skip to Main Content
Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content

The Lost Art of Map Reading

Map reading is becoming a lost art. Friends now look at me as like I’m a relic from another age because I don’t own a GPS. I don’t have any apps on my cell phone either. What I do have are drawers full of maps and side pockets overflowing with maps in my car. I mourn the lost art of map reading.

Updated May 2020. This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

"Assorted maps and charts"

I collect all kinds of maps

It’s not just road maps that I collect. I have charts from my kayaking excursions, topographical maps on different scales for hiking and backpacking – and I still have a full collection of maps for skiing up to the 10th Mountain Division Huts in Colorado.

I have bike maps for Calgary, Vancouver and California’s wine country. And sitting front and center on the coffee table in our living room is my treasured National Geographic World Atlas.

To me maps and travel go hand in hand. What better way to get the lay of the land than to look at a map. Where are the cities, monuments and markets? Where can you escape to a park? Where are the restaurants and the major sights? How far can you travel in one day?

I love maps for so many reasons

Open a map and dream about your next adventure. Where will it be? Do you ever do that with a GPS?

Maps allow you to see the bigger picture – quickly. When I used a GPS for the first time in southern California I was at a total loss for where I actually sat in the city of LA.

Was I near the coast or the mountains? Really I had no clue as the only thing I concentrated on was what lane I should be in and how far it was until the next turn.

Granted the GPS got me to where I needed to go in Los Angeles. Without a navigator sitting beside me reading a map, the GPS played a crucial role. But it was disorienting to me and it actually led me astray twice. On one of those occasions I searched for a human to get real directions.

A GPS I used on a California trip
A GPS I used on a California trip

If you know how to read a topographical map

If you’ve looked at topographical maps to any degree you can quickly tell where treeline ends and the hiking with the unbeatable vistas begins. A long tromp through the trees is rarely exciting but if you know how to read a map you can often choose another route.

The same goes for marine charts. When you’re kayaking you’re always on the lookout for beaches. And what does the map have to say about tidal currents? Where should you avoid?

Maps tell me how far I am to a destination – just the way a GPS does – but without having to listen to a fake voice in the car. Maps aren’t usually stolen. They may get lost or torn but rarely does your car get broken into because you have a map.

The lost art of map reading
Map of Asia

Alzheimer’s and the lost art of map reading

Just recently I learned that difficulty in reading a map may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s. The neural pathways used in reading maps may turn out to be very important. So keep doing those crossword and Sudoku puzzles but start checking out maps too.

Interestingly, the only place I know of in Canada where you must prove your map reading and route finding skills is in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland. One summer my husband and I has to pass a map reading test so that we can do the Long Range Traverse – a multi-day backpacking trip with little to no marked trails – just game trails.

At the top of the hard section on the first day of hiking on the Long Range Traverse
At the top of the hard section on the first day of hiking on the Long Range Traverse

The bad thing about maps is that they make me itchy to travel. I’m curious and I will always want to fill in the blanks on a map – and know in my mind what the landscape really looks like.

What about you? Are you hooked on your GPS or do you still like the lost art of map reading?

Further reading in adventures where a map comes in handy


Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 40 Comments

    1. @Freya At least you’re still using maps when you’re hiking! I have had a bad experience with a GPS dying while hiking – with someone else I might add- so not interested in using them at all in the backcountry.

  1. I prefer a paper map as GPS has led me astray on a couple of occasions but it is impossible to read a map and drive at the same time so have to rely on the technology sometimes. I think I need to teach Emma to read a map so that she can navigate when it’s just the two of us!

    1. @Lisa It’s such a great skill to pass on to your kids and I think it gets them more interested in road trips. Emma will be picking out places she wants to visit because she’s found it on the map.

  2. Map reading skill is an important outdoor activity to learn and hone. Even with GPS and other technological advances, it is good to still have this basic skill in reserve in case everything breaks down. That is one reason I like Quetico. There is only one way to navigate and that is with the old map and compass unless you have some type of high tech GPS that works without cell service. I prefer to navigate out there without technology.

    Amazing that you have to take a test to go hiking somewhere. That must be some serious backcountry.

    1. @Ted The world isn’t as scary if you don’t mind leaving technology behind and relying on your wits and skills instead. I love pouring over a map on a canoe or kayak trip at the end of every day to think about where I’m going.

  3. Ha ha! I’m even more of a relic than you, as I don’t even own a smart phone, let alone a GPS. (Although I have an iPad for work and am starting to understand the appeal of a smart phone.)

    I love maps for all the reasons you do – which I think can be summed up as providing context in a way that a GPS can’t. The only downside is trying to read one while driving with no navigator. 🙁

    1. @Cindy Context is the big thing that GPS users don’t understand that they are missing and I really think that’s a shame. Also letting a machine take away the thinking you’d normally do is not good either.

  4. For starters, OMG on the Long Range Traverse. That is absolutely gorgeous! The GPS in Phoenix’s Jeep (yes it’s HIS vehicle lol) is 10 years old and hasn’t been updated. I will say several years ago it got me out of the jams in some very confusing Bay Area (California) traffic. And I have a great sense of direction. I first learned to read 15 and 30 minute maps at 18 years old in Search and Rescue. I became addicted to them. I would love to compare our collections! I pull up Bing Maps ALL OF THE TIME. Like right after I click Post I’m going to go look for Long Range Traverse. Fantastic post, our friend! 🙂

    1. @Mike I think the Long Range Traverse will be quite the experience – just hoping we don’t have too much fog as that is always so disorienting. I think you are in the minority Mike if you have a great sense of direction. That also seems to be dying out.

  5. I was given a hiking/biking gps as a gift this Christmas. I didn’t even have to actually use it on the trail to see how unreliable it could be on a complicated trail. Perhaps it was perhaps more for bikers than hikers, but I can’t trust it as I can trust maps.

