There is always a good reason to have a map handy. While traditional maps might be considered old school, they provide a wealth of information that can be useful in a variety of situations and they don’t need a battery or signal to work properly. Maps are a good resource for planning routes, and if you ever find yourself lost or in an emergency it is helpful to be able to identify landmarks or hospitals. There are several types of maps designed to indicate elements of the land, so it is important to understand the difference between the various types of maps. Whether you’re a rookie or an experienced navigator looking for a brief refresher, we’ve got the information you’ll need.

Planning Your Route: How to Use a Map

Preparation is always key; when possible, you should always try to plan your route ahead of time in as much detail as you can to avoid getting lost or confused. Try following these steps to use your map successfully:

  1. Before you begin your trip, especially a hike, identify important landmarks and locations on your maps. Observe the direction in which each trail departs from where you will start and select the best path to your intended destination.
  2. Draw or trace your intended route on your map. Mark some navigational checkpoints.
  3. Follow the path you drew for yourself and stop at the checkpoints to confirm your position.
  4. If you're confirming your location and feel like you might be lost, intersections are helpful reference markers for orientation, direction, and planning your next step. If you are already near one, it will help you pinpoint your current position quickly.

Types of Maps and Map Features

Several types of maps are designed to indicate different features of the land. It’s important to identify the differences and peculiarities of each type of map you come across, from simple trail maps to complex topographical maps, so that you can use them effectively. Topographical maps show the distinct characteristics of the terrain, including elevation, distinct geographic features, and latitude and longitude. Military members, survivalists, and wilderness enthusiasts all commonly use these precise maps. A compass is a handy tool to bring if you plan on using a topographical map. Navigational maps like a road map or atlas show the roads and highways. These are useful on long drives or to find your way through a new town or city. Hand-drawn maps can be useful, too, but they are often not made to scale and are usually designed to direct someone to only a few nearby places or just one location.

Making the Most of Your Map

Familiarize yourself with the key elements found on almost every map. This one's is for the beginners—make sure you can locate the following on your map:
• Legend - allows you to correctly identify the symbols placed on the map to mark various features
• Compass Rose - often found in one of the corners, indicates the map's directional orientation
• Scale - used to calculate the distance between two points on a map
TIP: Use your finger! Lay your finger against the map scale, find a good mark (perhaps a knuckle or fingernail), then use that reference against the map to get a quick and dirty estimate of the distance.

The map key also provides other details on how the map has been marked. Note the areas and regions indicated by the information provided there. Lines with different colors or patterns might indicate rivers, borders, paths, trails, or even hazards. Be sure to pay attention to these potential hazards to avoid unnecessary harm or difficulty as you navigate.
While there are some common standards, different maps will use similar symbols in different ways, so pay close attention to the map you have on hand and remember what each symbol means. If you plan on staying safe, the map key and legend are your best friends. Some maps also include facts about an area, such as average weather or seasonal changes, so try to bring a map that is as detailed as possible.

How To Use a Map if You Get Lost

Triangulating your position will help you determine your general area. 

  1. Get to high ground, if possible, then look around and find three landmarks you can see in person and on your map.
  2. Using your compass, make a note of the exact direction to each of these landmarks.
  3. Orient your map so it matches what you see around you.
  4. Draw a line between each of the points for the three landmarks to create a triangle.
  5. Use a straight edge to line up each point with the approximate middle of the line across from it and draw three lines that cross each other in the center of the triangle.
  6. Where these three lines intersect at a single point on your map, that is your approximate location. 

This method can even work without the aid of a compass, so long as you properly draw your lines to figure out where you are. Once you know your location, you can use your map to chart a path that will lead you to safety.

No School like the Old School - Don't Bank on GPS

While a GPS is one of the most amazing hiking and traveling tools available, it requires two things that aren’t guaranteed to be available: power and a signal. A compass is a much more easily accessible tool to use with a map, and they work in pretty much any condition.
When you learn to use a compass to accurately orient and position yourself with your map and your coordinates, you’ll find that more complex maps offer a significant benefit. Lay your map out flat and set your compass on it with the orienting arrow pointing to true North to locate approximately where you are and how to go somewhere specific. Once you know your position and the correct heading, you can plot a simple course.

Plan Ahead and Really Get to Know Your Map
Planning and safety go hand in hand, you can’t guarantee the latter without the former. Prepare for a future excursion by thoroughly studying a map of the area you’ll be headed to. Determine the difficulty of the path, the distance, checkpoints, and places of interest. If you plan on going with others, use a numbered area map to convey the route moving through areas you intend to head to in sequence as a trip itinerary. You can also check the weather forecasts or consult a meteorological map and take a look at seasonal or historical weather data before leaving. Some maps will identify common areas for cold and warm fronts and ranges of temperature variations.

Figuring out how to read and understand maps makes navigating a lot easier and safer. This comes in handy as a survival skill, but it's also practical to be able to read maps when traveling in a new city or helping others who may not have the know-how that you do now.