure that it is aligned with the map’s north, rather than magnetic north. This process is called declination and extremely simple to do.
From here, you can begin to orient yourself with the map. Try looking for a landmark and count your steps as you walk toward it. This allows you to translate distance without the assistance of a pedometer or GPS.
Tip 3: Learn How to Read Map Coordinates
You may have easily overlooked the grid lines covering the map. These lines are actually very important for map reading and indicate a specific location. Some locations on a map are labeled with numerical values or coordinates. Once you master coordinate reading, you can identify an exact location by measuring the coordinates, which can be extremely helpful for an emergency extraction.
Each of these lines indicates a degree of longitude and latitude. The longitude is represented by the horizontal lines, or the lines moving from east to west. Latitude connects with the Earth’s axis at the North and South Pole. Unless you’re close to one of these areas, they probably look like parallel lines running north and south.
These lines coordinate with a numerical location or degree. They are further divided into minutes and seconds. 1 degree of latitude is equal to 69 statute miles while one degree of longitude represents 54.6 statute miles.
Tip 4: How to Read a Topographic Map
Topographic maps indicate the elevation changes in an area. These maps are far less common than traditional maps, but every bit as essential for hikers and wilderness buffs. If you plan on doing any kind of off-trail hiking, you should learn how to read a topo map so you can plan effectively.
A topographic map is covered in thin and thick curved lines, called contour lines. Contour lines indicate a change in elevation. Reading topographic maps can give you a snapshot of the area’s terrain. Lines that are closer together indicate a steeper slope, while lines that are further apart indicate a gentler incline or decline. Solid circular lines represent a peak, while the occasional depression is indicated with ticks. In a valley, you may notice “U” or “V” shaped lines. The tight “V” shaped lines typically represent an upstream flow.
Every so often you will see a thicker line, known as an index line. These lines are used as a reference point for elevation. For example, if a map indicates an index line of 3,000 feet and has four lines in between the next reference line of 4,000 feet, you can determine that each contour line indicates 200 feet of elevation.
Tip 5: Practice Map Reading
After you become familiar with these basic skills, you should put them into practice in a familiar area. You can identify landmarks to orient yourself, or visualize elevations with the help of a topographic map. Take a map with you on all your routed hikes and practice predicting markers and elevation changes.
Summing It Up
Map reading shouldn’t be a lost art among outdoor enthusiasts. Familiarize yourself with the symbols and scale of a map before attempting to read it. For real life application, make sure you have your compass set properly and practice walking to locations based on topographic maps or coordinates. Practice these skills regularly while gradually increasing the difficulty. With a little practice and patience, you can master map reading in no time.