  6. I used to love reading maps but I’m so dependent on my GPS and iPhone map apps these days. Driving around Southern CA with the many freeways and trying to do detours to avoid traffic jams does that to you. I can’t believe you guys have to do a map reading test for a hike. I’m sure you’ll pass with flying colors. One of these days, I guess I should pull out a map and show my kids what it is 🙂

    1. @Mary You have a good excuse living in southern CA – but I can’t imagine not having backup maps and understanding how to use them in case something happened to the GPS. I think map reading is a great skill to teach kids.

  7. I prefer maps, obviously. Not only because I am clumsy with hi-tech. It’s just because map is solid and if you know how to use it then you’re never lost (or temporarily dislocated;-).
    My Dad taught me how to use them very early. When I was a kid we used to do trekking in the mountains with map analyzed at every brake, getting our bearings with compass etc. I even used to participate in local championships of orienteering course. Even though I wasn’t a winner it gave me a long lasting skill of map reading.
    I consider this skill really basic and wish all kids were lucky to be taught at some point of their lives of how to deal with a map.

    Great post! I enjoyed reading it very much!

    1. @Agata Sounds like you could teach us all a lot about orienteering. Your Dad was a smart man as once you’ve got the skill you’re set for life. I can’t believe how many maps I run into these days that are missing either a scale or a North arrow.

  8. Interesting that you should write about this, Leigh. We were at a funeral this weekend and got lost finding the church because the GPS led us into a dead end and announced that we had arrived at our destination. We laughed but it wasn’t very funny at all. Thankfully, it wasn’t dark and we stopped to ask directions but the talk at our table was about how dependent we’ve become on technology.

    To your point, it’s great not to have to pull over and look at a map, especially when you’re driving solo. It’s saved me a lot of times so I can focus on the road and not on a map.

    But it isn’t only drivers. You probably heard about two planes that landed on the wrong runways earlier this year. They’re now blaming both incidents on their navigation systems.

    We’re become really dependent on our gadgets so much so, I fear for the kids who will probably not know how to write because we’re now pushing the use of tablets in schools.

    1. @Marcia If I’m driving alone I write down instructions so I can read them ahead of time. Certainly a GPS would come in handy in those instances but I feel like my brain stops working and I don’t want that to happen.
      Sometimes pulling over is a good excuse for a break – and if nothing else you find out how clueless most people are when it comes to what’s in their immediate area and especially for actually giving directions.

  9. I am with you on this one my friend! I LOVE paper maps, the reliability that they will always be at hand should you need them. While GPS is comforting, I still like to see the bigger picture of fold-out map!! Great article!

    1. @Jeff I understand the appeal of a GPS in big cities. But I hate to rely on it – whether it gets stolen, or the batteries die. And I do think perspective counts and you totally lose it with a GPS.

  10. Have never used a GPS even though our smart phone offers one and we’ve often ended up with rental cars equipped with them. The only voice I want to hear telling us which way to turn is the one inside our own heads! Loved this post, Leigh.

    1. @Jackie I’m wondering if all of us middle aged folks are just dinosaurs and whether young people will ever embrace maps the way we do. Should be interesting to see how the world unfolds in the next 10 years.

  11. You don’t have to convince me about the wonderfulness of real maps. I sometimes use GPS (and Siri on the iPhone has helped me out on numerous occasions), but maps are very special. I’ve got a collection that goes back to the first road atlas that we had when I was a kid (and really old ones that my dad collected.) Some of my earliest travel memories are about tracing the routes of our upcoming (or past) trip on that road atlas — dreams and memories.

    1. @Cathy I actually don’t even think about using GPS on my phone as it chews through batteries and if I get lost I ask people. On some trips I visit a lot of gas stations.
      Sounds like you have had the travel gene in you all your life.

  12. Jack and I argue about this all the time. I love GPS because it’s easy – but on a long road trip, paper maps is still the best because you can easily see possible side trips you can take. GPS doesn’t usually allow that since it’s all about the shortest/fastest way possible.

    I’ve been teaching myself triangulation method using a compass and a map. It’s really tricky. Do you know how?

    1. @Jill Fortunately John and I don’t argue about them as he is also dead set against them. GPS plays a role in a big city but I still think there is a dumbing down aspect to using a GPS. I have used triangulation before – back in the days when I was a geologist.

  13. I love maps! My favorite way to plan any kind of road trip is straight off a map – best way to pick out new and interesting routes that I haven’t traveled before. Plus, it’s really nice to get away from technology once in a while.

  14. Great piece! I’ll confess I rarely glance at a map since my phone figured out how to tell me where to go, but as I have also been led astray by GPS this one made me smile. Thanks for sharing.

  15. I much prefer maps – indeed, we drove from the UK to Istanbul on paper maps. We have recently bought a GPS for hikes but are having finding use for it!

    1. @Gemma I think everyone in the wilderness needs to understand how to use a map – especially since a GPS can die, you can drop it or lose…Many places I go to really require an understanding of the terrain and a map gives you the bigger picture.

    1. @Charu I actually just sent an email today trying to figure out if one of Canada’s national parks would let me backpack (as you have to pass a test) without bringing a GPS. They said yes though it’s recommended. If you have good map skills – at least in the wild – you should never need a GPS. I think people miss working their brains too if they don’t learn how to use a map.

    1. @Liam GPS is a highly useful too that isn’t infallible. If it gets stolen or the batteries die – especially in the wilderness you can be pooched. It tells you how to get somewhere – but your brain doesn’t have to work at the same high level as it does with a map. Long term you aren’t developing as many neural pathways as I am – which isn’t a good thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close search

Pin It on Pinterest