This is just a quick review of the basic maps elements you need to be familiar with to successfully read a map…
A key describing all the symbols used in the maps. Features can be points, for example the location of a hut or a spring, lines, for example a path or the contour lines, and polygons, representing areas, for example the area covered by a forest, a pasture, or bare soil.
The North Arrow
An arrow indicating where is North. Generally the North is on the top of the map, but this is not a set rule. You want to know where the north is to my out where will the sunrise is (East) and the sunset (West). This little piece of information is vital to find out where the shaded areas are.
The scale bar
Somewhere on the map, this little signed line tells you how to interpret the distance. If you are holding a map 1:25000 means that 1 cm in the map represent 250 m in reality.
Attention! This is true if you are walking in a perfectly flat area. If you are walking in the mountains, remember to also look at the contour lines to understand what is the elevation gain… 250 elevation gain with a lively extra 10 kg on your shoulders is not the same as walking 250 m along a creek! ;-)
A map with a scale 1:25000 is pretty detailed and you will be able to recognize every turns the path has. As you increase the scale, for example 1:50000 (1 cm represent 500 meters), you loose some details, and not all the turns will be displayed.
The contour lines
Contour lines are usually drawn in light brown, each line representing where the same level (above sea level) is located. contour lines are drawn every pre-set elevation gain interval, for example every 10 or 20 or 50 meters elevation gain. Always check that this interval is! If you walk along a contour line (or your path is not crossed by any contour line), it means that either you are walking on a flat area, or that the elevation gain or loss is always within that pre-set interval. If your path crosses many contour lines, then it is either uphill or downhill!
Many contour lines drew closed together, it means that the area is very steep… beware of this passages!!!
The hill shading
To make the maps more readable and user friendly, many company add a “shading factor” to their map. In this case, different levels of grey are used to indicate slopes and mountain ridges.
Usually, the imaginary sun creating this shading effect is located on the north-western corner of your map. As the sun sets in the west, use this information to rapidly mentally visualize those areas that will be in the sun in the afternoon.