Maps can be intimidating to most people and many won’t have looked at one since days in the Scouts. We rarely use maps in everyday life now because of ‘sat navs’ and other technology. But if you’re serious about the outdoor life and enjoying some adventures you really must have an understanding of how to use maps.

Even if you take compass or a GPS when trekking though unknown wilderness your powers of observation and ability to read maps can make the difference between finding your way back to camp and being the object of a search and rescue mission! Not a boast you want to be making when you get back to work on Monday morning!

Topographic maps are what you’ll need if you’re a serious adventurer and as well as understanding how to read contour lines there are other topographic map symbols you’ll need to understand to get the most from them.

To use a map effectively you need to observe the landscape and keep track of natural formations like ridge lines, shorelines and rivers. Don't just rely on the obvious and it’s often a good idea to add your own notes to maps. If you see a cave, an odd rock formation or an unusually shaped tree, make note of it on your map. These markers can help make life much easier if the worst happens and you do lose your way.

When it comes to map reading many beginners fail to cross-reference the features they come across and match them to their map. The sooner you realize you've strayed off-course, the faster you can get back on track. I’ve made just this mistake when out on my mountain bike. You get carried away with the thrill of the ride and fail to check your relative location often enough. Of course you once you do realize you have to ride back and this isn’t so much fun! If you’re travelling fast it’s easy to lose track of time. One of the easiest methods for estimating the distance you've covered is to keep notes on the amount of time it takes to reach predetermined landmarks. Alternatively, if your map has a grid system, record how much time it takes you to complete each section. Having to backtrack can be draining as well as embarrassing!

If you fancy yourself as a Bushman and head to backcountry areas and wilderness zones a standard-issue park map won't provide enough details. While topographical and specialty maps will give you general park information, make sure you have all the maps required to cover the area you plan to hike. There’s nothing worse than being limited as to where you can go because you realize you’re at the edge of the map! That was ok for ancient explorers of the High Seas but nowadays we just need to think ahead and be prepared.

In addition to topographic maps – also called contour maps – you can also get speciality maps. Speciality maps add details like backpacking trails, campsites, bodies of water etc and are great for adventures in unknown territory! Personally I like to avoid campsites and other people when I’m on my escapes – no offence people! – so I use these to find a trail away from other hikers. I go out to get away from it all and the last thing I want is to pitch a tent next to ‘Jack and Mary’ who have flown over from The States to explore our wonderful country!

And now read everything about Getting lost on a hike

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