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The Revival of the Physical Map

With our modern-day reliance on technology, we sometimes forget the importance and often the necessity of physical maps. Whether you are trying to unplug from your devices, wanting to strengthen your navigation skills, or simply understand the importance of always being PREPARED 4 ANYTHING this blog will give you a much better understanding of how to read and take care of a physical map. 

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Physical vs Digital?

While a digital map provides a ton of useful navigational resources it also comes with a few drawbacks.

  • You are limited by the size of the screen on your device.
  • Reading the device under direct sunlight can be challenging.
  • It is usually not possible to mark notes on a digital map. 
  • If your device dies or becomes damaged you no longer have access to your map - potentially leaving you in a dangerous position. 

For these reasons we recommend you at least bring along a physical map as a backup in case you need it. Store your maps in plastic zip-lock bags to protect them from being damaged by rain or sweat.

Types of Maps

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General Reference Maps or Overview Maps

These maps show important features in an area both natural and man-made. These maps often exaggerate or enlarge some features to aid map readers. Different types of reference maps will contain different types of information. Road maps are considered a general reference map and will use different colors and widths of lines to help map users distinguish between major and minor roadways. 

Recreational maps for popular outdoor areas, such as national parks or popular outdoor recreational areas, are available from a variety of sources including National Geographic where you can purchase a variety of maps for around $15, or directly from National Park Services where a wide range of general reference maps are available for each of the different national parks available for free. 

General reference maps provide specific types of information and may not be as useful for remote, less populated outdoor adventures. 

Topographic Maps

Topographic maps are very similar to general reference maps with the exception that they use contour lines to show topography, or the elevation changes of an area, in detail. These maps are meant to help you easily orient yourself and therefore have a lot of location reference information such as longitude and latitude, true north, and magnetic north

Topographic maps can take a bit of getting used to and we won't be diving deeply into this specific type of map for this blog post, but REI has a wonderful introductory article on topographic maps. 

Your best bet for topographic maps will be from the USGS Topo Map Series. The USGS is the leading mapping agency for the United States. USGS constantly monitors and updates information about the conditions of natural resources in the US. USGS maps contain details on elevation, hydrography, place names, and cultural features. Hydrography will tell you how deep a river is, which is excellent information for crossing. 

Cultural features include important locations that may serve as landmarks. This information will be beneficial when finding your place. Having a detailed map will make it easier for you to find your position there.

Reading Your Map


Maybe the most obvious point of this article, but the title of a map can clue you in on what type of information the map will be able to offer. Look for terms like “Recreational,” “Adventure,” “Topographic,” and “Trails”.


The map’s legend, or key, can also give you a lot of clues on what type of information the map can provide. The legend is a quick guide to the symbols used throughout the map. While a lot of symbols are fairly standard and used by many map manufacturers, it never hurts to double-check that you understand what the symbols on your map mean. This is especially true if you are traveling overseas as major variations in symbol use can change when you are in a different country. 


Scale can be especially important when using a map while traveling on foot. It is important to understand the true distance between two points when traveling by foot to ensure you safely arrive at your destination without exhausting yourself. Map scales are usually written in ratios, such as 1:24000, meaning 1 map inch = 24,000 real-life inches. These ratios are usually converted to a more easily understood distance measurement, in this case, 1:24000 means 1 map inch = 0.38 miles. This information will be near the legend of your map. 

Being aware of a map’s scale is also important when choosing a map to purchase. The larger the scale of the map the less detailed it will be but it will cover a larger area of land. You might choose to purchase or download a map with a larger scale (1:65000) that gives you a general overview of the entire area as well as a more detailed map at a smaller scale (1:24000). 

Again, be aware of regional differences especially when traveling overseas. Most countries outside of the United States use kilometers to measure distance as opposed to miles. A kilometer is significantly longer than a mile (1 mile = 1.6 kilometers), and miscalculating the distance can put you at risk of not reaching your destination or trying to navigate in the dark. 


Contour lines, a key feature of topographic maps, are a way to depict elevation levels and how steep the terrain is in a given area. 

Each contour line represents an equal change in the elevation level from one contour line to the next. For example, in a map where the contour interval is set at 40 feet, each line will represent a 40-foot change in elevation from the preceding line. 40-foot and 80-foot intervals are the most common interval changes. 

Some contour lines are referred to as an “index” contour line. This line is depicted in a thicker, darker line and has the elevation printed somewhere along the line. 

Contour lines that are densely packed together represent a steeper terrain than contour lines that are spread further apart. 

Contour lines that have tick marks represent depressions in the terrain, or areas that are below sea level. 

Finding Your Position On The Map

survival navigation compass map declination

Finding yourself on a map, at the most basic level, utilizes visible landmarks that you can connect with their symbolic representation on the map. The more landmarks you can see and connect to your map the better idea you will have about where you are. Depending on where you are exploring, you may also be able to utilize man-made landmarks, like trail markers, that will give you a more accurate idea of where you are at. 

Once you’ve located yourself on your map you can use your compass to help you navigate. For more in-depth information on navigating with a compass check out our previous blog on the topic. 

Protecting and Storing Your Map

Paper maps can sometimes be quite fragile, especially when you are on a more rugged outdoor adventure. Your map can be damaged by wind, rain, or just torn while being pulled out of your pack. If you will be taking a longer journey, consider packing duplicates of your maps in case your main map becomes damaged or lost. Store your maps in a water-proof bag. 

As a precautionary measure, consider having a digital map downloaded to your device in case you need the aid of GPS to pinpoint your location or to aid in navigation if you happen to stray off the map and route you originally planned. 

Being PREPARED4x means always having a backup plan for your backup plan. What are some of your favorite maps that you use? Any tips or tricks you’ve found that work best for you when exploring the beautiful outdoors? As always, we would love to hear from you on social media by tagging us @prepared4x on either Facebook or Instagram. Or send us a quick email at

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