How to Read a Map

The basics of reading a map are simple enough to understand, and we’ve broken it down to help make it even easier! Don’t be intimidated by new terminology or mountains of coordinate types any longer. Become a confident map reader today!

Understanding the Language of Maps

What you really need to learn is the language of mapping, cartographers sometimes sound like they speak their own language. The good news is that you can learn a few key terms and be well on your way to understanding how to read a map.

hands holding a compass 

Map Type

There are hundreds of different types of maps, even subsets of map types in larger categories. It can be overwhelming, so focus on these important types of maps below.

  • Topographic
    • Topographic maps are designed to show topographic features like mountains and lakes. Topographic maps are also known as topo maps. Topo maps use detailed contouring to express elevation.
  • Road/Driving Map
    • These are standard issue gas station-type maps. The kind mom and dad may still keep in the minivan in case the cell signal goes.
  • Resource Map
    • These are maps that are used to display human data, think of political election result maps.


Orient the Map

Orienting the map simply means to find North or your heading direction. When working with paper maps you may have been taught to “put the red in the shed”, meaning to rotate both map and compass together until the compass needle is “boxed” in the red orienting arrow.

With Avenza Maps, your phone becomes both map and compass, making orienting as easy as turning until facing the direction of the bearing value. Remember, the top of your phone should be pointed away from you!

Map with compass on it to naviagate 

The Legend

The legend or map key is a table that explains the definitions of symbols and paths used on the map. Some symbols you’ll probably recognize, washroom break on a road trip anyone? Many maps however will have special or proprietary symbols that you may not be as familiar with. Checking the legend before using the map will save you a lot of frustration in the long run, trust us.

Want to use your own custom symbol sets? Download Avenza Maps and log in with a Pro Subscription!Map Legend 

Check Your Coordinates

Most people are familiar with coordinates even if they don’t think they are. Coordinates are really just an address of your location. The most commonly known coordinate type is Latitude and Longitude. Everywhere in the world has an address in Latitude and Longitude as well as hundreds of other coordinate types.

When using a physical map, you’ll have to use the coordinates given on the map. If you’ve downloaded Avenza Maps, you can choose to display coordinates in many different types (learn more about the coordinates tool available on Avenza Maps). You can even easily switch between different coordinate formats! Critical if you’re traveling in parts of the world that use different coordinate types and formats than you’re used to.

A man and a woman reading a map together 

The Scale

Scale is one of the most important aspects of a map. In fact, without a scale, most cartographers wouldn’t even call it a real map! This is some serious stuff!

The scale of a map tells us how to interpret the distances between locations on the map vs. in real life. For example, 1 cm on a map often will mean many kilometers in real life. Something to keep in mind if you’re using a physical map to plot your course.

Or use Avenza Maps and have the shortest route to your destination plotted and mapped for you!

Map scales 

Ready to Plot Your Course?

Download Avenza Maps and put what you just learned into practice! Avenza Maps makes it simple to download the best maps from around the world onto your Apple or Android device. Sign up for an Avenza Maps Pro subscription to upload an unlimited number of your own maps!