How To Read Road Maps

Young tourist checking her map

Road maps are not just about drawings of streets, towns and cities. When you first look at a road map, it might look cryptic with all the symbols, numbers and other pieces of data. Reading a road map doesn't require rocket science, but it needs at least the ability to read symbols and scaling. Once you know how to properly read a road map, you can get on with your road trip with ease.

  • The grid - Maps are usually subdivided into grids, whether on fold-up maps or in book atlases. This makes it easier for the reader to find streets and places. For example, when the index says that a particular street or intersection is in grid B6 on a particular page, then you should be able to find it in the sixth row of column B.
  • Check the index - If you're reading an atlas in a road format, you can find a list of streets, towns and other landmarks in an index near the back of the book. This would usually indicate the page number of the street or location, and the grid coordinates. You should first find your point of origin and destination, and mark the pages where these can be found.
  • Connecting pages - Fold-up maps are continuous, and you can plot your course by just following the roads. But when you're reading a map in a book format, you might only be able to see one portion at a time. When you move past the pages, you will have to go to the connecting page. Most book atlases indicate where the edge connects. Going west and east might simply require you to turn to the previous page or the succeeding page. But going north and south might require you to turn to other connecting pages. Just check the edge for the sign indicating "turn to page XX."
  • Symbols and legends - Maps and atlases usually have different symbols corresponding to different road types and establishments. For instance, thicker lines indicate bigger roads and highways, while smaller lines indicate secondary roads or private roads. Broken lines usually indicate railways. Maps also have special symbols for airports, filling stations, restaurants, and railroad stations. Be sure to check the legend to find out what these symbols mean. It would be very useful if you're on a road trip and you need to eat or refuel.
  • Scale - Maps come in different sizes and scales, which translate to the "zoom" level. At the edge of a map, you will usually find the scale. It can say 1:200,000 or any such number, indicating how big the map's illustrations are relative to the actual sizes of the roads, cities and places. Apart from this number is a scale that you can use to compare actual distances. For instance, a one-inch line might indicate one mile, or one kilometre and so forth (depending on the measurement system the map uses).

Once you've learned to read the symbols and scales on your map, the important thing is plotting your course. Online trip guides will usually mark your path on the map already, and even list the landmarks and turns you have to take. But if you're manually plotting your trip using a paper map, it would be helpful if you can mark your route with at least a bright highlighter, so you can better have a visual of the direction you will be traveling on. Don't forget to highlight points of interest, and also places where you could possibly go in case of need or emergency, like restaurants, refueling stations and motels.


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