How to Read a Map When Your GPS Fails You
It's still a very useful skill to have.
In an age where Google Maps, Waze, or some other iteration of a GPS tool is on everyone's phone, many people can barely navigate their own neighborhoods, let alone a foreign city or countryside.
While it might seem like a waste of time to know how to read a map or use a compass when GPS is so readily available, there are remote areas in which it isn't accessible, and there's also joy to be found in planning a road trip or scenic hike using a good, old-fashioned, physical map.
Whatever the case may be, we've got your navigation needs covered to help you become a better traveler. Some of it may seem beyond simple, but for those who grew up only using GPS, we're breaking it down for you.
Check the orientation.
Most maps have what is known as a "compass rose," usually on the bottom right or left hand corner. This lets you know which way the map is oriented in relation to the points on a compass.
Look at the scale.
Something might look nearby on a map, but in actuality it could be hours away by car or on foot. The scale of the map lets you know the ratio of a distance on the map compared to a distance in real life. For instance, 1 inch on a map could equate to 1 mile in real life.
Examine the legend.
Legends decipher the symbols on a map. Each map is slightly different, but the legend usually indicates state roads, major highways, mountains, towns, and other important navigation elements.
Know how to use a compass.
Particularly while hiking or in a remote area, using a compass in conjunction with a map can be lifesaving. Compasses point to the magnetic north, not to the true north, so when using a compass, travelers need to take into account the difference, or declination. Depending on where you are, the declination is always a little different, but it's usually listed on the bottom of a map near the legend so you can adjust accordingly.
After moving the orienting arrow to account for declination, set your compass on the map to align with your position. Rotate the entire compass to form a line between where you are and where you're trying to go, turning the compass housing until it points north on the map. Then, rotate the compass and the map together until the red end points north, and follow the direction of travel. REI provides an even more in-depth instructional video for hikers in particular.
Look at topographic maps while hiking.
Contour lines represent shape and elevation of any given landscape. When those lines are spaced together, it indicates a raised area, such as a hill or mountain. Other common elements of topographic maps include woods, trails, streams, and any park services centers.