Map Reading Science: From Lost to Ranger

So how about those maps, complicated things aren’t they? How do some people just stare a minute or two at an overly drawn piece of folded paper full of words, numbers and wiggly lines and know exactly where they are or where they need to go?

Well, I have the answer. Do you want to be like that cool guy that knows his way around a map? Then continue reading and you will learn several map reading tips that will transform you into an experienced ranger in no time.

A word of warning: this is no easy feat, there are lots of things to consider, calculate and plan accordingly when properly utilizing a map. If you only want to be able to read a map and follow a road while you’re driving towards your next holiday then some of the things you will find here will not be very useful to you.

But if you travel through the countryside and wilderness on foot, or if you risk finding yourself lost away from civilization, then you will need all of these instructions. Check out our earlier piece on what to include in your day hike checklist for more insight.

Keep in mind, these skills are required and often used by the military. So if you want to be that military status cool, then expect to be that much serious about this. Let’s begin!

The Basics

Here we will be focusing a bit on the map and some of its features.

Is it the right map?

There is a whole range of types of maps in the world, all of them representing the same planet Earth viewed from above on a flat surface but at different scales and in different ways.

There are physical maps, political maps, topographic maps, climate maps, road maps, economic and resource maps, thematic maps and much more. But we will be focusing on the topographic maps. These are the most common ones and depending on the publisher, the best ones have elements from all categories.

The maps you will be using the most will be the ones that divide countries into sections of about 1000km and are scaled at 1:50000. You may use other scales if you want but these are the most useful. Let’s be honest; you can’t pinpoint you or your destination on the football sized world map.

Now assuming you have a map of the area you are currently in and you know where you want to go, we can talk about the next step.

What can you see?

The easiest things to recognize on a map are the names of places, streets, roads, landmarks, towns, cities, lakes, rivers, mountains, and so on. These are placed next to, or on top of the things they represent. On maps with too many points of interest or places, where there wouldn’t be enough space on the map to fit all the names, you may find numbers and can find what they represent in the Legend.

You may also find small icons to represent points of interest that don’t bother with the name of that point of interest, but rather what it represents. You’ll see icons that depict a plane, a fork and knife, a dollar sign, a badge, a church and lots more, which are usually self-explanatory, respectively indicating an airport, a restaurant, a bank, a police station, and so on.

And the other things you can clearly see are the multi-colored lines. These are the roads, paths, walkways, rivers, streams and contour lines that exist on the portion of land that the map represents. If it is a different color, it represents a different thing. You can look into the legend to see what each of them mean.

Keep in mind that not all the little paths and streams can be seen. The main reason for this is that they are too small to be seen on the map. Or it may be too insignificant and it may not be there later, for example after a storm.

Or it may be too recent or it wasn’t significant enough. This case can work the other way around. However, if you have an outdated map, a road that is illustrated in it may no longer exist. So, having an up to date map is a good idea.

Measuring distances

On some maps you can find bar scales somewhere near the legend. These lines are measurements used for calculating distances between two points on the map, in meters, miles or yards. For example, chose two points on a map and see how many times the meter bar fits in between. If it fits, let’s say a little more than three times, then you know the distance is a little more than 3 km.

Along these lines, you can find the extension scale, which divides the previous unit into ten for more accuracy. So if the distance left (after the 3 km) is 3 units then we will have a more precise distance between the two points: 3300 meters.

But that is the straight distance and, since you can’t fly there, you will have to follow a road. So, you will have to do the measurements in a different way. Let’s say there is a curved road that connects the two points.

You will have to divide the road into sections from one point to the other. Each section should contain only one straight portion of the road (whenever you meet a curve along the road you start a new section). Then you measure all the sections you have and finally add all of them up. Now you have the distance between the two points if you were following that specific road.

Contour lines

These lines serve a different purpose than the rest. While other lines represent a possible route that can be traversed by car, by foot or by boat, contour lines are there to represent elevation. You can usually find them next to each other and have roughly the same shape. The space between them may vary in length but they will always share the height, usually by 10 feet.

Sometimes the height will be written on the lines itself, but you can consult the legend because there you will have the exact elevation. So with that in mind, the longer they are apart the smoother the elevation is, and the closer the steeper. If the lines are so close that they overlap each other, it means that there is a cliff.

If you’re looking at a map right now, you’ll see that contour lines don’t have an end. A contour line is closed which means it meets with itself, so following a contour line will make you go in a loop. Also, it can have many forms.

