Considering we live in the age of smartphones and GPS, where a tiny little voice can direct you on the exact path to follow, and you’re constantly getting live updates that ping to your exact location, my kids often ask me why I even bother with maps. Well here’s the thing. In my opinion a good map is far more reliable than an electronic device. Should you get caught in the rain, need it for more than a day, or wander into an area without cell service, understanding the basics of navigating with a map will ensure you get where you’re going.
And it’s not all that difficult, once you know the right way to use and follow a road map, you’ll be able to direct yourself successfully, to just about any location. You can keep a road atlas in your car, or a smaller local map in your bug out bag, and rest easy knowing that you’ll always have a way to find your way. Growing up, we didn’t have smartphones, and this is how we managed to find our way around.
Find the right map
For starters, there’s a whole bunch of different kinds of maps. Topographical maps cover the landscapes, which are perfect for exploring the wild backcountry. But what you’re most likely going to need is a simple road atlas. They’ll detail all the different roads and routes you can take, correct at the time of printing. Of course, these will get outdated eventually, so it’s a smart idea to always carry the most current version, but if it’s a year or two older it’ll still likely have the main routes you need. What might be missing are new housing developments and roadways that have just been constructed. It’s not essential, as you probably won’t ever need to drive through them, but just be aware these maps do get outdated.
Understanding the scale
Where most people get stuck on planning their routes has to do with the scale the map has been recreated at. It might only look like 10 or 12 inches that you need to travel, but if you find the map scale at the bottom of the page, you’ll see just how many miles this equates to. For a map that’s got a scale of 1:100000, (i.e. one unit of distance on the map equates to 100,000 units in real life), an inch on the map will be approx. 1.578 miles. So a 12-inch journey on the map is just shy of 19 miles in real life *(1.578 x 12). Fine in a car, but on foot, that’s about a 6-hour hike you’ll be subjecting yourself to.
Everything else on the map
Depending on the type of map you’ve got, there’s probably a bunch of curving contour lines on it. These contour lines depict the angle of the land. If they’re close together, it indicates either a sharp rise, or drop, like you’d imagine in a valley or a hilltop. Lines that are far apart indicate flatter land, like open grassy plains. The legend will also tell you what all the different symbols on the map refer to, which can include everything from the size of the city, to the size of the roads, lakes and rivers, and any other major landmarks as well. Reading the map
With your road atlas in hand, the top of the page is generally designed to point north. At the start of the book you’ll see very high-level maps of the key arterial highways, which will direct you to certain pages for more detailed maps. Flip to the pages covering the area you’re in now, and you should be able to locate the road you’re on (if not, there’s an index and a grid listing at the back of the book), which will give you a grid coordinate that refers to a certain section of the map. Find where the letter and number meet, and you should find that particular road on the map, which is your current (approximate) location.
Figuring out your route
Now let’s say you already know where you are on the map, and you’ve also got a destination in mind. Using the different roads on your map, you can probably choose a variety of different ways to get from “Point A” to “Point B.” Depending on your situation of course, in normal times you’ll want to follow the main roads and the most direct path to your destination. If the SHTF, you may want to stick to the unsealed tracks, and steer clear of other people as much as possible to ensure you don’t get stuck. Then it’s simply a matter of driving the path you’ve selected. Pay attention to the streets you cross to confirm you’re heading in the right direction, and you’ll quickly get where you need to go.
What about a compass?
There’s no doubt a compass and your map go hand in hand. In the vast majority of situations you’ll never need it, but if you happen to get lost, get off track, or it feels like you’re heading in circles, knowing how to use a compass can help. Start by aligning your compass with your map, so the North arrow in both is pointed in the same direction. Then spin the compass in the direction you want to go until your heading is right. Then turn the dial on the compass, so the red line re-aligns with North on the map. Then you just need to keep the red line on North, and follow your heading, checking periodically that you are on the right track against any major landmarks that you see reflected on the map. The scale will tell you how far you’ve got to travel, and with a little time, you’ll eventually hit your destination.
Having a road map is a smart move, they’re cheap and will last forever in your glove compartment. But the real trick is knowing how to use it, so when your smartphone gives out, or your fancy GPS isn’t getting a signal, you can still find your way to your destination.