How to Learn to Read Maps

By Jan Goldfield

In order to travel anywhere, we must read maps. The hardest part of map reading is folding up the map after using it, so do not fear if you do not know how to read the map. It's easy to learn and makes traveling much easier and more fun. And you usually arrive at your location easier and more quickly than if you just take a stab in the direction you want to go. Here's how to read a map.

Know where you are. Maps are always oriented so when you open the map the top of the map is north, the right side is east, the bottom is south and the left side is west. Knowing that makes reading a map a bit easier. You must be able to figure out where you are. If you live in New Orleans, Louisiana, and are using a city map, you must find the street you live on and the approximate block. From there, you can find the turns you need to make and streets on which to travel to get to where you are going. Big streets, boulevards or Interstates are clearly marked using different colors and sizes of lines. To find out which ones are which, you will find a legend at the bottom of the map, usually in inset. Find the color and size of each line and you will see what kind of road it is.

Know where you are going. You must have a knowledge of geography to read a map. If you are in New Orleans, Louisiana and want to drive to Denver, Colorado, you need to know that Colorado is north and west of Louisiana. Once you find Denver in Colorado, it is relatively easy to find the interstate highways you need to drive on to get to Denver. Remember, interstates are clearly marked with heavy double lines on a map. Each interstate highway will have a number on it, starting with the southernmost one, I-10, all the way to the northernmost, Interstate 90 that goes through Montana. All east/west interstates have even numbers and all north/south interstates have odd numbers, starting with the lowest number, I-5 on the west coast and going up to to I-95 on the east coast.

Different colors denote different terrain on a map. Green usually tells us the area is a forest, probably a National Forest or mountains like the rockies. Blue denotes water. The Great Salt Lake in Utah is blue as are the five Great Lakes in Michigan.

States are marked off on a national map. If you see small straight, usually red lines, they are state boundaries. The continental divide running north and south through the Rocky Mountains is marked by a dotted red line.

Look for cities. Cities are marked with different sizes of type. The larger the type, the larger the city. Look at the legend to see what the population is for each type size.

Double lines tell us a road is not an interstate but is a divided highway. A divided highway usually has access without entry and exit ramps. It can be accessed from a service or frontage road at relatively close intervals. It may have stoplights on it. The interstate highway will never have a stoplight.

Find distances between places on a map. Somewhere, usually on the back of a map, you can find a graph with city names going across the top and the same names listed down the left side. Match up where you are with where you are going and learn how far it is between both cities. This can help you plan your driving.

About the Author

This writer has been at the writing craft for over 50 years from long before computers or even electric typewriters. Now retired from her day job she spends retirement hours writing for online sites.