With that you can see the shape of the terrain. Inside a contour line, you may find another one with roughly the same shape, and another within that, and so on until you see only one (the smallest of them all), usually resembling a circle. Seeing inside how many other contour lines it stands you can estimate its height, and then you realize that that’s the peak.

Keeping in mind that the base elevation point, which is noted as zero, is sea level, and with all we said so far, you can look at the contour lines on a map, and imagine a 3D image in your head of the mountain or land you are looking at.

Analyzing contour lines on a map will give you a better understanding of what you are looking at and can identify spurs, slopes, saddles, drainages, cliffs, depressions and lots more. But remember, this skill will take time to master, so don’t forget to practice.

You can check out above a helpful video for this topic which goes in more detail.

Location, Location, Location

On the map, you will be able to see other things that can help you determine your specific location.

First, let’s talk about the grid lines: these are the straight vertical and horizontal lines with equal distance between them that form equal squares on the map. Usually, each square is 1000 meter in length and covers an area of one km.

At the end of each grid line, you will see that there are numbers. Each number represents that specific grid, so by looking at the bottom left of a square and tracing the grid lines to its respective number you can identify the coordinates of that square.

For example, measure first the vertical grid number (sometimes called eastings) then the horizontal one (sometimes called northings) and you get 24 56. That is what we call a 4-figure grid reference.

If that doesn’t suit you, and instead of the general area you want a more specific location in a 100-meter area, here is how. If you look along the side of the map, you will see that each square can be broken into 10 equal segments, vertically and horizontally, so determine which a tenth of the square is the specific point you selected (let’s use two-tenths) , and then place that number on the coordinate.

Using our previous example you will have 242 562. And if you want to be even more specific, each map you use will have a prefix that represents what region of the country your map is depicting, and with that, you will have something like GN 242 562.

A few things to keep in mind: some maps will have some additional smaller numbers next to the ones you will use for your coordinates. Don’t use those ones as they are there only for reference to other maps. And when reading coordinates, always read from left to right then down up, always!

Here are some useful videos to help you understand better the 4-figure grid reference and the 6-figure grid reference.

And so there you have it, you now know the basic of a map and you can use it properly. However, if you really want to get into it, making a map not just a useful tool but an essential one for traveling and maybe even save your life if you get lost, then keep going.

Advanced Map Reading Techniques

Nearly all of the features here will require the essential tool for proper map usage, the compass.

The Compass

You can’t use the map like a pro without a compass! There are many models of compasses, but we will be referring to a more modern model for convenient purposes. Remember that you may use whatever compass you wish, but not all of them are self-explanatory and may require reading some instruction about it first. Also not all compasses may have the essential features we present here.

The compass is made of:

  • A base plate, usually squared, or with at least one straight margin, on which we will find all the other features.
  • Scales at the edges of the base plate to measure distances and the direction of travel arrow, which is pointing to the direction you’ll be going, usually situated somewhere in the middle.
  • The compass housing, or bezel, that can be rotated, in which you’ll find circular grid mark with degrees along the edge.
  • The compass needle floating freely inside the bezel which will point towards magnetic North.
  • The orientating lines used to line up with the grid lines on the map
  • The orientating arrow in the middle of the housing.

All of these will help you find your bearing and relative to the map and point you in the right direction. One thing to keep in mind is that the compass needle can be influenced by magnets and metal, so when looking at the compass, make sure not to keep it too close to any magnet or metallic object. A distance of 2 or 3 feet should be enough.

A helpful video for better visualizing and understanding the compass can be found above.

Multiple Norths and magnetic declination

Yes, there are multiple norths to consider when using a map and compass.

  • The first is True North: this is the direction towards the North Pole and it is illustrated by a star.
  • The second is Grid North or GN – this is the direction that all the vertical grid lines on the map are directed at, and it’s illustrated by GN.
  • And the last one is Magnetic North – this is the direction the needle of the compass is pointing toward, and it’s illustrated by a half of an arrowhead

All these directions are represented on the declination diagram on the map. The declination diagram is an image of 3 lines representing the norths previously mentioned at different angles. They are there to help you with your bearing and adjust accordingly. Because they are pointing in a different direction, the angles between them will be displayed and that is called Magnetic declination.

Keep in mind that over time some norths may slightly change positions, as does the Magnetic North, because of the Earth’s constant changing magnetic field. So, having an outdated map may give you and inaccurate direction.

