How to Read a Map: Complete Step by Step Guide

If you are someone who hikes or travels usually, then a map surely should be your best friend. People often stumble when it comes to reading maps, and the inability to read a map can get you into trouble if you are going somewhere far off. 

Knowing how to read a map is a basic skill, which will definitely prove to come in handy at some point in your life. We are sure that you are up to learning that skill, because why else would you tap on this article? 

In this article, we have created a step-by-step guide which will allow you to learn how to read a map. Give this article a read, and you will thank us later! 

The 3 Steps To The Road Of Reading A Map Correctly 

  1. The first step calls for getting your hands on the right type of map. 
  2. In step 2, make a way of understanding all of the map’s features. 
  3. Last but not the least, practice is the key to getting it right. 

Oh no no, that’s not it. Don’t worry, we are not going to keep you hanging with incomplete information. Let’s discuss each of these steps in detail!


Just like there is a variety of almost everything in this world, maps come in different types too. Each type of map has its own unique purpose and that is what distinguishes one from another. You need to ensure that you grab the correct type of map so that you don’t get it all wrong. 

A Road Map

If you are all set to go on a road trip, then a road map is all that’ll need to get you going in the right direction. A road map is very useful for those who go on a GPS-free trip. 

A Topographic Map 

If you are a hiker, then knowing how to read a topographic map is like a necessity for you. A topographic map is nothing but a map that gives you the details and shows you all the distances, points of interest, roads, terrain, and everything else you need to know. 

A Tourist Map

A tourist map is great if you want to take a look at the attractions of a particular city or if you want to know all about the interesting and unique options that the city has to offer. You will be easily able to find a tourist map in the lobbies of hostels and hotels or even in tourist offices. 

Have The Right Map? Don’t Forget To Choose The Right Scale!

Depending upon your purpose, you also need to choose the right scale of a map. The scale holds utmost importance in case of topographic maps and hence, we are going to tell you about the scale of topographic maps in this section. 


This is the most common scale that is used while hiking. It simply means that for every centimetre that can be seen on the map, 500 metres or 50,000 centimetres are there in real life. 

Another thing that might help you is that maps are actually divided into grids. Therefore, every box of the grid measures 2 centimetres. To put it in simple words, a full box on the map covers a distance of 1 kilometre in real life. 


1:25,000 is a scale which is more detailed. As per this scale, 1 centimetre on the map will be 250 metres in real life. Each box of the map’s grid with this scale will be 4 centimetres. The maps with this scale also show various features like rocks and trees on the ground. 


Once you have chosen the correct map, you need to ensure that you learn about all of the map’s features so that you can read it effectively and efficiently. Here are a few vital features of a map:


A map’s legend is what guides you and gives a description of the different markings and features on the map. 


As the name suggests, a map’s title is what tells you all about the area that the map has covered. 

Grid References

As mentioned above, a map is divided in grids and its first two or three digits are the x-value along with the last two or three digits being the y-value.

The North Arrow

If you haven’t guessed it already, the north arrow indicates where north is and it points to the map’s top. 


The map’s scale is what tells you whether your map’s scale is 1:25,000 or 1:50,000. 


Mere information is not enough because having the knowledge of doing something is quite different from actually doing it practically. You wouldn’t want to go with no practice, would you? In this section, we are here to help you out with the process of reading a map and how to go about it, so that you do it right when you have to. Let’s see how it goes!

North: Point Your Map To It

In order to do this, you will have to place the compass flat directly on the map while you point it towards the top. Now, you need to rotate yourself until the needle of the compass points in the north direction. Yes, it is as simple as that. 

Where Is Your Location On The Map?

Don’t forget to take a quick look at your surroundings because you’ll need to find them on the map, as it’ll allow you to locate your current position. You might not know your grid reference in the beginning, so it is considered to be a good idea to start with a reference that you already know about. 

If you start your journey from a village or a town, and then you move to begin your hike, in that case, you should move from there in your map and then get back on your steps. 

Once you feel confident enough, you can start looking for landscape features such as sours, rivers, walls, saddles, and mountains among many others. If you get successful in pointing 3 features around you in real life, and you are able to point them out on the map, then you can be sure enough to know your precise location. 

Learn How To Read Contour Lines

If you don’t know what they are, contour lines are basically small and black coloured waves that are drawn around the map. The use of contour lines is to tell you about the land’s elevation. 

Talking about a 1:50,000 scale map, every contour line holds a representation of a rise of 10 metres above sea level. To make it easier for the reader, every 5th contour line is made darker deliberately so that you don’t lose count while counting many lines at the same time. 

The gradient will be as steeper as the contour lines will be together. You can use your skills and knowledge of contour lines to avoid taking uneven and uneasy paths. 

Landscape’s Features: How To Identify Them?

  • Spur: In real life, you can spot a spur as it is a feature that slopes downwards on three different sides, and it slopes upwards on one side. To identify a spur on a map, look for contour lines which are pointing away from the summit of the hill or a mountain. 
  • Re-Entrant: Known to be an indentation in the mountain’s side, you can identify a re-entrant on the map as the contour lines will point against the mountain’s natural slope. 
  • Saddle: A saddle can be seen in real-life as a feature that slopes down on two sides and slopes up on one side.
  • Summit: The mountain’s summit is the top of the mountain and you can spot it on the map using a ring contour. 


Don’t forget to keep a track of your last known location as it might be more important than you think it is. It is important to keep a note because it will allow you to re-trace back to that location in case you lose the track. In order to do it, put your thumb on your location on the map and then drop it to your side.

This way when you open the map, your thumb will be placed on the last location and you’ll be able to proceed further. 


And that’s about it! We really hope that you gained as much as you could from this article and that you are all set to show off your map reading skills. It is not as difficult as it sounds, but it definitely needs a little practice and so you should get yourself prepared to travel like a pro, soon after you practice the art of reading a map. 

We will see you in the next article. Until then, don’t forget to practice as much as you can.

Article by:

Eric Birch

Eric Birch is a survival specialist trained in the U.S. military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program. When he’s not ferociously learning new survival tactics, he enjoys the great outdoors, and/or cheering on one of his favorite sports teams.

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