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Maps. When you think about it, they’re probably one of the most under-appreciated everyday items. We might say that a car can get us from A to B, but what use is a car without the knowledge of where to go? Much relies on the skill and ability of cartographers, an oft-overlooked occupation in terms of regard and importance. World-renowned mapping experts (and partners of YHA) Ordnance Survey, who recently worked with us to produce a stunning new display at YHA Castleton, are pioneering National Map Reading Week to ensure that the skill of map reading is not lost.

So, in the spirit of the week, here is our beginner’s guide to map reading basics:


Before heading out on your adventure, it’s imperative that you have the correct equipment to hand. In terms of navigation, this includes the correct Ordnance Survey map, a good compass, a torch and a pencil. At this time of year (or in fact any time of year in England and Wales!) it’s also a good idea to buy a waterproof map case which will protect your map against changeable, inclement weather.

Understanding Your Map:

Once you’re kitted up, it’s then a case of learning how to use your map. All of OS’ maps are divided into squares, each of which represents a kilometre, although squares are different sizes depending on which type of OS map you choose. Perhaps the most crucial part of any map is the key, which details what each part of the map represents, from roads and footpaths, to significant local landmarks. The map also shows the contours of the land with a simple method – the closer together the lines/rings, the steeper the gradient of the hill. This, combined with the key, should allow you to understand the type of terrain you will be tackling, and to plot a suitable route accordingly.

Navigating using your map and a compass:

Navigating with a map often requires the use of a compass. The red end of a compass needle will always point to the magnetic North, allowing you to find your way according to the map. To use your compass alongside a map, you need to have a good idea of where you are and where you need to go. Align an edge of the base plate of your compass between these two points so that the direction of travel arrow is pointing in the correct direction. Then, twist the bezel of the compass so that the orientation lines within the bezel line up with the grid lines on the map (ensuring that the orientating north arrow faces grid north on the map). Then line up your needle with the lines within the bezel, and follow the direction of travel arrow towards a landmark. You’ll then need to repeat the process once you reach the landmark, and again until your are confident you know exactly where you are going.

So, there you have it. Map reading basics. And where better to use your new (or refreshed) knowledge than in England and Wales? Here is some walking inspiration based at some of our cosiest hostels. 

Written by Ruby Higton

Here is Ruby and she is a digital marketer at YHA. She looks after all things social media, as well as content writing for and SEO. Her favourite YHA is YHA Perranporth.

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ActivitiesNational Map Reading Week! Learn the map reading basics with YHA