I remember my first two trips to Europe, 10 years ago. My friends and I didn’t have smartphones, so we found our way to the attractions in each major city—the Louvre, Westminster Abbey, Piazza San Marco—using printed maps torn from the backs of our Lonely Planet guidebooks.
Looking back on it now, it seems so quaint. But, there are very real reasons why physical maps still come in handy. If you’re heading on an outdoor expedition, you’ll need a map as a backup in case your phone fails or you hike out of cell reception range.
The less-outdoorsy set might want to get acquainted with maps, too. If you decide to take a “digital detox” vacation (no smartphones allowed!), you’ll feel confident about your ability to navigate.
Fortunately, reading a map isn’t difficult. Here’s how to get started:
If you remember middle-school geography, you’ll recall that the legend is what tells you how to read the map. It’s basically a dictionary, but instead of words, it lists symbols and what they represent on the map. On a topographical map, you might find symbols for roads, hiking trails, train tracks, or watchtowers.
The top of the map indicates north (but you already knew that). Place your compass on the map with the direction of the travel arrow pointing toward the top of the page. Rotate the bezel so that N (north) is lined up with the arrow. Carefully rotate your body until the end of the needle points to the arrow.
The scale represents the ratio of a distance on the map to real-world distance. Most topographic maps use a 1:24,000 ratio (as in, one inch on the map=24,000 inches in the real world). Wondering how long a road or trail is? Use a piece of string to trace it on the map, note its length, then measure the stretched-out string against the scale.
Contour lines represent changes in elevation and the shape of the terrain. Where they’re close together, it means there’s a rapid change in elevation, i.e., the terrain is steep. Contour lines that are wide apart indicate a slower elevation change and a gentler slope.
Learning how to read a map not only makes you amazingly self-sufficient, but it makes you a more informed adventurer. So, head over to the U.S. Geological Survey (it’s a thing) to find topo maps for the whole U.S. Happy trails!
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