Whether you’re a hiker, recreational walker, backpacker or jetsetter, map reading is an essential skill that you’re better off equipped than not.
Maps can be found in airport walls, tourist brochures, guide books, hotel rooms and highways. Familiarizing how maps work enables you to easily navigate a facility, a vicinity or streets around the city. More importantly, map reading knowledge enables you to find your intended destination quicker, thereby saving time and effort wandering around, subjecting yourself to apparent risk and danger.
So what does it take to be good in map reading?
Examine map contents
One might see it’s a map but not knowing its components can be a key to failure. Understand the important aspects of the map.
- Symbols – Recognize the different keys, symbols and legends illustrated in the map. Mountains, rivers, street names and landmark labels are all hints that help you navigate your way.
- Map scale – How long am I from my intended destination? Maps, obviously, represent rough idea how far (or near) are you from your destination and map scales help estimate how long you’ll reach there. Map scales can be marked in meters, kilometers or English units of measurements so when you look at the map, it’s important to consider the scale before making any decision. Doing so helps you allocate time for breaks, decide on transport mode to take and make better use of your time.
- Height and relief – Maps offer one-dimensional representation of a location and no way a hiker gets the idea of elevations and contours unless it is clearly marked in the map. City maps and those intended for tourists often do not have this representative marks but maps intended for hikers also display this valuable information.
- Compass – Compass symbol indicating directions is also visible in most maps but its usefulness is even more pronounced if you have a compass of your own to guide direction, especially when traversing thick forest and places where no landmarks are available.
- Grid reference – Certain maps (like one below at Hong Kong’s Tung Chung station location map) are labeled with letters horizontally and numbers vertically so marking a landmark with intersections of these numbers and letters makes it easier for readers to find them.
You are here
If you stumble across a vicinity map, probably the first mark you are going to locate first is the ‘You Are Here’. This establishes your perspective with respect to your intended destination. Whether it’s the fire exit or a shopping mall shop, identifying where you are helps you determine the route to take, taking account the nearby landmarks as reference.
General map reading tips
- Choose the right map. If you are a tourist new to the city, getting one from a guide book or a tourism office best serves your needs. If you are a navigator, it’s best to find more accurate maps depicting pinpoint details of an area and equipped with symbols such as traffic directions, and road labels.
- Maps are generally used for reference and must not be treated as a know-it-all navigational guide. Some maps are not drawn to scale, may be outdated (especially in a city where stores may change venues or streets renamed), and only intended to easily find landmarks without much regard for accuracy. Information should be taken a grain of salt.
- Hikers should use topo maps which are labeled with contours, paths and landmarks such as barbecue pits and camp grounds.
- Try to stay on marked roads as much as possible, taking a short cut across green areas could mean facing obstacles such as fences, dense vegetation or paths hard to navigate.