Seven Reasons to Learn Map Reading

Staying safe in the great outdoors, seizing adventurous possibilities, understanding our environment - the practical reasons to learn map reading are as clear as contour lines. But, says GetOutside Champion Belinda Dixon, learning navigation skills can also bring broader benefits, from feeling empowered to finding a path in life.

Here are Belinda's seven reasons on why you should learn how to map read:

1. It's deep in our DNA

Photo credit Belinda Dixon

If songwriters are the philosophers of our times (and they are) a sense of feeling lost is a powerful thing. Whichever generation you're from, whoever gets your toes tapping you can bet your last landmark that words linked to being uncertain, dislocated and adrift crop up.

Do You Know Where You're Going To? Dianna Ross (1975); Mariah Carey (1998)

Wake Me Up, Avicii (2013)

Do You Know the Way to San Jose? Dionne Warwick (1968)

Maps, Macy Gray (2012)

"(Is This The Way To) Amarillo? Tony Christie (1971); Peter Kay (2005)

You see? In fact when someone needs to sort themselves out people refer to it (often mockingly) as 'finding yourself'. So if we mock what matters (and we do) knowing where we are and where we're going in life is a Big Thing.

2. Staying safe​

Photo credit Belinda Dixon

The practical reasons are of course also key. In this photo three friends are nailing the navigation in a white out in the Cairngorms. Treacherous conditions, steep drops and a risk of avalanches meant that without their map reading skills we would have been in danger. With them, and their broader winter skills, we were relatively safe. From Snowdonia to the Peak District, via the moors and shores, being able to work out where you are, and how to get home, helps keep you safe.

3. Enabling discoveries

Photo credit Belinda Dixon

Photo credit Belinda Dixon

Being able to navigate opens up an extraordinary array of outdoors options. Here, experienced outdoor professional Ellie is leading us across Scotland’s Creag Meagaidh Range. Something you wouldn't even dream of doing without knowing your nav. Developing map reading and broader outdoors skills opens up a wealth of UK terrain - provided you get proper training, it can mean you can explore it in different seasons too. Getting lessons helps enormously, is satisfying and is also huge fun. Back in April the Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champions developed our map-reading skills on a superb weekend course with the Ultimate Navigation School – a charity that ploughs its profits back into outdoors charities. Good learning for good causes - it's a win-win.

4. Seizing adventurous possibilities

Photo credit Belinda Dixon

I'm lucky to be a leader with the youth personal development charity British Exploring, which runs expeditions to extreme environments. My specialism is Media not outdoors skills, although each time we go out I learn a little more. But the map reading and outdoors skills of my Adventure Leader counterparts have got us up the high hills of the Himalayas, guided us down Yukon rivers and brought us safely back to base camp. Navigation is a fundamental part of a skill set that's not only opened up extreme environments and turned the outdoors into a career for those leaders, but also provides genuine development opportunities to thousands.

5. Understanding your environment

Photo credit British Exploring and Belinda Dixon

Open a map and suddenly, a hill has a name, a cliff has a height, a river a course. Paths are revealed, prehistoric sites emerge, woods take shape. Handily, toilets and pubs are outlined too. The names peppering the paper in front of you speak volumes: Boosbeck and Byker, Trewethen and Treroosel - from the Norse heritage of England’s north east, to Cornwall's Celtic roots. With a map the landscape around you is defined. Geography, history, ecology - learn how to crack the codes and layers of meaning are revealed.

6. Broadening horizons

Photo credit Belinda Dixon

With maps you also see more than the immediate view. Every time I spread out one of my paper Ordnance Survey maps, or open up OS Maps on my phone, I'm struck by the sheer scale of the places I haven't been - coves, tors, cliffs, rivers, moors - each 1km square offers new possibilities, and often new ways to experience them: hike, swim, surf, kayak, climb - there's always so much more to explore.

7. Empowerment

Photo credit Belinda Dixon

Photo credit British Exploring and Belinda Dixon

And map reading can be part of a broader transformation. Like any learned skill, it broadens knowledge. Knowledge helps foster confidence. Being confident in your actions means you tend to do more. Doing more proves you can do it. Feeling you can do things means you take on more challenges - which of course you nail, and so the cycle of empowerment continues. I've seen this happen clearly and powerfully - through attending map reading courses, through British Exploring expeditions (see my article for This Girl Can), and the BE Challenge. And crucially I've also see it through being a GetOutside Champion. I've seen the Champions spread the GetOutside word and help enrich - even change lives. Something which sometimes starts with a map in the hand.