The team at Pembrokeshire Tourism asked my to write this blog for National Map Reading Week to debunk a few myths about maps and map reading. Enjoy.

Its National Map Reading Week

It’s always National something week ….. and like most people I usually ignore the occasion completely, but this time I sat up and took note – a week to promote the usefulness of map reading skills! Well done to the Ordnance Survey team for getting this one onto the calendar.

dsc_0258If you are reading this, you might well be one of the 60% of people who feel uneasy about reading maps or even one of the 14% who have never used a paper map! Well read on and then spare yourself 5 minutes to think about whether you should do something about that.

Left: Maps come in a variety of types and scales


Why People Shy Away From Maps

That’s a simple one – maps look too complicated and you don’t know where to start so you don’t bother!

But if someone told you the simple secrets to unraveling all those squiggles and how to bring the map to life you would soon be on your way, safely and competently enjoying the wonders of our great outdoors.

fullscreen-capture-16102016-131938Right: maps contain lots of really useful information but that can overwhelm an inexperienced map reader – just what are all those lines? Each blue square represents 1 square kilometer on this map.

To overcome the complications of a map you simple need to learn how to ‘de-layer’ the information.

How to Think About a Map

Just keep it simple – think of a map as no more than a reference book – full of useful information. But instead of chapters it’s all set out in front of you in picture form – full of colours and lines and symbols.

And, like a reference book, you don’t need to read the whole thing – only the bits relevant to what you need to know.


Above Left: A close up of the map shows the yellow road crossing a river and bending to the left. And (Above Right) What Gelli Bridge and the road look like ‘on the ground’. The map shows that there is a picnic area just beyond the bridge (blue symbol).

Flogging the reference book analogy, a bit further, you can find out useful information about:

  • natural features ‘on the ground’ such as hills, woods, rivers, roads, buildings, etc etc.
  • how to ‘navigate’ your way from one place to another and to help you understand how long that might take.
  • how to convert your current position into a ‘grid reference’ – the essential information you need to be able to tell others where you are if you have a problem!
  • our history and the geography – for example I love to pore over a map to explore why ancient man built hill forts and burial cairns where he did in Pembrokeshire and how glaciers and erosion have carved out valleys and the coastline.

When to Use a Map

dsc_0006Left: An experienced walker will use a map to plan a walk and then refer to the map during the walk itself.

During Route Planning   Route planning is a subject in itself, but in essence the map will provide you with the information you need to plan a great day out.

Route planning will ensure:

  • you plan a route that you and your party are physically able to complete in the time available and that route is full of interesting views and sites.
  • you plan to avoid dangers on the ground such as bogs and cliff edges.
  • you become familiar with what to expect during your walk and you are, therefore more alert to something unexpectedly happening. So if you expected to be going up a hill at such-and-such a point, but you’re going down(!), you know something is not quite right and you can then stop and correct your error.
  • you plan ‘escape routes’ to get back to safety from any point along the planned route.
  • you can leave a copy of your planned route with someone so that they can alert the authorities if you do not return on time – perhaps not so necessary on a short walk around the park but very necessary if you are going into remote areas or you are planning to stay out overnight.

During the Walk   You should also use the map during the walk itself. Part of planning a route is to break the route down into bit-sized chunks – called ‘legs’. The number of legs on any route depends upon the complexity of the walk and how much detail you can remember at a time. More, shorter legs are a good way to start.

DSC_0001Left: A simple route broken down into manageable ‘legs’. Simply remind yourself of what to expect at the beginning of the next leg. Don’t try to remember the whole route!

It is a good idea to look at your map at the beginning of each leg to remind yourself of what to expect on the next and you can then tell the rest of the group what interesting features to look out for. Refer to the map as often as you wish or feel you need to – there is no right or wrong answer to how many times you should consult your map but try to avoid spending the whole day with your nose buried in it. You are out there to enjoy the views!



Above Left: The red route will take us up and over Cadair Idris in Snowdonia. The brown lines (contours) tell us how steep any slope is (the double headed red arrow depicts the steep drop – seen ‘on the ground’ in the photo above) and the exact shapes of the lakes (Left) are replicated accurately on the map – all great clues for working out exactly where we are!


Dispelling Two Most Dangerous Myths!

Firstly, ‘Thanks to readily available electronic gizmos we no longer need to be able to read a paper map!’ I would have a degree of sympathy with that view but only if I could guarantee that I would always have a strong signal, the batteries did not run out or that I did not lose, drop or otherwise break my gizmo. And that is an impossible guarantee today.

By all means use a gizmo (e.g. a GPS or a phone with a downloaded route) – but be ready and able to switch to a paper map if/when your gizmo packs up.

And just to be clear, you really should take a phone with you on any walk so that if you have problem (and a signal!) you can phone for help or to tell someone that you have safely finished your walk.

And secondly myth is that ‘… the kids would hate it and besides they are too young!’ – that’s nonsense. Making map reading into a fun game is easy. My walking buddy (below) loves it!

IMAG1108Left: ‘I told you we should have turned off at the sweet shop!

Further Information On National Map Reading Week and Help to get Started  

OS Maps have loads of really useful map reading information on their website including some good beginner’s guides. There are hundreds of references to map reading on the internet and plenty of books in the shops but my advice would be, in the first instance, to ask a friend who really understands map reading and route planning to take you on a walk and show you the basics ‘in the field’ – you can then decide how to best develop/progress your own map reading skills.

If you don’t know a competent map reader, call Ian Pattinson (01239 821631) at Discover Walking Pembrokeshire (based above the Gwaun Valley in the foothills of the Preseli’s) or email him at and he will happily take you out for a walk for a few hours to help you decide how best to progress your map reading. Ian has been member of Pembrokeshire Tourism for a couple of years and he is a fully qualified Hill and Moorland Leader and a Visit Wales Approved Outdoor Activity Provider.  He has also written a number of interesting blogs about map reading and route planning and the dangers of over-reliance on GPS! You can see these and many other blogs about being safe and competent in the hills and moorlands at the Discover Walking Website