Do you know how to read a map? Unfortunately, many people don’t. So today class, I’ll teach you how to read a map. It’ll be fun! Knowing how to read a map means knowing your directions so first things first. Let’s look at how to figure out direction. I’ll approach this as if you don’t know anything about it. That way you’ll get all the information you need, even if you already know some of it.
In the Northern Hemisphere, which is where all of North America is, the Sun will always be in the Southern half of the sky except at Sunrise and Sunset. So first, go outside on a sunny day, (preferably at around noon with the sun high in the sky). Imagine the sky is a bowl turned upside down and you’re underneath it. Face the Sun. If the Sun is at it’s highest point, you are facing South. Directly behind you, is North. Now turn around with your back to the Sun. You are facing North. Raise your arms straight out from your sides until they are level with your shoulders. Your right arm is pointing East and your left arm is pointing West. You can also tell directions by using a watch with hands on it (not a digital watch). Hold the watch level with the ground (the flat area of the watch, like it was laying on the ground). Point the HOUR hand toward the Sun. Let’s say it’s 9 o’clock in the morning. With the hour hand pointed toward the Sun, draw an imaginary line halfway between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock position on the watch (make sure the imaginary line is between the 9 and the 12 going in the same direction that the watch hands are moving). That line faces South.
At night you can also find directions as long as you can see the stars or the crescent Moon. If you can see the crescent Moon, draw an imaginary line from the top point of the Moon to the bottom point on the Moon and on to the ground. The point where the imaginary line touches the ground is South. Another way to find direction is to find the Big Dipper. Draw an imaginary line from the two stars that make up the front of the Dipper portion of the Big Dipper about five times longer than the space between the two stars and you’ll run into a dimly lit star. That is Polaris, the North Star. When you face Polaris, you’re facing North.
So now we know how to tell direction. Yay!! Reading a map is easy if you remember a few simple things. Maps are drawn as if you’re looking at the ground from a high point such as a satellite view. Most maps have an indicator called a compass point showing which direction North is on the map. Most maps are drawn so that North is at the top of the map. If you can read the place names on the map the top is North.
Also on most maps there is a Scale showing Miles or Kilometers. The scale will help you know distance between points on the map. To read a map, you have to know where you are on the map. It helps to know where your city is, in relation to your state. Whether your city is in the Northern part of your state or the East or wherever keeps you focused on where you are and where you want to go. When our early pioneers where building cities and towns, most of them had the foresight to orient the streets of towns North and South, East and West. Now that you know how to tell direction you can figure out if your town’s streets are in those directions. Not all towns are built that way, however. Some drunken surveyors might have made a town oriented Northeast to Southwest. It’s good to figure out how your town is laid out.
Using your newfound sense of direction and a map, you can now figure out where places are in relation to where you are. Road Atlases will have grid lines drawn out on the map with designations of those grids along the edges of the map. So you find the index of the map and find your town name. In my 2018 Rand McNally road atlas it says that my town is in the Q-10 square on the map. So I locate the “Q” on the side of the map, and locate the “10” on the bottom of the map and find the place where the lines intersect and my town should be close to that point. Now let’s say I want to go to Mankato, Minnesota from my house. I locate Mankato in the same way I located my town and then using the mileage scale on the map I see that Mankato is about 55 miles from my house. And using the direction indicators on the map I see that Mankato is Southwest from my house. So now I can go outside and point toward Mankato because I know which direction Southwest is (between South and West). Isn’t this fun?!
It is a really a good idea to know direction and know how to read maps. Using GPS today, a lot of people don’t have any idea how to find their way anywhere. Not only that but knowing where you are in your state or county or country gives you a good indication of where everything else is located. It gives you a sense of place. So if you’re driving on a lonely county road and your car breaks down and you’ve lost your cell phone you can find your way back to town by just knowing that when you left town you were driving East. So now you walk West and you’ll find your way back. You won’t get lost! And even if you’re in a big city and you’ve lost your way remember that most city streets are oriented North. South, East, or West. This will help you find a landmark you can use to get un-lost.
So that’s all there is to it. Reading maps and knowing direction just takes practice. After a while you’ll be able to know which direction you’re going because you’ve remembered these few simple things. Remember where the Sun rises and sets in relation to where you live. It rises in the East and sets in the West. You’ll never be lost again!