Map reading skills: Which OS map do I need?

Map reading is an essential skill for any explorer or outdoor enthusiast, but can seem really daunting if you haven’t looked at an OS map since your Geography GCSE! To help you to get the most out of your map, and to #GetOutside to explore the Great British countryside, we’ve teamed up with Steve Backshall and recorded a series of videos. They take you through the basics step by step and we’ll be showcasing Steve’s top tips to help you feel confident with your map.

Which OS map do I need?

Over the next six weeks we’ll cover:

  • Which map is right for you
  • Understanding map symbols
  • Making sense of contour lines
  • How to read a grid reference, both four-figure and six-figure versions
  • Knowing your compass and how to take a compass bearing
  • Understanding magnetic north

We’ll share Steve’s video with you, give a summary in the blog and point you in the right direction (no pun intended) for further resources and details.

Which OS map do I need?

We’re going right back to basics in the first video and talking about the different maps available. If you’ve ever stood in a shop or gone online to buy OS maps, you’ll probably have noticed that we have two main map series. There’s the one with the pink cover, our OS Landranger map series, and the one with the orange cover, our OS Explorer map series. How do you know which OS map you need? Find out what our #GetOutside champion Steve Backshall has to say:

So, as Steve said, the two maps come in different scales. But what is scale? It’s the number of times that you would need to magnify the map for it to be the same size as the real world (or the number of times that the real world has been reduced in size to become the map).

exp_022_cover_2015-05Our OS Explorer maps (shown on the right) are at 1:25,000 scale, so every 4 cm on the map equals 1 km in the real world. They show the detail of Britain including footpaths, rights of way, open access land and the vegetation on the land. This makes them ideal for walking, running, horse riding, off-road cycling and even kayaking and climbing.

Our OS Landranger maps are at 1:50,000 scale, so every 2 cm on the map equals 1 km in the real world. This means that the map will cover a larger area that the OS Explorer map, but not in as much detail. You’ll still find footpaths, rights of way and some tourist information features on the map. Whilst you do lose some detail, such as open access land, you can still use the maps for walking. However, the maps are ideal for days when you are covering longer distances, especially if you are exploring by car or doing road cycling.

Other OS map options

Our OS Explorer and OS Landranger maps come in two options. There is the standard paper map and a weatherproof version, called our Active range. They offer the exact same detail but are encapsulated meaning that they are durable in wet weather. You can also mark your route on the map and wipe it clean afterwards.

Whether you choose the standard paper map or the Active version in the OS Explorer range, both now come with a mobile download of the map area included. There’s a code inside the cover for you to redeem the download and add it to your mobile device with our OS Maps app. There are Android and iOS versions and once downloaded, you’ll be able to access the maps on your device, even if you are in an area without mobile signal. The mobile downloads will be coming to the OS Landranger maps in spring 2016.

Custom Made mapsThere are also Custom Made maps available. These are also available in OS Landanger or OS Explorer format, but you can centre the map on an area you choose, add your own cover photo and your own title. These can make great gifts, but are also useful if the area you want to visit would usually involve carrying more than one map as it’s close to the edge of a standard map.

Now you know how to decide on the type of map you need.

Buying OS maps

If you need to search for a map for a specific area, visit our website. If you type in a place name it will show you all of the maps which cover that area. If there is more than one option, click through on each map to see the exact area covered and then you’ll be good to go.

Happy exploring! I’ll be back next week to talk about understanding map symbols.

You may also like

Map reading skills: How to use a compass
Map reading skills: How to read a grid reference
New map reading workshops in 2015
New Steve Backshall map reading videos added

2 Responses

  1. Sarah

    Can you explain why on some explorer maps the contours are set at 5m vertical interval height and some explorer maps are set at 10m vertical interval heights? E.g white peak map is 5m intervals for contours, dark peak map is 10m intervals for contours.

    1. Hi Sarah

      Yes, of course. In very hilly areas the 5 m intervals would be too close and unreadable and would also obscure other map detail, so when this is the case the 10 m intervals are used instead. I hope this helps.

      Thanks, Gemma

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