The Lost Art of Map Reading

Imagine for a minute that you’re cruising around the countryside looking for the swimming hole that all of your friends have been talking about. You know that the trail to turn off is somewhere between a road called Carriage Way and Rose Street. The last time you checked, 40 minutes ago, the GPS on your phone said you were 45 miles away. You grab your phone to see how far you have left to travel when, to your horror, you notice in the top left corner two dreaded words. “No service.”


If you’ve ever driven in an unfamiliar area, you’ve probably become accustomed to relying on your phone’s GPS to guide you through. However, the thought of limited or no cell service in foreign territories is daunting, especially when you’ve relied on a GPS, MapQuest, or GoogleMaps your entire life. What if you run out of gas? What if there is no one to ask for directions? What if you end up being lost forever? These thoughts can be paralyzing. However, with these five easy steps, you can learn to read a physical map and never worry about dead zones again.

Step One: Get A Map

This step may seem obvious, however, we’re willing to bet that the last thing you’d think to purchase before embarking on a road trip to a new destination is a road map that covers the trip there and the destination itself. When looking for a new map, you may want to pick up more than one for yourself, a road map that covers highways, byways, and backroads, and a tourist map that covers where certain tourist destinations are. Having the right map in the car with you will save you lots of stress and time if you encounter a data free zone.

Step Two: Orient Yourself and the Map

Maps are typically oriented with North at the top, South at the bottom, East on the right, and West on the left. In order to determine if this is correct there should be a compass located on one of the pages that will indicate what direction your map is facing. If you don’t have a physical compass on you to match up with the map’s, use landmarks that you’ve passed and the road that you’re on to figure out which direction you’re heading, and then look at the map accordingly.

Step Three: Study the Legend

All maps will have a legend (or key) in one of the corners. This will tell you exactly what you’re looking at on the map. If you need gas or food, you should be able to figure out where the nearest town is based upon colors indicated in the legend. The legend will also give you the relative scale of your map. Use a spare piece of paper and a pencil or pen to copy the scale down. This will allow you to measure distance for the next step.

Step Four: Plan and Measure Your Route

After you’ve found where you are and which direction you should be traveling in, grab a pencil, pen, or highlighter and circle your final destination (and any stops you may want to make along the way). From there, start tracing a route from your current destination to your end point. Once you’ve found and decided upon your desired route, use your spare piece of paper with the scale on it to determine how many miles you’ll be traveling. This will allow you to approximate how much time there will be between directions and will help you estimate how many miles you can travel before you will need to fill up your tank.

Step Five: Hit The Road

Now that your route is planned out in detail, it’s time to hit the road. Because you won’t be using your GPS, you will have to pay closer attention to where you’re going in order to ensure you don’t miss a turn. It tends to be helpful if you note the street or landmark right before and after your planned turn so you have something to look out for before the turn and after, in case you miss it. Keep in mind that there may be detours or closed roads on your route that you hadn’t anticipated. In this case, pull over, pull out your map, and plan a new route.


Finally, when you purchase a new map, make sure to plot out the gas stations along the way. So, if you get lost without cell service you’ll be able to enjoy learning to navigate on a physical map without worrying about running out of gas.

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