Last Update: 1/20/2017

How to Read a Map Like a Veteran (When There Isn't Any GPS)

compass sitting on top of a map
Although modern times have lead us to rely on technology for many things, including GPS navigation, knowing how to steer through the lands without it is vital. Everyone should be capable of reading an actual paper map, and here are map-reading five tips to prepare yourself to be a van life nomad.

You youngins that've had Siri leading you everywhere by the dick, listen to Colin! Once you steer that sweet vanagon outta latte range, your smartphone's gonna go dumb. I guarantee it! – Vanholio!

Why Is Reading a Paper Map Still an Essential Skill?

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Reading a paper map was bread and butter back in the 19th and 20th centuries, when GPS (Global Positioning System) was not really prevalent or accurate. If you are trying to get from Point A to Point B, you would usually find yourself nose-deep looking at those tiny words; your index finger would be tracing the lines.

Nevertheless, if this is your first foray into 21st century van life, you would probably don't want to blow it.

Imagine that you are on the road, and suddenly your GPS navigator stops working. How are you going to navigate when you barely know how to use that old paper map you keep in the sun visor? That’s right, the old paper map you were hoping that some stranger would help you read at this moment. Instead, learn and be prepared.

5 Tips for Reading Paper Maps

1. Locate the compass rose

Also referred to as a windrose, a compass rose is the figure on the map with the purpose of displaying the positions of the cardinal directions, namely: north, south, east, and west.

It’s important that you are aware of these directions. After all, how are you going to get to that barbecue, or anywhere else for that matter, if you don’t know which way you are going!?

Additionally, the compass rose is also useful for indicating the relative direction of physical and man-made objects on the landscape, such as: roads, forests, swamps, and towns. Without a compass rose, a map would be practically useless.

2. Locate yourself

Obviously, finding your destination will be a lot easier if you know exactly where you are traveling from. It would be beneficial if you could find a big landmark or land development to align yourself with.

Try to identify a mountain range, or something of that sort, on your map and near your current location. You can then approximately pinpoint your location based on your relation to the landmark or development you have identified.

After following this step, you’re already halfway through the battle and that much closer to your destination! There are just a few other things to take note of on your navigational quest.

3. Find the scale

The scale of the map resembles a small ruler and can usually be found near the bottom of the map. It will inform you of the size of map markings as well, as how many miles per inch the map is scaled to. (Or km/cm, for you foreigners – Vanholio!)

It is also important that you use the right scale map, which should depend on whether you are driving on the interstate or within a city.

A map scale also serves the purpose of displaying the ratio of the distance on the map to the actual distance of the ground. Be sure to pay attention to road lengths and sizes so you can better estimate how long your journey will be.

4. Learn the symbols

Map symbols are used to represent real world objects or characteristics. The best way to understand these symbols is to refer to the map key.

The map key can typically be found towards the bottom of the map (just as the scale), and will display the meaning of each symbol that is shown on the map.

These symbols may include: an airplane to symbolize an airport, a tree to symbolize a park, or a red cross to symbolize a hospital.

My guess is that you should look out for those tree symbols in case the kids decide it’s time for a play break.

5. Understand Latitude and Longitude

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Knowing your latitude and longitude point on a map is a great navigational asset. Latitude lines go east and west, longitude lines go north and south. The point at which these lines cross at your location will be your reference point.

Latitude and longitude points are usually used in instances where there aren’t any landmarks or roads to aid in finding a location.

As long as you are capable of identifying these lines, the rest is quite simple! It may even be a good idea to ascertain the latitude and longitude points of your destination beforehand to make your map reading as simple as possible.


Surviving without some modern-day technology should be considered crucial. When it comes to navigation, who can honestly say that they’re 100% comfortable with relying on technology? I certainly can’t!

The thought of being out in the desert, deep in the woods or even just driving on unfamiliar roads with nothing but battery-operated or electrical guidance makes me quite nervous.

We all know that these gadgets and devices could inconveniently stop working at any time, especially in remote locations or strange temperatures. What’s your plan then?

An ideal one would be to pull out that old faithful paper map! Hopefully, with the tips you’ve just read, it’s a plan you can successfully execute.

About the Author: A survivalist and a prepper. Colin shares tips and tricks about these things he does best at Check it out!

Hey, Beer Vanholio! He works hard on this blog.

Also See ...

Get Help ANYWHERE You Travel in USA
Free BLM maps (ArcGIS)
A Beginner's Guide to Orienteering (Mother Nature News)
Basis Gear (survival and prepping blog)


  1. I guess I have an innate knack for maps—except for ones badly sketched by people who have no sense of direction.

  2. Oh, I'm sure this post is below your level. We're both old enough to grow up pre-GPS. We grew up needing maps. I know I learned the basics at school, too, plus more advanced orienteering and navigation in Boy Scouts. But some of the youngins really don't have exposure. For them, Colin wrote a good primer.

    Maybe I should do a post later on working topographical maps? We need to preserve and pass on the old skills. You never know when you'll need them.

    Friend of mine's father-in-law is a shrimp boat captain. Got blown deep into the Gulf and down by Mexico a few years ago in a bad storm. Most of his electronics went out, including GPS and radio. He and the boys had to bring her home with nautical charts, a compass, and a sexton, old school. Took them three days to get home. But they did, safe and sound!