Map Making Skills

Maps are the very basis of understanding geography. Even in days of yore people understood that certain geographical delineation needed to be understood to keep order and peace. Quite often, however, maps and geography also led to wars over rights and land. These days, geography and maps form a vital cornerstone of modern education. While many high school students can’t imagine a use for the knowledge gained in understand maps and geography, one never knows what the future holds and despite the advent of sites such as GoogleMaps and Mapquest it is always good to have a strong basic understanding of the world we live in, regardless of your chosen profession.

The very first thing you have to understand when looking at a map is exactly what you are looking at. You need to be able to identify what all those little symbols actually mean! Thankfully, all maps worth their salt have a little thing called a legend to help you. The legend is a little chart, usually in one of the lower corners of the map, which tells you what the symbols mean. The legend will tell you how to identify different types of roads, bodies of water, county, state and national boundaries, forests, mountains, and important landmarks. While more detailed maps will also label these things with text, it is advantageous to know what the actual symbols mean for quick scanning. This way you won’t get bogged down reading all the minutiae.

Another vital part of the legend is the scale. Every map has a scale, whether it is located on the legend of elsewhere on the map. The scale tells you the unit of measurement represented on the map and/or the ratio the map represents when compared to the real world. A map with a scale of 1:50,000, for example, will have representation 50,000 times smaller than what they are in the real world. What you will typically be looking for in a scale is a mile or kilometer representation. This will be a little scale that will let you know that 1 inch on the map represents 30 miles in the real world, for example. On this National Geographic map of the US, for example, you can see that 40mm = 600 miles. If the map in question has a grid overlaying it, the scale given at the bottom of the map will match up with the grid. This way, you can easily look at the lines on the grid and know the distance between two locations without guessing or using a ruler.

All maps also have a compass as a part of their legend, which tells you which direction is north. Most often, north is indicated by large arrow pointing upwards and a large”N.” This way, you always know when looking at this particular map that north is “up,” south is “down,” east is “right,” and west is “left.” You can determine northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest using this compass as well. Of course, if you turn the map upside-down or to the side, all these directions change. Always keep that in mind when reading a map.

Another feature found on many maps is the maps topography, as depicted here. A map’s topography tells you the elevation, or the feet above sea level, of the area depicted. This will help you determine what the actual land is like in the area you are looking at. If a certain area has a higher elevation number next to it, you know that it is higher up than the area around it. Higher elevation numbers depict hills and mountains – something to keep in mind if you are traveling the area. This is especially helpful to know if you are on foot, such as when hiking or camping. It’s good to know before you get to your destination if you are going to be dealing with a tough uphill hike! It’s also good to know such details if you are lost or are dealing with a malfunctioning vehicle that has trouble with hills. It may seem like a minor detail, but it’s something to keep in mind

But what if you need to make your own map? Well, those of us not trained in the Boy Scouts or military probably have no idea where to begin when it comes to cartography. Thankfully, you can use the things detailed above to begin. The first thing you have to determine is if your map needs to be to scale. If you are simply drawing directions to your house or another location for a friend, for example, you probably don’t need your map to scale – thought you should tell you r friend so that they don’t get confused about the distances involved. If you map needs to be to scale, the very first thing you have to do is determine what that scale is. Once you have that established, the easiest thing to do is to use a grid matched to your scale to make sure that you stay true to the scale. Once that is established the rest is mostly a matter of making sure that everything is in the right place. This is the “old school” approach to mapmaking, and thankfully these days there is plenty of cartography software that you can use free of charge.

No matter what your interest, a good knowledge of maps can help you in ways you may have never considered. If you study a map of your home city long enough, for instance, you will find that no matter where you are you will always have a rough idea of what lays where. Maybe you travel somewhere off the beaten path, somewhere you’ve never been before but maybe seen on a map. If you’ve studied the area on a map you will have a pretty good idea of where you are. Sometimes this can make the difference between life and death (or at the very least comfort and discomfort) if you become lost without a GPS device or map. A basic knowledge of cartography and geography is also helpful for the same reason if you are traveling abroad, whether nationally or internationally. You could get lost in either case and if you are travelling internationally it’s a good idea to know where national boundaries lay!

When you are in high school it may seem like a waste of time to familiarize yourself with maps, but you never know where life will take you and what skills may come in handy. Maybe someday you’ll become an over-the-road truck driver – you’ll need maps. You could join the Peace Corps – you’ll need maps. Maybe you just want to travel and see the world – you’ll need maps. Understanding maps brings a whole new level to understanding where you are in the world and maintaining a situational awareness that makes you feel comfortable and confident.


Map Making Resources

Published: 2010-08-24