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Top tips for map reading

Want to explore new places? Every adventure starts with a map and some basic map reading skills. Here are our top tips for better map reading so you can start planning your next day out.

Don’t be scared

It might seem strange but some people are afraid of maps because they think they might not be able to use them or that they might look silly if they find them too complicated. Once you know the basics, reading a map will come naturally - it really isn't that hard!

Os Maps case

OS Maps waterproof case

Adventure guide, Jason Rawles, urges people not to be afraid of maps. He says: “Maps are fun. They are part of the planning excitement for your next adventure and they should be seen as an enjoyable part of being outdoors. I tell people to just give it a go with maps and then they see how much fun and useful they are.”

Do what you shouldn’t!

Experts tell us that it’s vital that we don’t rely on GPS devices and that we can use a map and compass if we are going to explore the wider countryside. This is true, however it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make use of GPS and digital mapping apps. The OS Maps app is essentially all 607 OS Leisure paper maps on one device. You can download each map to use off-line and record your activity. What's more, you can search from thousands of routes or, have a go at plotting your own. It's a handy app to have!

os map app

OS Maps

Try going for a local walk and map the route digitally using the OS Maps app but also try to plot the route by OS paper map and compass. Then, when you are back home enjoying a giant mug of tea or a glass of wine, you can compare your routes and see where you went wrong (if you did) and what you did right. You can learn a lot from this activity alone.

Many people do find it easier to follow routes on a device, it all comes down to personal preference. Although, of course, you should be able to use a map and compass in case you lose GPS signalling or batteries fail.

Discover the OS Maps app

Rip it up

Adventure author, Phoebe Smith says: “Don't be afraid to rip the cover off your lovely new map.” This seemingly strange suggestion does make sense, however. She explains: “Time and time again, I see people struggling to fit their map into a waterproof case but the answer is easy.

“The first thing I do when I get my new OS Map is rip off that lovely shiny cardboard cover. It looks great, but when you're folding the map to a certain size it's wildly impractical.

woman with OS Maps

“Once ripped off, folding it into the relevant section is a breeze. If you take off the cover before you leave home and keep it safe, when you get back in from your adventure you can pop the map back inside the right cover.”

Phoebe realises that some people may see the as defacing a beautiful piece of cartography but she sees it as a “badge of honour”. She says: “It proves I've not only bought the map, but really used it.”

Trust the compass

Compass OS Maps

OS GetOutside Champion, Fi Darby offers a simple but sometimes overlooked tip: “Always trust your compass. They rarely go wrong and following them usually means that you end up in the right place.” They're right! If used correctly, a map and compass are incredibly accurate and you shouldn't get lost.

Men versus women

Outdoor journalist, Fiona Russell, believes that there is a lot of benefit in joining a navigation course – but that it’s worth considering a course that is aimed at different genders.

She says: “It’s probably a bit controversial, but I think it’s realistic, to suggest that men and women tend to read maps in a different way."

Man and woman with OS Map

“It’s not that one gender is better at map reading but, in general, they often think and plan in different ways. So, it's a good idea to work together and learn from each other.

There are plenty of professional navigation sessions offered across the UK and learning from the experts can make it far easier and quicker to learn.

More on navigation

Start them young

Kid with Os Map

Introducing kids to maps when they are young and when they are having fun is more likely to create a life-long love for adventure.

Presenter and outdoor fanatic, Mary-Ann Ochota says: “Kids love map reading. They like to work out where they are, where to go and what they’re going to find at the end. It turns any walk or bike ride into a treasure hunt.”

Mary-Ann also recommend that families try Orienteering. She says: “Orienteering is a fun way to practise map reading skills and orienteering events are really affordable. There are routes to suit everybody and always someone to help if you get a bit lost.”


A beginners guide to orienteering Map reading for kids

Edited 12.02.2021

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