Orienteering & Map Reading Skills For Beginners

Map reading skills

In the days of smartphones, GPS and satellite navigation, many may believe that the good ol’ fashioned map has gone the way of the dinosaurs. But that’s not the case!

In our interview with map gurus Ordnance Survey, they told us that they have actually seen an increase in the number of paper maps sold, with around 2 million people buying them each month.

But why? Why should we use a paper map when we have everything we need on a smartphone? There are a few solid reasons…

  • GPS isn’t always reliable - it’s essentially a mini computer and computers can go wrong, as happened to this woman who drove into a lake.
  • Maps don’t run out of batteries
  • Maps generally require at least some skill to read them - although some may see that as a negative!
  • There’s something special about holding a physical, paper map (but maybe that’s just us!)

If you want to go back to basics and break out a map for your next expedition, we’ve put together a short guide to learning some simple orienteering and map reading skills. This would also be a perfect guide for kids who have never read a map before.

For ease, we’ll be using Ordnance Survey (OS) Explorer maps as our point of reference, although others are available and the information may be different.

Grid references

You’ll see that most maps have a grid laid over the top of them, separating them up into squares. The horizontal lines are called eastings and the vertical lines are called northings. You can use these northings and eastings to come up with a unique number, known as a grid reference, to pinpoint a location on a map.

The most common kind of grid reference is a 4-figure grid reference. This is worked out by going along the eastings until you find the bottom-left corner of the square you want - this is your first number. Then go up until, again, you find the bottom-left corner of the square you’re looking for - this is your second number.

4 figure grid reference

So in the above example, if we wanted to give a 4-figure grid reference to locate the ‘X’, we’d say it was 1944.

If you want to be even more accurate when locating something on a map, you can use a 6-figure grid reference. To do this, you turn each square into a smaller 10x10 grid and put the relevant numbers for the eastings and northings next to their 4-figure counterparts.

It’s probably easier to look at an example…

6 figure grid reference

The 6-figure grid reference to locate the black square would be 183 447.

How do map scales work?

A map’s scale shows how much it has been shrunk down by and is used to help you work out how far you have to travel.

Most walking maps are at a scale of 1:25,000 which means that every 1 unit of measurement on the map represents 25,000 of the same measurement in real life.

For example, 1 cm = 25,000 cm = 250 metres.

This works out as 4 cm on the map is equal to 1 km in real life. Handily, the grids on OS maps are 4 cm wide, so you know that each grid is the equivalent of 1 km across. From corner to corner it works out as about 1.5 km.

Some maps are 1:50,000, which would mean that 1 cm on the map is 50,000 cm in real life.

Map symbols

There are a fair few symbols on maps that you should familiarise with. Here are just a handful of the most prominent ones…

Campsite; caravan site

Campsite map symbol


Wood map symbol



Buildings map symbol



Marsh, reeds or saltings map symbol


castle map symbol



Slopes map symbol


Footpath map symbol


Motorway map symbol

Main road

Main road map symbol

Secondary road

Secondary road map symbol

Multi-track railway; single track railway

Railway map symbol

Railway station

Railway station map symbol

Some symbols are just letters to represent a particular place or feature, such as:

FB - Footbridge

PO - Post office

Pol Sta - Police Station

Sch - School

You can see the full list of symbols over on the Ordnance Survey website. There will also be a key on the map.

Gradients & Relief

The topography around the UK is rarely flat. It’s covered with hills, mountains, valleys and all sorts of other ups and downs, and this is communicated in maps using contour lines.

On a 1:25,000 scale map, contour lines are usually placed every 5 metres to show how steep the area is - in really mountainous areas they might be every 10 metres. This means that the steeper a gradient is, the closer the lines are together, and vice-versa.

At random points along the contour lines, there will be a number to indicate the height of that particular point, like this...

Contour map symbol

A gradient of colours from white to brown may also be used to indicate the height of the ground.

Relief map symbol

Understanding the shape of the ground is an important part of map reading and helps you to better plan your route and stay safe.

Map reading equipment

You don’t need a huge amount of kit when it comes to map reading and orienteering, but there are a couple of items that can help. Obviously you’ll need the right map - ensure you have one that adequately covers the area you’ll be walking.

Waterproof map holder

If it’s throwing it down with rain, then your map could well get ruined. However, if you buy a waterproof map holder, then it’ll keep it nice and dry so you can still find your way in the worst of weathers.

Map reading compass

A map reading compass is also worth investing in if you’re doing a spot of orienteering. Being able to easily find north will make navigation and map reading much easier, and the compass even has a guide to help you measure scale and work out distances.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of our walking & hiking equipment and let us know on Facebook or Twitter if you have any map reading tips.

Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database rights 2016

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