How to Understand Road Maps

Written by veronica summers
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How to Understand Road Maps
A road map is an indispensable tool for travellers. ( kingdom road map. london.cities' image by L. Shat from

In the age of GPS devices and sites that provide detailed driving directions, such as MapQuest or Google Maps, understanding how to find a location on a road map is becoming a lost art. Even if you rely on technology to get you from here to there, you may find that understanding how to navigate with a paper road map can save you time and frustration on your next trip.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • A road map or road atlas

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  1. 1

    Open the map and locate the map key. The map key is the list of cities or places located on the map. It is usually located on the side or bottom of the map.

  2. 2

    Find your location in the map key. Next to the location will be a letter and a number. This letter and number are coordinates that correspond to the place you are trying to locate on the map.

  3. 3

    Place your index finger on the letter. The letters are found on the top of the map.

  4. 4

    Place your other finger on the number. The numbers are found listed vertically on the side of the map.

  5. 5

    Move each finger inward until they meet. Look closely at this point. You should find your location near here. Remember this location.

  6. 6

    Repeat steps 1-5 for each location on your trip.

  7. 7

    Connect the locations using streets on the map.

  8. 8

    Look at the map legend to see what type of road you will be using on your travels. The map legend is a box with symbols and their descriptions. Using the map key, you can determine if you are travelling primarily on Interstate highways, state highways, scenic drives or even dirt roads. Based on the map legend, you may want to select an out-of-the-way, but faster route on Interstates instead of two-lane roads.

  9. 9

    Calculate the distance you will travel using the map scale. The map scale is a line showing how many miles you will travel per inch of map. The map scale is usually located near the map legend.

    Pinch your two fingers on each side of the scale, then move those fingers to the map. Use the space between your fingers to measure the distances between locations.

Tips and warnings

  • You may wish to highlight your route on the map using a highlighter, so you can quickly refer to your route.
  • Do not read a road map while your are driving. Always, pull over before consulting your road map.

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