How To Read A Paper Map Like An Old-Timer

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A dangerous norm is emerging. The widespread adoption of navigation systems is dumbifying the American navigator, making them incapable of reading a map, much less understanding it. To rectify that, here's the basics of getting where you're going with paper.

Relying on GPS makes us nervous. There we said it. Let's say you're out in the desert, deep in the bush with your previously trusty automobile when it decides the high temperatures and remote location are the perfect place to break down. If you've gotten to your location via GPS system, you've got a couple hours of operational charge assuming you've got a mobile navigation system. That's assuming there are never problems with the military satellites needed to triangulate your position and direction of travel, the software and maybe hand-held hardware in your nav system, and you aren't under heavy cloud cover with Saturn in alignment with Mars and the dozens of other things that can turn a very nice GPS system into a paperweight. It's always handy to have a paper map close at hand, and judging by the number of portable Nav units we see suction-cupped to windscreens everywhere, we're thinking a reminder on their use might be in order. Our four-step guide starts by clicking the "Next" button over yonder.


1.) Know Your Map

Following your GPS-pocalypse, you'll be happy to get your hands on any map you can, but how you read it will be highly dependent on the type of map you've got at hand. Conveniently, mapmaking is among the most label-oriented professions in history, so it's likely there's map-type identifier somewhere. You have many to choose from, all with their own use, there's topographical, municipal, over-the-road, and many more. For the sake of this article we'll focus on the classic US standard road map. (More at eHow)

2.) The Basics

Using the right scale map is important, a national interstate map won't help you a lick if you're doing city driving. The scale of the map is usually in a corner or in the legend and tell you how large things marked on the map are. And speaking of the legend, it's where to go to decode the symbols on the map. The usual suspects include the types of roadways, rest areas, parks, and the like. Interstate freeways are usually marked in bold blue lines and a blue and red number shield, state highways in red with a white number shield, and toll roads are usually marked in green, it varies with each map though. (A list of Legend symbols at Map Symbol Library)


3.) Advanced

Road maps get much more useful when you reconcile the road system against the map. The interstate freeway was laid out left to right and south to north, so the lowest numbered freeways are on the west coast and south coast and the highest numbers on the east coast and northern states. Likewise, mile markers, the little green and white numbered signs on the side of the freeway, start on the western or southern edge of a state and go up from there. Those mile markers correspond to the exit ramps and can be matched to the exits on the map. In between intersections on a map, there are often marked distances telling you how far it is between spans, freeway or not. Subtracting your entrance and exit on freeways and adding distances on highways and county roads can give you the entire distance of your trip. If you're traveling to a city and using a road atlas, often major metropolitan areas are given their own maps with much greater detail. Those maps will also indicate bridges, one-way traffic, and the locations of freeway on-ramps. (Some more mapping info, trivia and quizzes at FunTrivia)


4.) Other

There's a lot of stuff on a map that's really only good for navigation or entertainment. There are items like mountain peaks, forested areas and protected land gets outlined, county borders are there but particularly useless to the long haul drive. Stuff like campgrounds, picnic areas, rest stops, rivers and lakes and golf courses are often marked as well, which is good for the meandering traveler or someone looking for somewhere to go for no good reason.