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Map Reading & Navigation Basics for hiking

When I was in college, I have had the opportunity to study mapping courses and reading the book “SAS Survival Guide: How to Survive in the Wild, on Land or Sea” by John Westmore.  Also, my hiking trips around the world empowered me to know more about survival techniques.
In this blog post, I want to share with you some basic tips and knowledge on the art of map reading. Enjoy!

Navigational Basics for hiking

In general, before embarking on a hike, you will have studied the terrain.
You will also have a map on which you will have identified your route.
For hiking holidays on the Canary Islands, we will provide you with a map, walking notes and GPS files (optional) which will help you to plan your route effectively.
To prepare fully for your hike, study and know:
  • The situation of the terrain (flat or with relief),
  • The direction of the watercourses,
  • The names of the places to cross,
  • The prevailing winds (especially when cycling),
  • The forecast weather,
  • The possible known risks,
  • The time of sunrise and sunset (to be sure you finish your walk before dark).

 Map reading basics: How to read a map

 1. Map Reading Orientation

If you put a map in the hands of some people, they might struggle to know in which way they have to hold it.
The first rule of mapping is that maps must always be orientated toward the North, and the direction of the North is often indicated with an arrow or a compass rose (also known as windrose).
If these signs are missing, then use location names (names of towns for example). The North direction is always above them.
Once you find the North on your map (top of the map), the right part of the map is the East, the bottom part is the South, and the left part is the West.
Some maps also have longitude and latitude lines, which usually are in degrees, from +180° to -180° for longitude, and from +90° to – 90° for latitude.
Longitudes are dividing the globe into vertical lines, also known as meridians, the most famous is longitude 0°, known as Greenwich Meridian, crossing England.
Everything which is East of the Greenwich Meridian (toward the right on the map) is a positive degree (E+15°), everything which is West (left on the map) is a negative degree (W-75°)
Latitudes divide the globe into horizontal lines, also knowns as parallels, like Polar circles (Arctic = North N+66,33°/ Antarctic = South S-66,33°), Tropic of Cancer (North Hemisphere  N+ 23,27°) and Tropic of Capricorn (South Hemisphere S- 23,27°),
The most famous line is the Equator which is latitude 0°. Everything which is North of the Equator (top of the map) is a positive degree N+10°, everything which is South of the Equator (bottom of the map) is a negative degree (eg: S-7°).
Now that you know how to hold your map, you just need to look at your map, knowing where is the North.
A compass is, of course, the best instrument to find the North, but you can use other natural elements such as the sun’s position in the sky, as it always rises in the East, and sunset is always in the West, being in the South at noon (in the North hemisphere).
Then observe what surrounds you, and try to find some reference points that are displayed on the map (a mountain, a village, a road, etc.) and try to find their equivalent in the reality of the field.

2. Map Reading: How to interpret what’s on the map?

The names of location such as towns are always written horizontally. The name of a town tends to get bigger if the population of the town is bigger than the other smaller population towns in that area.
The names of natural elements are often written in italics. The names of the rivers are blue and follow the river line.  Names of forests or natural parks are horizontal but in green. The name or number of roads follow the road. 
On some maps, you can read the elevation profile of the landscape thanks to the contour line. A contour line connects all the points having the same altitude. Every line is separated by 10m. The closer the lines are to each other, the steeper the slope. 
The scale: 
A map with a big scale (1/500 which means 1cm = 500m) will show more details than a map with a smaller scale (1/50 000). Big scale maps are more useful for hiking. 
Maps use symbols to represent elements of the landscape, like trees for the forest, or useful information, like a fork and knife to highlight a restaurant.
To represent a mountain range, you will see the shadow of the mountain (with a light coming from the North-West). 
For more hiking tips for the Canary Islands or to ask us more about map reading, please contact us by filling out the form below:

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