How to Read a Map

How To Read A MapTechnology has provided some helpful innovations, like GPS devices and voice point-to-point directions that many of us are familiar with in our cars and phones.

However, if you feel you may be geographically challenged, here is a primer on how to read a map. Having this skill could prove to be very pivotal if you ever experience any kind of inaccuracy with your electronic navigation, your batteries die, you drop your GPS when you go hiking, fill in the blank. Point-to-point navigation is one of the most important survival skills to have, whether on the road or in rugged or unfamiliar terrain.

Maps may seem simple enough, but they can be a little tricky to follow, if you are unfamiliar with how they are set up.

Map Legend

Right off the bat, most maps will have a legend or a key which will show what different symbols or figures on the map mean. Usually a legend or key is on a bottom corner of the map. As you progress through a terrain or trail and need to reference a specific figure, utilizing the legend or key can be extraordinarily beneficial.

Geographic Coordinates

Latitude and longitude lines are found on many maps and are important, as they help you to read a map as if you were looking at a grid. If you have a GPS device, and you need to get to a certain point on a map, you can determine your lat/lon coordinates from the GPS reading and pinpoint the location on a map. See below for more information on Latitude and Longitude,


  • Runs vertically
  • Tells you how far east or west you are from zero meridian*
  • Each degree of longitude is approximately 69 miles or 111 kilometers apart
  • You will be east or west of the Royal observatory*
  • Longitude lines distance decrease as they converge at the poles

*Zero meridian, which is a legacy of the old English empire, runs through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich England to the international date line, which is 180 degrees both east and west.


  • Runs horizontally
  • Each degree of latitude is approximately 69 miles or 111 kilometers apart
  • You will be north of the equator up to 90 degrees the North Pole or south to 90 degrees the South Pole

Map Scale

It is important to understand that maps, whether they are physical or digital, represent a scale of a portion of land. Somewhere on the map, probably in the area of the legend, it will tell you to what scale the map is measured. For instance, each inch of land on the map could be equated to one mile in actuality. This is important to know, because someone unfamiliar with reading a map may have difficulty determining the spatial distance they are trying to go, based on the map they are reading. Remember, not every map uses the same scale, so always check the legend to be sure. Often there is a distance bar at the bottom of a map that will equate the distance on a line to miles or kilometers. You can use this line on a map and trace a route and approximate the distance.

Map Scale

Compass and Directions

Each map should also have a diagram of a compass, or something to indicate north. Probably the most important thing to determine while reading a map is which direction you are facing. Geographically, if you do not know which direction you are facing, having a map is essentially useless and can actually get you more lost instead of taking you to the place you are trying to go.

In order to better help you find the correct direction, you can leverage a hiking compass in tandem with your map. Once you realize which direction you are physically facing, that is when you can adjust your map to determine whether to go north, west, east or south.

Just for fun, here is an exercise for you!

If you had an emergency and had to descend a mountain to a road 10 miles in the backcountry and you arrived at that road in the afternoon with a map but no compass, how would you determine north on this sunny afternoon?

Leave your answers in the comments below!

Map Color Codes

Another important aspect of maps is its color schemes. Different color schemes indicate specific kinds of terrain within an area of land. See some common color code uses below,

Earth Tones = Land features
Green = Forested areas
Tan = Non-forested land, e.g. deserts or beaches
Blue = Water or aquatic areas

Topographical Maps

Topographic Map
Source: How It Works

Most trail maps made for hiking are called topographical maps. A topographical or contour map provides important clues for backcountry navigation. On a topo map, you’ll see contour lines, which are lines that are printed to express elevation changes over the distance that a person traveling or working in the area will encounter. Contour lines that are spaced far apart means there is little change in elevation, while contour lines that are very close together means that you can expect dramatic changes in elevation. Often as elevation increases, the color of the contour lines will change too.
With all that great insight into how to read a map, get out there with a map and begin to explore!


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  • RJ

    in the early afternoon your shadow will be more north as the sun shines from the south

  • walt

    Adjust your watch for daylight savings time, i.e. set it back by one hour. Hold the watch in the palm of your hand and turn it until the hour hand points directly at the sun. Now the twelve on the watch will point to the north.

  • TiedyeSmileys

    RJ, the sun shines from the North for us with shadows to the South (we come from a land down under 🙂