Taking Your First Steps In To Map Reading

Posted on October 17th 2017 by Jason Rawles

Hurrah! It’s #NationalMapReadingWeek and yesterday I blogged about why I love map reading so much. Today I’d love to share some ideas to help you take your first steps. It’s a real shame that less people are picking up paper maps and a compass.

That’ll be down to two things –

  1. The fact that technology can do a lot of the ground work in terms of a digital compass and digital mapping.
  2. People not knowing where to go for information or knowledge or just not having enough time to go and find stuff.

Never fear – I shall help! Here’s some thoughts and ideas…

Connect with people

I don’t just mean on places like Facebook but also clubs and groups. Physically being with people who can inspire and educate. My first steps in to map reading came at an early age in the RAF Cadets but appreciating people find this wonderful skill a little later in life. Be with people, see how they do it, ask questions of them, go and play.

There are also walking and orienteering clubs that would be wonderful environments to learn, play and be around people.

Don’t forget there are a whole group of #GetOutside Champions who’d love to help if you have questions or need inspiring and involve your family, kids and friends!

reading champions

Get educated

Map reading is fun and you’ll see that from my blog yesterday. But you do need some information and education to get you on your way. Ordnance Survey have great information on their website to help you find out what it’s all about. Click HERE to be pointed at their site.

reading education

Start small

You’ll hear terminology like “bearings”, ” ring contours” and “re-entrant” and while these will make sense as you advance it’s not the be all and end all. Try this –

  1. Buy a map for your local area
  2. Find out where your house is or a favourite spot
  3. Lay the map out flat on the ground or a table
  4. Understand what the symbols and features are so you recognise other things around you
  5. Turn the map (orient) so the everything is in line as in features on map and in real life
  6. Point them out on the map and in real life (church, river, lake, side street etc.)

Now you’re map reading. Everything is an extension off of knowing where you are in relation to your surroundings. Now understand about contours and you’ve made a great leap!!!

reading planning

Plan an adventure

With some of these skills you could plan an adventure. That doesn’t have to be to the mountains of north Wales but it could be a local lake, a forest or finding your nearest waterfall. Great adventures start with a map and making a plan.

Why not go and find your nearest trig point??

reading adventures

Be curious

If it were me I’d already be thinking what’s next. Well, with map skills the world or certainly the UK is your oyster. With further learning you can add the use of a compass to bring in things like direction of travel and distance appreciation. More knowledge about maps can add in contour and slope interpretation and distance/timing. With this information you can plan safer and greater adventures. BUT, remember, adventure is all about context. You may not want to do this but you’ll have the skills to if you like.

reading curious


As a leader and guide I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention safety. Maps are wonderful but they can also get you in to some trouble. Please just don’t go walking around in the steep upland mountain environments without getting skilled up. For example, when you look at an Ordnance Survey map, one of the grids you can see is 1km so a consideration when thinking how far you can walk in a day.

Something instilled in to me at an early age and something I do now is fill out a route card. I can then give this to someone if I am going out alone just incase of an emergency. Things can just happen irrespective of my experiences. Read more HERE.

reading safety

What next?

I appreciate you may get all excited and want to go and play but this is about your first steps. Start small, build a solid map reading foundation, use the skills often and then grow from there. If you’re able to do the below you’re in great map reading shape and perhaps use this as a guide of learning –

  1. Understand the right map type for your adventure
  2. Understand symbols, there meanings, and relate them to where you are
  3. Know about grid references and how to take a 6 figure reference of where you are
  4. Understand contours and describe the environment around you and where your heading
  5. Orient the map using features and a compass
  6. Describe the ground of where you are and where you want to get to
  7. Take a compass bearing as direction of travel
  8. Work out how long it should take you to travel your whole route
  9. Break down a whole day of walking in to smaller legs
  10. Be able to fill out a route card

You also have the option of booking on a course if you want to learn in a controlled environment with an expert. I run various courses and my 2018 map and navigation skills dates can be found via my WEBSITE.

JR reading

As always thank you for reading. Please feel free to SHARE this around and tomorrow I’ll be chatting about my top ten map reading tips…

Don’t forget to connect with Ordnance Survey on their various platforms to see what else is happening during National Map Reading Week.

Last thought – fancy some map reading fun?! Click below for a fun quiz to see where your skills are – 

Happy map reading my lovelies and please do leave a comment with your thoughts and ideas about how to get started. The ripple of inspiration starts here!


Want to do something amazing? Click HERE

One response to “Taking Your First Steps In To Map Reading”

  1. What a fascinating post! Absolutely love the idea of map reading and finding yourself on an adventure. As a big traveller myself I love this concept and I think this is a great post to share.

    Thank you for a great read!

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