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In Britain we are lucky to have superb maps for navigating in the outdoors, from the Ordnance Survey and also from independent map publishers like Harveys. Some countries, like France and Switzerland, also have detailed maps for their mountain areas; in other parts of the world, however, good mapping can be harder to find.

OS map scalesWalking maps tend to be at 1:50,000, 1:40,000 or 1:25,000 scale. A 1:50,000 scale map (e.g. Ordnance Survey Landranger) shows 1 kilometre on the ground as 2 centimetres on the map. A 1:25,000 scale map (e.g. Ordnance Survey Explorer or Outdoor Leisure) shows 1 kilometre as 4 centimetres on the map. In both cases the map has a grid of 1km x 1km squares (so although we often refer to distances in miles it can be easier to measure distances on OS maps in kilometres).

The area of a 4cm x 4cm square is, of course, not twice but four times that of a 2cm x 2cm square. Consequently a 1:25,000 scale map can show a great deal more detail than a 1:50,000 scale one. On Ordnance Survey maps this extra detail typically includes field boundaries, additonal paths, small streams and buildings - all very useful features when navigating. That said, in some areas (the Scottish Highlands, for instance) the uncluttered clarity of a 1:50,000 scale map can be welcome.

As well as features such as roads, paths, streams and structures the maps show contours - all the points of the same height joined together in a line. Contours are extremely useful  in visualising the shape of the hills and the steepness of the ground. The spacing of contours can vary; typically on a 1:25,000 scale map they are at 10 metre intervals but it is as well to check. On OS maps the contour height is marked every now and then along the 50m and 100m contours (note that the figure is always oriented 'uphill').

Familiarising yourself with the hill and valley shapes described by the contours is incredibly useful and comes with plenty of practice. Summits can be distinguished by the series of concentric contour rings radiating from them. Ridges have characteristic V-shape contours. Where contours bunch tightly together the ground becomes very steep; where they are more spread out the incline is gentler.

Before setting out on a walk it's well worth spending a few minutes studying the map and building up a 3D image in your mind of the shape of the hills you are venturing into. Some digital mapping applications will even do this for you, but all in all it's better to develop an ability to build your own mental image, because then you can do it anywhere, any time.

A useful guide to map symbols and contours can be found on the Ordnance Survey magazine website.

Useful publications

Navigation for Walkers: The Definitive Guide to Map Reading
 is a very readable and clear introduction to all the important techniques for navigation in the outdoors. It focusses primarily on map reading and the use of the compass, although the 2nd edition now has sections on digital mapping and GPS.

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