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How to Read a Map

It’s Travel Tip Tuesday, everyone! This week’s tip involves something near and dear to my heart: map reading!

Sound boring? Think you can use your phone’s maps anywhere in the world so why bother? Prefer to wing it? Think taking a map out makes you look like a target? Well, think about these scenarios.

Sometimes your phone dies, especially in colder temperatures (learned that the hard way in Alaska in the winter). Didn’t splurge on that data plan? Maps don’t work as well without data or wi-fi. Find yourself a bit lost as the sun sets in a new country? I’ll bet you’re regretting that decision to wing it, even if just a little bit. Also, “targets” wander aimlessly, start to freak out, and get scared easily; map readers step inside a shop or public restroom, pull out their paper map, and make a plan! Here’s all you need to know about reading a map!

1. This is a map:

Map of London

Maps are your bird’s eye view of a new city! This gives you a snapshot of what’s located where. Sometimes I like to highlight or circle the things I want to do on the map so I can easily see which sites or activities are close to the others.

 2. A little intimidating? Never fear. This is a map key:

Map Key

Why do you need the key? So you can understand your map! The black horizontal lines to the left of the map key box show you distance in both meters and yards (or kilometers and miles, depending on the map). This will help you gauge how far sites are. The symbols in the map key box let you know what the symbols on the map mean.

3. Orient yourself with your surroundings and the paper map.
Most maps are already oriented north. No compass necessary! To find yourself on the map, look around! What road signs are nearby? What landmarks are near you? If you’re in London, using a map similar to the one above, where’s Big Ben? Where is he on the map?


4. What are you trying to find?
Let’s say you’re trying to find your hotel. We stayed at the Royal Horseguards Hotel on the corner of Whitehall Court and Whitehall Place, just a few blocks from Big Ben:

Our hotel is inside the top circle!

5. Find your way!
So, up in #1, Big Ben was behind me, as was the river. A quick look at my surroundings told me I was on GT George Street. So I turned around, walked toward Big Ben, and turned left when I got to Whitehall Parliament Street–which would lead me to Whitehall Place and our hotel! If it helps, you might want to do what I do an make the map face the same direction as you’re facing–not necessarily north.

Royal Horseguards Hotel

6. You’ve done it!
Now you can read a map with the best of them! Did I leave something out? Got more questions? Comment below and I’ll do my best to answer!

14 thoughts on “How to Read a Map

  1. I like reading maps. I might even say I prefer it to something digital. My husband jokingly makes fun of me because I usually draw my own map rather than using iPhone. Even in Nagoya where I live now, I often draw a map for a new place and try to find it that way, before even looking at my drawing. iPhone is the last resort. Thanks for bringing attention to the simplest means of finding directions!

    1. Thanks! So funny you mention drawing your own maps. When I traveled around Japan, I kept a pen and paper with me just so people could draw a map of where I needed to go, or to draw something I was trying to communicate!

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