How to Read a Map

Caitlin Dempsey


Reading a map is second nature to most people with any kind of background in geography, but it’s not easy to just open one up and understand how to find and interpret the information you need. Maps are all created to fit certain standards, and understanding these standards will go a long way towards helping you be able to read maps effectively.

To start with, maps can help you with two types of locations- relative, and absolute. Relative locations tell you where something is relative to something else, which means that you need two pieces of information in order to find it.

For example, if someone tells you that a place is five miles north of Main Street, you must first be able to find Main Street, then locate an area five miles north of it. Absolute locations tell you exactly where something is. For example, if someone tells you that an area is located at a specific set of coordinates on a map, you should be able to find it just by following those coordinates.

Photo of a framed map of Lisbon, Portugal.
Reading the title of a map will immediately tell you the subject matter. Map of Lisbon, Portugal.

First, read the title of the map. This might sound kind of elementary, but it’s still very important. Maps are created to display a lot of different information- if you tried to make one map that displayed absolutely everything anyone would ever need to know about an area, it’d be too confusing to read!

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

The title of a map will tell you exactly what you’re looking at. If you’re trying to find the location of a town in France, reading a map called “Migration Patterns of the African Swallow” isn’t going to be of much help to you.

Man reading a street map at a table.

The second thing you need to do to read a map is determine its orientation. North, south, east, and west are the four cardinal directions, and most maps (but certainly not all) will be oriented with north (meaning “true” north, as opposed to magnetic north) at the topmost portion of the map, south (“true” south) at the bottommost, east to the right, and west to the left.

A map should have a compass rose or north arrow on it that tells you how it is oriented, so you won’t need to worry about having to assume that north is up.

After that, look at the scale of the map. Every map is scaled down, and meant to accurately portray an area to scale. Determine how many inches, centimeters, or millimeters represent miles or kilometers so you can get an accurate idea of what kind of distances you’re dealing with. This is especially important if you are using a map to navigate- it’s the only way you’ll be able to tell how far you need to go.

Stack of USGS topo maps on a steel cabinet.

Next, look for a key or legend. A map’s key is a box that tells you what different graphics on the map are meant to represent- different lines for borders, different colors, and symbols all mean different things depending on which map you’re looking at.

Once you have the basics of how a given map is laid out, scaled, and illustrated, its time to look at the borders of the map. Some maps are laid out in a grid pattern based on latitude and longitude. Latitude and longitude are imaginary lines that bisect the earth- latitude runs north and south, while longitude goes around east and west.

Other maps, especially those of smaller areas, may have their own letter and number designations for their grid. If you are given a location’s latitude and longitude, or grid coordinates, then finding it is easy. All you need to do is locate the relevant north-south line, then travel along it until you hit the relevant east-west line. The location you’re looking for will be where the two lines bisect. Not all locations will fall exactly where two lines cross, but knowing the general coordinates of an area can be useful for narrowing down where you need to look.

A folded road map on a motorcycle.

Maps are the easiest way to interpret and organize geographical information. They allow people to display a lot of information about an area in a small space, which makes it easy to get a mental bird’s eye view of a geographical region.

Depending on the type of map you’re reading, it can tell you where to find a place, who or what lives there, what kind of environment it is, its elevation, and more. By understanding how to read a map, you’ll be able to increase your understanding of the world around you.

Map Reading Resource:

Synthesis of research project on visualization concepts in map making:

  • Making Maps Easier to Read
Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.