A map is visual image of a location as seen from above. A map gives the location and distance between two ground features as well as showing roads and paths which lead to the various ground locations. The direction and scale are the most essential elements of a map. The direction of the map is usually shown by an arrow pointing in the direction of orientation. The scale of the map informs of the amount that the map has been scaled down to allow for as much information to be displayed on the paper.

The first thing that you will need to be able to do to successfully read a map is to understand it. There are some basic elements that most maps will include.

Map Elements

Roads – These are usually marked in different colours dependant to the type of road that is being shown. These markings normally range from thick blue lines that are used to show motorways to thinner dashed lines that show a minor road.

Footpaths – You will find these marked on Ordnance Survey maps in a variety of colours. There are different types of public access and public rights of way so the key for each map would need to be checked for full information.

Woods – These are shown as green areas on a map with a tree shape printed on the top of the green area.

Buildings – Marked with small black squares although some certain buildings will have their own symbol to represent them like churches.

Rivers – These along with streams are shown as blue lines. The thickness of the line gives an indication on the width of the river or stream.

Scale – This gives you the information on how much the map has been scaled down. If a map has the scale of 1:10 000 then everything shown on the map will be 10 000 times smaller than they are in real life.


Colours play a major role in maps as they indicate the feature that they represent.

Black – Depicts man made objects as well as cultural features. These include buildings, roads, names and boundaries.

Blue – Used to show water of any kind such as rivers, streams, lakes, canals, glaciers and swamps.

Brown – Used for contour lines to show the shape and elevation of a map.

Green – This shows wooded cover like orchards, vineyards and scrub.

Red – This colour is used to put emphasis on important roads, public land subdivision lines and fence and field lines.

Red Tint – This highlights urban areas where only landmark buildings are shown.