Whether the map is of your local area or of the world, most of the basics are the same. If you remember those basics, we challenge you to dig deep into your memory and see how much you really remember.
Oh, hear us out, because we're going to rag a bit on millennials. Yup, the generation that practically grew up with Google Maps can't read a map. So, if the zombie apocalypse ever really does come, and you all need to get to the safe zone, you're in trouble.
Map reading skills are actually important. Rather than watching a little arrow move along a line with a voice telling you to turn left in 1,000 feet, map reading gives you a micro view of the world in which you live. Just like you learned to read a map or a globe in World Geography class that gave you a sense of where things are in the world, learning to read a map of your local area can help you do more than turn right at the McDonald's and then left at the Dunkin Donuts. Of course, if that's the way you want to get around, who are we to tell you you're wrong?
Let's get started.
A detailed map is a great tool for backcountry hiking. But it's even more useful with a compass -- and the knowledge to use both.
A map is an image of an area. Traditional maps depict the Earth and help its human residents navigate their way.
The scale of the map is the relationship between the size of the map and the area featured on the map. A 1:10,000 scale map, for example, means that any one unit of distance on the map refers to 10,000 such units in real life.
Blue is the universal color for water. Whether you're boating across a Great Lake or driving over the Hudson River, it's a good idea to keep tabs on water locations as you travel an area. Otherwise, you know, unexpected drowning may result.
The cardinal directions are the four primary directions on a map. They are north, south, east and west.
The east is to the right, the west is to the left. North, of course, is towards the top, and south is at the bottom.
Map titles seem kind of redundant until you start flipping through an atlas. Then, you realize that you really do need a map title to help you quickly determine the purpose of the map.
A compass needle is critical for understanding direction. The needle on a properly-working compass points north.
A map legend explains a map's symbols. Use the map legend to help you figure out just what all those squiggly lines and dots really mean.
On a map, green often denotes forested areas. It may highlight national or state parks. And in some cases, green may mean something else altogether, which is why it's always wise to consult the map legend.
These days, it seems that paper maps are going the way of the dinosaurs. Electronic, interactive maps are one of the many profound technological shifts brought to life by the digital revolution.
Topographical maps show relief, most often through the use of contour lines. With a "topo" map, you can get an idea of just how steep that mountain really is before you set out on that hike.
A map legend is also called the key. A key or legend is, well, a key to understanding the symbols on a map. Some map symbols are virtually universal, but others are more esoteric, so the key is a vital component of any map.
The north arrow is one of the most basic, but vital, elements of a map. It will help you orient the map to your position so that you can plot a route.
Latitude is the set of imaginary horizontal lines that cross the Earth. Paired with longitude (vertical lines) you can use numerical coordinates to pinpoint any place on the planet.
The scale of a map helps you figure out the distance between two points on a map. It's one of the most important functions of a basic map.
A neatline is the border of the map. It defines the area in question and helps present the visual information neatly.
GPS is the Global Positioning System, which uses satellites to pinpoint a location. GPS units, like those in your smartphone, are great when paired with a map, indicating exactly where you are in an area.
Maps are flat. The Earth is round. Flat Earthers, please don't flame us on social media.
White often refers to open or bare land. In many cases, that open land is crisscrossed by many roads and other human-made features. White may also indicate the highest areas of a region.
Most -- but not all -- maps are created with north at the top. For example, Arctic maps would be exceedingly confusing if they attempted to orient themselves with north at the top. Because, you know, you're already there, dude.
Longitude lines are also called meridians. Due to the curvature of the Earth, longitude lines are farther apart at the equator and closer together at the poles.
Even extremely detailed maps throw out some visual elements, a fact that results in slightly lower accuracy. Why? Because too many details cause clutter that make maps hard to read.
On a topo map, contour lines connect points of equal elevation. Contour lines are great for representing three-dimensional areas on a two-dimensional map.
Sometimes, map symbols in one country might mean something else entirely in another nation. If you're traveling abroad, be sure to actually glance at the map legend, otherwise, you may misinterpret a critical part of the map and wind up in Siberia, and don't say we didn't warn you.
When contour lines are close together on a topo map, they indicate steep terrain. So if you're looking for flat ground, you'd prefer contour lines that are farther apart.
Scale varies greatly depending on the area that's depicted. Whenever you decide to use a new map, be sure to understand its scale, otherwise, you may have no idea what the distances on the map are really like.
The larger the scale of the map, the smaller the area that's depicted on the map. These maps (usually) have a lot more detail so that you can identify small places buried in a big area.
"Decluttering" is the term for omitting certain details of an area in order to make the map easier to read. Without decluttering, most (if not all) maps would be a jumbled mass of visual junk.
Labeling refers to the practice of naming features on a map. It sounds simple, but map makers must work very hard to make labels fit on a crowded map.