Introduction to Maps

Are you curious about how to read a map? Let’s take the first step with this short video all about reading a map.

Or if moving pictures aren’t your thing…..

Have you ever wished you were better at reading a map? Being confident in your ability to read maps can help you explore further and enjoy more of all your outdoor adventures. Its a great skill to have and a good thing to review once in a while.

The first thing you want to do when you get your hands on a map is take a minute to review the information around the edges. That’s what we are going do right now.

For this I am using a 1/24,000 scale USGS topographic map. These maps are easy to get through the USGS National Map Viewer and they have a lot of detail. Those two facts make them widely used by the types of people who like to really get out and explore the middle of nowhere, especially off trail.

Starting in the top left corner you can see who made the map. In this case it was made by the USGS and refined by the Forest Service.

Over in the top right you can see the name of the map, some general location information and the type of map sheet. We’ll get into what all that means another time.

Moving down to the bottom right you will find the key, which explains the symbols on the map.

To the left of this is also a box identifying each map that touches this one in some way which a great help because it always seems like the place you want to be is right on the edge of at least two map sheets.

Moving left a little bit further we come to the map scale. A 1/24,000 scale means that every inch on the map represents 24,000 inches on the ground, (if you are curious that is 2,000 feet). It also includes tools to help you to measure distances on the map using a ruler, some string, or a scrap of paper.And below is the contour interval. This tells the difference in elevation between each contour line on the map.  (More on those another time)

Left a little bit more is the declination information. It may surprise you to learn that North on your compass is not usually North on your map. This information allows you to calculate that difference so you won’t get hopelessly lost while using a compass and map.  (More on this too)

Finally in the bottom left you will find a block of text with some other important information on the map. This is where you can find out how old the information on the map actually is as well as a few other helpful things.

Different types of maps will have different types of information around the edges. In each case it’s good to be familiar with that information before using the map.

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