5 Excellent Reasons Why You Should Learn Map Reading

Map reading is a skill that every hiker, backpacker, and camper should have in their repertoire. Just in case you're in any doubt, we've complied a list of five reasons why this is the case.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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With the increasing popularity of GPS devices and cellphone navigation apps, you could be forgiven for thinking that the days of old-school, hard-copy paper maps are numbered.

You would, however, be sorely mistaken…

Even in a world where technology reigns supreme, the skill of map reading is one that every hiker and backpacker should have in their repertoire.Below, we highlight the 5 most important reasons why you should learn map reading and how to use a map and compass.

Five Reasons Why Every Hiker Should Learn How to Read a Map

1. Safety First

Let’s start with the most obvious and practical reason.

Essentially, a map is a visual resource crammed with information about the terrain in which we’re hiking. Some of the information tells us about innocuous things—mountain huts, water sources, campsites, viewpoints, etc.—and some of the symbols about less innocuous things—cliffs, steep drops, bogs, avalanche-prone slopes, and so on.

By becoming a skilled map reader and compass user, you’ll be able to find the former when need be and avoid the latter, even in poor visibility.

Around fifty percent of mountain rescue callouts around the globe are accounted for by hikers becoming lost. Learning to read your map means you lower your risk of getting lost in the first place, will be able to find your way again if it does happen, or—worst-case scenario—at the very least be able to tell rescue teams where you are should things go seriously south.

2. A Passport to New Lands

While learning to read a map is certainly useful when following a marked and established trail, where it is most beneficial is when you want to satisfy your thirst for a more serious adventure and take your trips off-trail.

Skills are enablers. What the skill of map reading enables you to do is make your adventures in the backcountry wilder and further-flung than ever before, letting you head into remote locations that you wouldn’t even dream of venturing into without ample competence with your topos.

3. Confidence and Peace of Mind

In addition to letting you get to new and more remote, untrodden locations, learning to map read well can also provide a huge boost to your confidence both on the trail and before setting off.

While some of those pre-trip butterflies in the stomach are surely a good thing, it’s undoubtedly better to head off with faith in your own abilities and knowing that if anything goes wrong it’s not going to be because you made a rookie map-reading error and/or got lost.

Honing this new skill and gaining confidence in your navigational abilities is not only good for you, but also for those hiking with you and the folks back home. Your confidence will spread to your hiking partners and make them feel more at ease, and your husband, wife, parents, etc. are sure to feel a whole lot better about you venturing into the wild knowing that you have the requisite smarts to do so.

4. It’s More Than Just a Backup

Sh*t happens.

It’s one of the most popular aphorisms of our times and maybe never more applicable than when talking about trips in the backcountry. With so many variables to account for, it’s almost inevitable that over the duration of a few days in the hills or mountains, something will go awry.

As a counterpoint to that, however, we feel we should add another truism custom-made for hikers and backpackers: less sh*t happens if you know how to read a map.

Mechanical devices fail. Electronic ones die. Cell phones lose signal and batteries run empty. In such circumstances, you’re all on your own, and getting out of that situation, in most cases, will depend on your ability to use a map and compass, particularly if you’ve headed off-trail.

While GPS devices, altimeters, and offline maps or navigation apps on cellphones are handy tools, these should never be relied upon as your only means of navigation and always used in combination with a detailed topo map and compass.

5. learning Map Reading Is Inspiring

Few things can inspire curiosity, wonder, and fire up your wanderlust quite like a good topo map.

While maps on GPS, cellphone, or computer screens typically only show only the immediate surroundings, a paper map gives us the bigger picture, encompassing a huge swathe of terrain packed with countless features that can leave us with no option but to marvel at the sheer scale and richness of the environment.

One of the best ways to approach map-reading is to see any map as a giant menu. In addition to the handful of regular ‘mains’ on there (regular trails), a little bit of browsing will inevitably reveal the existence of dozens if not hundreds of lesser-known, hidden, unsung ‘specials’ (the rest of it) that we might have the privilege of sampling thanks to our newly acquired skills.

Last update on 2023-09-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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