How to read a map when hiking? [Complete Guide]

When asked to read a map while hiking people often get baffled. The thing that seems to flummox people the most is topographic maps. These are the maps that have little brown contour lines on them. People often seem to be really intimidated by map reading and navigation in general. This is because people often pull out their maps only when they’re actually lost.

Knowing how to read a map is a useful ability to have whether you’re hiking in the Swiss Alps or planning a cross-country road trip. It’s also not extremely difficult, contrary to popular opinion.

In this article, we’re going to go over really easy basic principles for reading a map of any kind but mostly a topographic map.

Tips to make map reading easy when hiking

1. Read maps more often when you already know where you are

Read maps more often when you already know where you are : how to read a map when hiking

One of the best ways to get over this particular fear is to just make it a habit to read maps a little bit more often when you’re in a really good mood. So when you do know where you are take out your map and have a look at the map, take a look at the terrain, and identify where you are.

This way you can sort of test yourself and see whether your map reading skills are agreeing with what you know.

2. Take notes of maps displayed at trailheads

Take notes of maps displayed at trailheads

It is also a really good idea to make it a habit to notice maps at trailheads so even if you aren’t given or buy a paper map of the area that you’re in.

You can at least study the map at the trailhead and perhaps take a picture of it with your phone so that you have something concrete with you to refer back to as you like.

3. Only read your map when you are calm

Only read your map when you are calm

Another really good practice is never to pull out your map when you are in a bit of a negative headspace. So first get really calm, sit down, have some water, have a snack, make yourself feel okay about life again, and then take out your map and study it.

If you’re already panicking then taking out a map that you are struggling to decipher is going to make things much worse. You are only going to put yourself in a big hole by doing so.

4. Get everyone involved

Get everyone involved: how to read a map when hiking

It’s a really good idea to get everybody in your hiking group involved. No matter how inexperienced they are at hiking or backpacking, it is never too early to start being able to read maps.

The more input that you have when you’re looking at the map the better your chances are of actually correctly identifying where you are and where the map should be oriented.

5. Speak up if you don’t understand

Speak up if you don't understand : how to read a map when hiking

If you are taking a look at a map in a group and you don’t understand something or you disagree with the conclusions that are being drawn then speak up. You don’t have to do this in an argumentative way.

In fact, that would probably be really counterproductive to the entire exercise but don’t just sit there disagreeing silently with what’s going on.

6. Use simple language and ask for clarity if needed

People often have different names for different kinds of landmarks. So some people may talk about things like a butte or a spur or a plateau and not everyone will call the same land features the same thing.

So just be aware when you are discussing navigation in a group that using the simplest language possible is probably best. If you don’t understand exactly what someone is referring to then get them to clarify the item that they’re talking about.

7. Identify the scale of the map

Identify the scale of the map : how to read a map when hiking

This is perhaps the most important tip in this list of how to read a map when hiking. Once you’ve identified what kind of map you’re looking at the next thing that you want to take note of is what the scale is. This will usually be printed on some part of the map with the exception of hand-drawn maps which do not always include a scale.

One to one is the actual size. A drawing of the cell phone would be exactly the same size as the cell phone if the scale is one-to-one.

Maps obviously are not going to be at a scale of one-to-one. It’ll probably be something like one to fifty thousand, one to twenty-five thousand, and all that means is that one unit on the map equals 25,000 of those units in real life or 50,000 of those units in real life.

Also, check out Tips For Better Sleep While Backpacking

8. Identify what type of map you have with you

Identify what type of map you have with you

Once you are actually looking at your map it’s important to identify what kind of map you’re looking at. Map could be a topographic map that has those little brown contour lines everywhere and a whole bunch of other features indicated on it.

It could be a hand-drawn map that is made by the owners of the trail that you’re on or it could be a satellite image with a hand drawing added to it. It could be a paper copy of the map in which case you’re going to have to think about things like protecting it from rain.

The map that you have could be a digital copy of the map that you’re looking at in which case you’re going to have to think about things like the battery life of whatever device that you’re looking at it on.

If you are looking at a hand-drawn map then you should always keep in mind that the scale of things might not be realistic. Hand-drawn maps are notorious for not being to scale. So don’t take what you see on a hand-drawn map as gospel because it might not actually be entirely accurate.

9. Contour lines link areas of equal height above sea level

Contour lines link areas of equal height above sea level

Those little brown contour lines are simply a representation of what the land looks like. They link areas of equal height above sea level.

So essentially what those contour lines are trying to do is make a wire depiction of what the landscape looks like and then compress it flat onto a two-dimensional surface so that you can have a look at it from the top.

A lot of topographic maps these days add shading as well to try and make it a bit easier for you to visualize valleys and peaks. Even if your topographic map does not have shading it’s pretty easy to figure out the layer of the land just by looking at the contour lines.

10. Identify key features to match the map to the landscape around you

Identify key features to match the map to the landscape around you

Another really good feature to have a look for in topographic maps is water which is usually indicated in blue. Water always flows to the lowest point. So you always know that a river will be at the bottom of a valley it won’t be at the top of a peak.

So what you want to do when you take out your map is to try to match the map to the terrain that you’re actually standing in. This can be done by trying to identify a couple of key features. You can look for mountains, hills, ridges, rivers, and dams.

Also, look for man-made structures which are almost always indicated on topographic maps such as roads or buildings, or power lines.

11. Use the key or legend, to identify features

Use the key or legend, to identify features : how to read a map when hiking

Even if you’re not sure exactly what those structures are going to look like on the map then you can have a look at the map’s key which should be found somewhere on the map itself. And that should tell you what the little pictograms on the map actually mean.

It’s really important to remember that the map is taken from a bird’s eye view. It is made as if you were flying in a plane above the landscape looking straight down but what you are looking at in reality is a horizontal view.

So you’re staring out at the terrain from a completely different perspective. This can make things that are actually really far away seem much closer than they are in reality.

It can also mean that structures that look really obvious on the paper map are actually not visible to you standing on the ground because they’re blocked by other structures.

12. Try backtracking for a different view

If you can’t find any identifiable features on the map to match up then don’t panic.

Try backtracking the way that you came for a couple of minutes and then trying again because from a different perspective you might be able to see around objects that were previously blocking your view.

13. Take a break from map reading if you start to panic

Take a break from map reading if you start to panic : how to read a map when hiking

You might find yourself in a situation where you are unable to locate yourself on the map. You’re starting to get in a panic mode because you think you may be lost rather than take a break.

Sit down, do something else even just play on your phone for a while, and do anything to just relax. Distract yourself for a little while, and then try again later.

14. Write down what you remember of the trip

14. Write down what you remember of the trip : how to read a map when hiking

Another good idea is to try to write down or record on your phone. You can record anything that you can remember passing as you are hiking. So think about the trip that you took.

Did you have to jump over a river, did you have to cross a bridge, did you see any buildings, roads, or power lines as you were walking.

Writing this down will make it easier for you to identify where you are on your own map. If you truly cannot find yourself on your map and you need to backtrack again, you will have just reminded yourself of your route which will be really helpful for not getting lost on the way back.

“Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves and half in love with oblivion.”

– Robert MacFarlane

Maps are really your friend and they are great tools for navigation. There’s no reason to be afraid of trying to read them because they can benefit you so much. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll become with maps in general and the more confident you’ll become in your own navigation skills. I hope these tips will make you a better reader of maps.

I hope you enjoyed reading this little piece. You can also check out other insightful blogs related to hiking and travel on our website. Happy Travelling!

Default image
Travelling Hippo

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply