Six Reasons to Know How to Read a Map

From cave paintings, ancient manuscripts, and on to the 21st century, people have created and used maps as essential tools to explain and navigate their way through the world.

With their longitudes and latitudes, as well as myriad lines crisscrossing miles of ground, encompassing mountains, valleys, and more, maps have been guiding the curious traveler for thousands of years. From enabling the discovery of new trails, to helping travelers plan their next pit stop, maps are crucial tools connecting the known and unknown for many generations of explorers, and you.

With the increasing popularity of GPS devices and apps, you could be forgiven for thinking that the days of old-school, paper maps are numbered. You would, however, be mistaken. In a world where technology reigns supreme, the skill of map reading is one that every outdoors person should have in their repertoire.

Below, we highlight the six most important Reasons to Know How to Read a Map.

1 – Safety First

The most obvious and practical reason. A map is a visual resource crammed with information about the area we’re exploring. The information tells us about water sources, potential campsites, viewpoints, cliffs, and more. By becoming a skilled map-reader, you’ll be able to find the former and avoid the latter, even in poor visibility.


Fun fact: Around 50% of Search and Rescue call outs are because someone got lost. Learning to read a map will lower your risk of getting lost in the first place. If it does happen it will help you find your way again. Or—worst-case scenario—at the very least be able to tell rescue teams where you are should things go wrong.


2 – Maps are a Passport To New Adventures

Reasons to Know How to Read a Map

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 more serious adventure and take your trips off-trail.

Map skills are enablers. The skill of map reading empowers you take your adventures in the backcountry further. It lets you head into remote locations that you wouldn’t dream of venturing into without ample competency with your topos.


3 – Maps give you Self-confidence And Peace Of Mind

Not only do maps let you find your way to new and exciting areas, learning to read a map can also provide a boost to your confidence both on the trail and before leaving the house. While pre-trip butterflies are a good thing, it’s much better to head off with faith and confidence in your abilities and know that if anything goes wrong it’s not going to be because you got lost.

Honing your navigation talents and gaining confidence in your abilities is not only good for you, but also for those riding with you and the folks back home. Your confidence will spread to your riding partners.  Your family members will feel better about your adventures knowing that you have the requisite smarts to do so.


4 – A Map is More Than A Backup

Sh*t happens. It’s one of the most popular sayings of our times and never more applicable than discussing trips in the backcountry. With so many variables to account for, it’s almost expected that over the duration of a few days on the trails something will go wrong. A counterpoint to that, however, is less sh*t happens if you know how to read a map.


Reasons to Know How to Read a MapMechanical devices will fail and electronic ones will die. Cell phones lose signal and batteries run low. In such circumstances, you’re on your own. Getting out of that situation will often depend on your ability to use a map, especially if you’ve headed off-trail.

While GPS devices, and navigation apps are handy tools, they shouldn’t be relied upon as your only means of navigation. Instead, they should be used in combination with a detailed paper topo map and compass. After all, paper maps don’t require either batteries or signal and can survive a soaking. Try that with your phone and see what happens.


5 – Maps Encourage Engagement with your Surroundings

A map is used in conjunction with the physical world around you, be that reading a sign or identifying the mountain on your right. This process of using your eyes and engaging your brain leaves memories and knowledge of the world around you. With GPS as a guide, nothing is learned or loved about the journey. There’s something almost selfish about the GPS‘s tiny screen displaying only the area immediately surrounding you. It’s all about you. But let your eyes wander across a map and you’ll discover a nearby lake, a beautiful view or a convenient watering spot. Maps open the world whereas GPS narrows your mind.


6 – Maps are Inspiring

Few things can inspire curiosity and wonder like a proper topo map. A paper map gives us the bigger picture. It encompasses a huge area packed with features that can leave us marveling at the richness of the environment. Not only are maps practical, but the visual imagery of the space is truly art.

We hope that you enjoyed this list of six Reasons to Know How to Read a Map.

As always for more information on trail riding, camping with livestock, and the world’s largest guide to horse trails and camps, give us a visit at

Join our E-Newsletter