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

National Map Reading Week coming in October
When GPS fails…could you navigate with a paper map and compass?
Stay safe and brush up on your map reading skills
Map reading skills: What is magnetic north?

40 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

  2. All I'm trying to buy are a few OS Explorer maps of the area around Blair Atholl / Pitlochry !. Why make it so damn difficult ?


    1. Hi

      You just need to pop the search terms into the map shop area of our website and it will show you all of the maps that cover that area: https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/shop/maps.html?mapsearch=pitlochry

      You can then click on each map to check which one best suits your needs. Once you click through, there’s also information telling you the exact area covered on the map and any adjacent map numbers. Then you just add the one you need to your basket.

      Many thanks

  3. Brian Drew

    5 Westbury Terr

    I am trying to get hold of a 19th century os map showing among other things the railway network, mineral and passenger, in south east wales. I bought some many years ago at the University bookshop but they no longer sell them. Can you help?

  4. Similar to comment above; I entered website to try and figure out which maps I would need to cover 1000+ mile route, so am after the coverage map for landranger series. Why make it so long-winded? I don’t want to search by place name never mind how useful that might seem…..
    I have given up and resorted to google/bookshop.

  5. Neale Raleigh

    Such an awful website, when I click on landranger I expect a list of landranger maps that are available for me to browse through so as I can choose my purchases, and not a blog page.
    Also the offers I want to see are when is the next buy 2 get 3rd free offer which occasionally comes around at various retailers, not a few random maps of any given location at £7.99.
    Very concerned that OS maps are advertised on Amazon at £5.59, I am now so confused and concerned that I will not get the best price that I will probably loose interest and end up making no purchase at all.
    To try and end on a positive note, your map making skills are far greater than your web design skills.

    1. Hi Neale

      Sorry to hear that you were having trouble purchasing maps last night. There certainly shouldn’t be any occasion when you click on the word Landranger and get taken to a blog rather than the shop on the OS website. If you let us know where this happened, we’ll get the link fixed.

      In terms of offers, we don’t publish those in advance, the best way to know when an offer is on, is probably to sign up for the newsletter. You can sign up using the link below – just scroll to the bottom of the page and add your email address.

      For future reference – this is the web page for Landranger maps: https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/shop/maps.html?cat%5B0%5D=20&cat%5B1%5D=23
      It automatically loads with the most popular maps displayed first, but you can change the view via the drop down box on the page, or just use the search box to look for a specific area or map number.

      Many thanks

  6. Peter

    I have a collection of about 50 OS Explorer and Leisure maps. On the back of these there is usually a key showing the geographical area covered and the map numbers for the adjacent areas. Is it possible to purchase (or download) a UK size key map that indicate all numbers for all Explorer map? I would like a poster for reference above my shelves of maps!

  7. jon gardner

    I am trying to find approx. 1960s map of didot Oxfordshire showing the railway line from didcot to newbury which was closed approx. 1963
    Can you help please I have looked on your website without success.

    jon gardner

  8. John Wheeler

    If I purchase a number of Landranger maps now ,will the mobile download still be available to download in the Spring based on this purchase?

    1. Hi John

      The OS Landranger maps with mobile download aren’t released until the end of February, so any maps you buy now won’t have the code inside the cover that you’ll need to use the mobile download. The OS Explorer range is full available with the mobile download shown clearly on the cover and the code you need in a scratch off panel inside the cover. The Landranger maps will follow suit late next month.

      Thanks, Gemma

  9. Albert Tarongi

    Hi, We are running a small business in Dunfermline, Scotland. We cover mostly an area included on the Landranger 58, Perth and Alloa but some areas that we cover are not included. I was looking at the possibility of getting a Custom Made Map centered in Dunfermline but there is only the option of a square layout 80 x80, leaving some areas east and west not included. Would it be possible a more rectangular layout? would I need to get two maps?

  10. Tessa

    Hi what map do I need to buy that shows me bridle paths in the menheniot area of cornwall
    Many thanks

  11. Michael Wilkins

    I think you have an incorrect explanation for the 1:25000 map scale at the beginning of this section. 1 cm on the map equals 250m on the ground.

    PS Do you offer a Garmin 64s with a 1:25000 bundle for the UK? I am trying to buy one for use in the summer, many thanks.

    1. Hi Michael

      Thanks for getting in touch. We’ve described it as 4cm equals 1km, which amounts to the same, this is the same terminology that we use across all of our map reading materials.

      We do offer the Garmin 64S GPS unit on our website with full 1:25000 scale coverage. You can find it here: https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/shop/gps/garmin-gpsmap-64s-25k-bundle.html – it looks like we are offering it with a discount at the moment, £509.99 with £5.99 mandatory courier delivery charge due to the expensive nature of the items.

      Many thanks

      1. Kurt

        It’s obviously the same, but referencing them as 4cm or 2cm to a km makes it easier to understand for new or untrained users, because there are respecively 4 and 2 cm between the grids on the map.

    1. Hi Cliff

      I’m not sure what you’re referring to here – could you elaborate please? It’s not a term we’ve used on this page or in Steve’s video.


  12. Douglas Bennett


    On the main page your 25000:1 maps are quoted as 1cm = 1Km, which is totally incorrect!
    Your 25000:1 maps are 4cm = 1Km!
    Love a good cock-up!!


    1. Hi Douglas

      I can’t spot anything on that, so hopefully one of my colleagues noticed the error and updated in the meantime. Thanks for letting us know!

      Thanks, Gemma

    1. Hi Emily

      They’re important to all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. For people wanting to get outside and explore Britain, they’re a real passport to adventure. the show the footpaths and tracks for people to walk, run, cycle and ride along right across Britain. For safety reasons, anyone out exploring in our mountains and wilderness should always carry a paper map and compass and have navigation skills to help keep them safe.

      Aside from that, the majority of OS business today comes from our business and government customers who use our detailed digital data to help them do everything from planning where to put mobile phone masts to ensuring online deliveries make it to your door.

      Hope that gives you a good starter on their importance.

      Thanks, Gemma

  13. Pingback : OS Map skills – Advanced Higher | Boclair Academy Geography Department

  14. Isaac

    Hi I have an OS map 1:25000 scale and I have stumbled upon a problem. I’ve noticed that some forest-y areas have a darker green and some others have a light green. Was just wondering if they’re was a difference.

    1. Hi Isaac

      We don’t think there’s a deliberate difference in the coloration of tree-covered areas (see map legend at https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/docs/legends/25k-raster-legend.pdf for reference). So that we know where you’re looking at, could you provide some examples and we can check and advise further as needed? Please email customerservices@os.uk with clearly identified locations (e.g. list of grid references, photos of areas) and we can take another look.

      Thanks, Gemma

  15. Vic Hartley

    I’ve bought some electronic versions of Groundranger maps for walking. However footpaths aren’t shown on these maps. Why not?


  16. Steve

    Hi Gemma,

    What is the difference between the 1:25000 Explorer maps with a ‘Yellow’ square and ‘OL50’ to ones that have a ‘Gray’ square that only have a number eg.344.


    1. Hi Steve

      The ‘OL’ or Outdoor Leisure range of Explorer cover the National Parks and other popular tourist areas. They’re all the same map scale though.

      Many thanks

  17. Aysha

    I’m am a year 7 student and for my homework I need to find 6 figure grid references for certain places but I don’t know how to find 6 figure grid references and I watched the videos and everything but it is still confusing so can you help me out please??

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