You can read maps

When I log in to this blog, my stats page provides me with information on what sort of web searches have led people here.  I get various people searching for things like “Walking instructions from x to y” or “Route description from x to y”.  I assume this is coming from people who don’t know how to read maps, but would like to go for a walk anyway.

Half the purpose of my blog is to provide information on the location of toilets, pubs, and sometimes accommodation when away from home, and general information on whether or not any given walk is enjoyable or worth doing.  I don’t provide full route descriptions, though, because (a) I’d be here all day, and (b) relying wholly on a route description without a map is extremely risky.  What would you do if you were carrying a route description without a map, and you found a closed footpath or some other kind of unexpected diversion in place?  What if you got tired, or there was some kind of emergency that meant you had to drop out of the walk?

Confidence with map reading – some psychological barriers

Rather than giving actual advice on how to read maps (although I might do that in another post), I’d like to explore some personal barriers that people face when they say they can’t read maps, and explain why I believe they are incorrect.  I feel strongly that out of all the people out there who think they can’t read maps, a large proportion of them could learn, and I would just like to get people thinking a bit more about why they believe they can’t.

I’ve never been able to read maps.  Why would anything change?

A few years ago I couldn’t read maps, either.  What did I do about it?  I went on a weekend training course, and now I can read maps and use a compass properly.  It was in the Lake District, but do a quick search for map reading and navigation courses and you’ll find a few of them dotted around the country.  I do still take the occasional wrong turning once in a while, as most people do, but we also learned what to do if you find yourself lost, also known as relocation.  In general, I am now much, much more confident about going out in the countryside and following a route than I was a few years ago.

For many things in life that you wish you could do, there are books or websites available to read, or training courses to attend.  Want to learn to speak Spanish?  Buy a “teach yourself” kind of book, or attend an evening class.  Can’t cook?  Open a recipe book, or go on a beginners’ course.  Want to be able to drive?  Find a driving instructor.

Want to learn how to read maps?  Start off by reading a good, clear book such as Navigation for Walkers by Julian Tippett, or this excellent document, and then if you’d like to know more, go on a course to put things into practice.

Navigation can’t be taught.  It’s something you either have the knack for or you don’t.

There do seem to be plenty of people out there who have a natural, intuitive knack for navigation, who set off and just feel their way somewhere.  I am not one of those people.  What I have at my fingertips is a range of practical, technical skills which I have learned to use in the right place at the right time.  Knowing what map symbols mean.  Taking an accurate compass bearing.  Reading contour lines to know if the path should be going up or down hill.  Pacing, and knowing how long any given part of the walk should take.  None of these things are part of any kind of innate, ancient knowledge for me.  I just happen to have been taught how to do some useful stuff that I didn’t know how to do before.  It really isn’t particularly different from learning any other given skill.

I don’t need to read maps properly because I have a GPS device and electronic maps.

Technology such as Google Maps and GPS on your phone can certainly help you get around a town or city with streets to walk down.  It isn’t of very much help in the countryside because it doesn’t show footpaths.  Okay, so OpenStreetMap has a lot of them, but it’s still not perfect.  Even if you get electronic Ordnance Survey mapping, what will you do if your battery runs out, or your device stops working for whatever reason?  If your device relies on mobile phone reception to get a GPS signal, what will you do if there’s no reception?  Don’t overestimate the situation when you’re out of town; there are plenty of places in Britain with no reception.  What will you do if your telephone service provider messes up and leaves millions of people without reception for days on end, as happened a couple of weeks ago?

Surely everyone knows women can’t read maps!

First of all, I’m a woman and I can read maps.  Deal with it.

Secondly, there have certainly been various books written on this subject – stuff to do with spatial awareness or whatever.  I’m highly suspicious of it, but either way, the idea that women can’t read maps has become so ingrained into society and public consciousness that many women just accept they can’t read maps, because that’s just biology, right?  It’s become such a problem that a few people have set up women-only navigation courses, and there is even a course in Scotland called Women Can Read Maps.  Frustratingly, when I googled it, this happened:

Thanks for nothing, Google.  Luckily, once you search for the same phrase in quotes, several articles such as this one will appear.  There are far more women who can read maps than some people would lead us to believe, and there are plenty more women out there who would be perfectly capable of learning to do so, if only they believed in themselves a bit more and weren’t so influenced by this social attitude.

Barriers created by other people

I’ve covered some of the thoughts people have as to why they don’t think they can read maps.  Now I’d like to cover some of the things I’ve heard other people say, that are completely unhelpful and not conducive to actually encouraging anyone to develop their skills.

You’re holding the map upside down.

Oh, for goodness’ sake.  Look, maps are printed with north at the top, okay?  If you’re heading south, it makes sense for many people to rotate the map to have south at the top, so that everything to your left will now be on the left hand side of the map, and everything to your right will be on the right hand side of the map.  People have their own preferences, and just because you can personally follow a map without rotating it in the direction of travel, doesn’t mean that everyone else is doing it wrong.

Furthermore, making a comment like “You’re holding the map upside down” is often just an excuse to be self-important, and it’s frankly tedious.  As it happens, the man who led my navigation course told us to rotate the map in the direction of travel, as we’d find it easier to navigate that way.  He was a highly experienced mountaineer and navigator.  Can you imagine?!

People who can’t read maps are stupid.  Just read it.  It’s not that difficult.

Everyone has something they’re not very good at, or haven’t learned about yet.  This includes you.  Personally I don’t understand how anyone can be tone deaf, but there you go.

How can anyone get lost in Britain?  It’s a tiny island, and you have high quality 1:25,000 mapping for the entire country.

Have you noticed that British people talk about the weather quite a lot?  That’s because it’s highly changeable.  A crystal clear day can be reduced to very low visibility within mere minutes – not just in hilly areas, but down south, too.  One mistake that people make is to aim towards a point that’s too far away, and then it suddenly disappears in mist.

Don’t they teach these things in schools?

Let’s take a closer look at exactly what we mean when we say “reading maps”.  Are we talking about:

1.  Recognising and understanding map symbols, especially Ordnance Survey ones?

2.  Sitting down with a map and planning a route?

3.  Taking the map with you into the field, and actually using it to guide you along a route?

Point 1 is very different from point 3.  Understanding map symbols in the classroom is not the same thing as getting out there and using it to help you get from a to b.  At school, we learned to understand maps and symbols, and learned how to identify land features by their contour lines.  At no point did we ever have to go for a walk along a complicated route and use a map to help us along the way.  And yes, I have an A Level in Geography.

If you want to understand all OS map symbols, just click here and read through everything.  If you don’t understand some of the words, look them up.  If you want to know how to take a grid reference, this page will help you.  That’s an excellent start, but you still need to be able to apply it to a real-life walk.  This doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and is not something I learned at school.

So there you have it.

I hope I’ve persuaded a few people that they might be able to navigate for themselves after all.  I might write another post in the future with some of my favourite map-reading tips, but for now, I hope I’ve dispelled a few myths, and at least got a few people thinking about approaching map reading in a different way.


About Karen

One foot in front of the other
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2 Responses to You can read maps

  1. Pingback: Tristan Gooley, the Natural Navigator | Karen's Walks

  2. Pingback: You can read maps, part 2 | Karen's Walks

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