See also: How To Adjust Compass Declination: Hiking The ‘Old-Fashioned’ Way

Also, depending where you are on Earth, the Magnetic declination will be different, so use the declination diagram that is shown on the map you are using, not any other. And one final note, the diagram is not always drawn exactly by angles it represents, so don’t use the image itself for adjustment.

Finding your bearing

Now that we understand the map and the compass, we can use them together.

An optional thing before you determine where you need to go is to adjust the map relative to the surrounding area so that it lines up.

  • First you straighten the map and place it on a relatively flat surface (even the ground will do).
  • Then you align the orientation lines of the compass to the vertical grid lines on the map.
  • Next, adjust the magnetic declination, which means rotating the bezel, from the angle 0 in the direction Grid North is located relative to Magnetic North. The rotation should be by as much as the angle between the two is presented in the declination diagram. This way you will have the same northern direction on the map as on the compass.
  • And finally, with the compass fixed on the map, rotate the map until the needle in the compass aligns with the orientation arrow.

And now, the map is aligned with the surrounding area. Now let’s establish the direction you will be traveling. For this, you have to identify where your position is on the map and where your destitution will be.

  • Place the straight edge of the compass so that it intersects the two points – if the distance is too big for the compass use a ruler beside the compass or choose a closer point.
  • Then rotate the bezel so that the orientation line lines up with the vertical grid lines on the map. If you’ve done it right then the orientation arrow should point towards Grid North.
  • Then add or subtract the magnetic declination by rotating the bezel a number of degrees from Magnetic North to Grid North.
  • After that, you can take the compass and rotate it until the needle aligns with the orientation arrow.

And that’s it! The direction of the travel arrow on the compass points you toward the destination you have selected. As long as you keep the needle and the orientation arrow lined up, you should be good to go, but it is recommended to repeat the process from time to time, after a few hundred meters, to avoid errors. Check out our useful and easy instructions on how to use a compass for more information.

A useful video in better understanding the process can be found above.

Are You A Ranger Tet?

And so there you have it! You now know your way around a map and compass. You can now be the envy of your friends by looking cool, being useful, and maybe even save a life; yours even. That is if you have the patience and willpower to study and practice the things you found in here.

Remember that these skills are ones that the military use, well maybe more than what we have discussed here, but still they’re enough to direct you on the right path, from lost to ranger. Do check out our must-read article on how to survive in the wild with just your wits to give you more information.

Do you have an interesting story of an adventure involving map reading while in the outdoors? We can’t wait to hear it so share it with us in the comments section!


6 thoughts on “Map Reading Science: From Lost to Ranger”

  1. The best way to learn, I reckon, is to just get out and explore! Obviously explore an area you know fairly well first just in case you do actually get lost! Spend a day out and about, getting used to the position of the sun and how it looks at certain times of the day; familiarize yourself with where it will rise and set. Orient your compass’ north by holding it over the top of your map and just go from there! Keep referring back to your map and note how it correlates with the environment. Easy once you know!

  2. My dad taught me all I needed to learn about basic survival skills. I remember the endless practice that my siblings and I did – it’s crazy! But once we had the hang of it, it really made a difference. My confidence level went up a notch and I loved camping and hiking even more.

  3. I like Ryan’s idea of practicing these skills in an area your are already somewhat familiar with. The biggest take away for me is to put in the time before you get out there. Study the map, know some of the major makers that your likely to encounter and how they are oriented to one another. Make plans and back up plans, always.

  4. One of the basics of practicing map reading is to make sure you are familiar with how a map looks like, be able to measure distances using map scales, be adept at contour lines, be able to read coordinates, use a compass, among others – before going on any trip. My dad used to let us practice map reading for weeks on an area beside our house which is quite a large woodland. Those precious hours spent on familiar grounds using a map prepared me for more complicated map readings on some very large areas in the country.

  5. I remember when I was younger my dad taught me how to read a map. I was able to locate towns, roads, and exits. This is way more in depth and definitely useful! I got lost in the woods once and had to keep walking until I found a clear area with signal to call the park ranger and ask him to come get me. So embarrassing. I will practice these techniques before the next time I get lost in the woods.

  6. One of the things you must do prior to camping : learn basic survival skills – can’t emphasize this enough. Yeah, I sound like a broken record but learning how to build a fire, do compass and map reading are all crucial skills. Practice till you get it right. 🙂


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