Person Holding Map Ali Elliott

How To Read a Map

How To Read a Map

21 October 2022

It’s the number one question for any budding adventurer - how do you read a map? From understanding the grid references and finding the right direction to using a key to recognise map symbols, there’s a lot you can learn about how to read a compass and a map. It might seem like a lot but it’s easy once you know how.

Whether you’re going on your first-ever hike and learning to use a map from scratch, or striving for your Duke of Edinburgh Award and in need of a quick refresher course - it’s never too late to learn a little bit more about orienteering.

Understanding Map Scale

Every map has to represent a differently sized area of land, so every map will be scaled down to a different degree. This is to suit a variety of uses that maps may have. For example, a pilot using a map to chart a flying distance will need to see a larger area of land than a hiker using a map to plan their 10-mile hike.

The scale code tells you how much the area has been shrunk down by to create the map. For example, a 1:50,000 map shows the area as 50,000 times smaller than it is in real life. The larger the number on the scale, the larger an area the map will cover and the smaller the objects (like churches, roads, and towns) will look.

Understanding the Symbols

To help you know where you’re going and what to look out for, maps have a lot of symbols to represent different landmarks and objects you might come across. Like places of worship, car parks, pubs, and schools. These symbols are generally quite easy to interpret, as they often look like the thing that they represent, but sometimes you can be left wondering what you’re looking at.

Each map will have a key to list these symbols and help you understand them. If you’re trying to locate a particular church, for example, you might check the key for the symbol of a church so that it’s easy to then spot on the map. When you’re out walking, it can also be helpful to check the symbols in order to figure out where your real-life location is on the map! Using surrounding landmarks to help locate your position on the map with corresponding symbols can be very important to avoid getting lost - if in doubt, consult the key!

Understanding Grid References

When you’re mapping out a route for a long hike, cycle, run, or drive (or trying to locate a specific spot on a map) the easiest way can be to use grid references. Maps are divided up by a grid so that any precise location on the map can be described accurately and clearly by a grid reference.

Grid references can be four digits or six digits, depending on the specificity of the reference. If you’re learning how to read an OS map in particular, then the key thing to remember is that a four-figure grid reference identifies a square kilometre, and a six-figure grid reference identifies 100m square within that square kilometre. Put simply, a grid reference like ‘1321’ gets you to the right square kilometre, and a grid reference like ‘134217’ gets you to the right square 100m.

Finding Your Grid Reference

But how do you find the right spot on a map when you have the grid reference? Let’s start with the pair of two-digit numbers that make up a four-digit grid reference. Each map will have numbers running along the edges. This is how you identify each individual section of the map. To find ‘1321’, you would need to look along the horizontal edge for line 13, and along the vertical edge for line 21, to then find the intersection where these meet. It’s very important to remember that the square you’re looking for will be above the x-line and to the right of the y-line; and that the first number (e.g., 13) is along the X-axis and the second number (e.g., 21) is along the Y-axis. Just like reading a graph - along the corridor and up the stairs!

While the six-digit grid references might seem more intimidating, they’re really no different to find than the four-digit references! The 3rd and 6th digits have been added to the four-digit grid reference to make it more specific. Once you’ve found your square kilometre, repeat the same process along the X and Y axes to find the specific spot (e.g., 4 along and 7 up). Maps don’t tend to have these smaller grid lines printed onto them to avoid confusion, so you can either estimate where the grid lines would be or use the scale lines on your compass to help you find exactly where you need to be.

Using a Compass

You’re already becoming familiar with how to read a map with a compass, but there’s one last thing - orienteering with a compass! They might seem particularly tricky, but using a compass isn’t too difficult. An important thing to remember is that you need to find North on your map and align it with where North points on your compass. Once you’ve done this, and you’ve found your direction of travel on the map, you can use your compass to steer you in the direction of travel on land.

By aligning your compass and your map, you can use the two together to make sure you’re heading in the right direction.

To learn more about reading maps, orienteering, adventuring, and much, much more, why not join your local Army Cadet Force? For more information on joining and to find your local detachment, click here.