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  • Writer's pictureAlexa

Introduction to maps

I love a good map. I was brought up navigating for my parents on long journeys using road atlases as well as Ordnance Survey maps on long trips and holidays. I picked up my Dad’s enjoyment of poring over a map to plan journeys and days out.

A map is the key to getting outside and exploring, even in areas you are familiar with a map can give you a clue to un explorer and interesting areas. So I thought I’d give a quick introduction to map reading as one of the fundamental navigation skills.

Start by taking a good look at your map, folder out and find the scale. This will tell you how the map represents the distance on the ground. The Ordnance Survey Leisure maps in the UK have a scale of 1:25,000. This means 1cm on the map represents 25,000 cm on the ground, 0.25km. This means that 4cm on the map is 1km. The more “zoomed in” the scale the more detail you’ll see but the smaller the area the map will show.

You’ll also be able to see a grid of squares across most maps, again your scale should tell you how big one of these squares is. You can use these squares to quickly estimate how far a particular route is on the map. Whilst you are looking for the scale it’s also handy to check when the map was printed and updated, as that gives you an idea of how accurate it might be.

The squares on the map are also useful for pinpointing specific areas on the map, using grid references. On an Ordnance Survey map (and most other outdoor maps) there will be numbers against each vertical and horizontal line up the side and along the bottom of the map. So you can use these to identify one of the squares. You look along the bottom for the number of the line to the left of the square, then look along the side for the number of the line at the bottom of the square. This gives you a 4 digit grid reference. The 4 digit grid reference for the square with the information centre in it in this picture would be 47, 33.

You can then go one level more accurate by pinpointing a more specific location within the square on the map, using the same technique. Divide each side of the square into 10 to identify how far along the lines to read. So the 6 figure reference of the point where the road crosses the river would be 482, 333. It’s 2 tenths to the right of the 48 grid line and 3 tenths up from the 33 grid line. Again you read left to right, then bottom to top.

The next thing to look for is contours. These represent height on the ground, so they’ll tell you the lay of the land and how hilly it is. The closer the contours are together the steeper it is. Check on the kay as to how far apart the contours are on the map, the lines are often 10 meters apart in height. Once you get your eye in you can also see the shape of the land by looking at the picture the contours paint.

Every map will have a key, to show you what all the colours, lines and symbols mean. Every map is different so it’s good to take a good look before you head out so you know what a map is trying to tell you. When route planning and navigating these symbols and information give you great clues as to what you can expect to find and see on your route. They’ll tell you about woodland, nature reserves, view points, car parks, phone boxes, pubs, all sorts!

You’ll also see lots of dotted and dashed lines on your map, check your key to see what colour and format means what. These are your footpaths, bridleways and rights of way - great to plan your routes! In much of the UK it’s best to stay on these paths for your walks and runs. Although these are some areas of the UK that are designated as open access land, which is often shaded on your map. If you are less confident at navigating you can look up how the map shows national trails as these are often better signposted on the ground.

Hopefully now you can use your map to find out more about an area and plan a route to explore. Maps, even of areas you know, can really open your eyes to wonderful areas to visit!

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