If this is the first time you are joining the Map Reading series, you should start from the first post.
As I mentioned in the topo map post, every map has symbols: graphic representations of objects and features that exist in the maps’ area. Map symbols are split into 2 main categories – natural and man-made. The importance of differentiating between those is that man-made objects in real life tend to change and should be relied on more cautiously, unlike natural objects (at least the bigger ones) that tend to change very slowly, if at all.
Please note: in this post I bring examples from the USGS 1:24,000 maps and the Ordnance Survey (OS) 1:25,000 maps. These maps were chosen for the amount of details and for ease of reading, but the information is applicable in every language and country.
Man made symbols
Roads, rail and trails
These symbols are represented by a degree of size (highway, small road, dirt track, trail etc) and are usually continuous from one point to another.
These features are usually the most prominent man made features and sometimes can be relied on for navigation as they tend to change slowly.
Urban and extra features
This category is for pretty much everything else man made. Under this category may be:
– Buildings – usually marked in black
– Places of interest – from campsites to historical sites, shops and more
– Walls, high power lines, pipes etc – mostly will be marked by a form of black line with a unique indicator
I will recommend not relying on these features for navigation, and if necessary, only to confirm location. Things can change often and maps have slow update cycles. Pay close attention to the map’s date if you plan on referring to any of the symbols and what they represent.
Those usually show international borders, town limits, restricted areas, etc.
Usually you won’t be able to actually see them on the ground, though there might be a fence/wall to represent them.
Different boundaries will be clearly marked in the legend and each one will have different colour and thickness.
This is the main focus of a topographic map (and the reason we go outdoors). Here we have all natural elements including water, land and flora. Lets review them:
Naturally will be marked in different shades of green and might have specific symbols for certain conditions (bogs, swamps or different trees). Some areas will have a mix of plants and so will be represented by different coloured block on the map.
These, just like man-made objects, might change seasonally and are not recommended for navigation. Though if an area is marked as forested and you are in a bog/swamp, you are in the wrong place!
Just like plants, water almost always is represented in blue. Under this category are natural waterways (streams, lakes, seas), man-made waterways (canals, reservoirs) and coast line features (cliffs, sandy beach).
These are very good navigation tools as nature tends to be persistent with water flows. Just be aware if the area you go to has seasonal streams that might be marked on the map but dry on the ground.
Regular ice will be marked (glaciers) and a variety of unique markings for different glaciers will be represented. Snow is not marked on maps as it is highly temporary.
With land we have 3 kinds of symbols:
Objects on the ground – outcrops, screes, mines, caves etc. Usually relates to various rock sizes that may be present on the ground. These symbols will use drawings to represent the objects on the ground.
Soil -markings of unique soil type such as sand, mud or gravel. They might be represented using different shades of brown.
Contour lines – the main focus for anyone aiming to navigate outdoors. Contour lines represent land patterns and changes of elevation. I will get into contour lines in detail in the next post about map reading.
Other symbols and notes
There will be unique symbols to each map, area and type of activity.
Some maps use abbreviations as well; they will usually use logical terms (i.e.: P=Post office).
The best way to feel comfortable with map symbols is to make sure you go over the map, even quickly, before setting out. Beyond knowing which symbols to rely on when navigating, knowing the symbols help if an emergency happens and time is of the essence. Learn your symbols well and use logic – they are usually very intuitive.