Understanding the basics of map reading and navigation skills

Kim and I started Beyond Fitness to share our love of the outdoors and to encourage others to get out into their local hills, forests and countryside to explore the benefits for themselves. As spring and summer approach and the hope of getting out of COVID restrictions grows, it is a great time to start planning some adventures for the future. However, as you gain confidence in the outdoors and want to start exploring further afield it is really important to equip yourself with the necessary skills to stay safe in more remote areas. Fundamental to this is knowing how to properly use a map and compass. Confidence in the use of these tools will enable you to explore deeper into the many wild places across the British Isles.

This four-part navigation series is intended to develop your navigation skills and instil the confidence to go out and practice. Practice is key! Make sure you are confident in your navigation skills before you put yourself in a position where you may need to rely on them.

In the meantime, we are here to help you brush up on your skills. If you and your friends fancy brushing up on your navigation skills or if you would like to explore some of the wild places Scotland has to offer why not join us on one of our outdoor retreats this summer. Just click on the link below to find out more.

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Part 1: Reading a Map

At first glance maps can look hectic, and they do hold a lot of information, so it is useful to think of the features on a map as members of one of three categories; built features, natural features and features that represent height above sea level.

All maps will have a key which lets you know what all those dots, splodges and lines on the map mean in reality and it is worth familiarising yourself with this before trying to read any map. Every map is different but some common features are shown in the Key below. This key, and all other examples in this blog series come from the Harvey maps of Scotland (www.harveymaps.co.uk).

Example of a Key

Note the height features top left, water features below that and built features top right. The scale of the map (in this case 1cm on the map represents 25,000cm in reality) and the direction of north can also be shown in the right-hand side of the Key.

Understanding built and natural features is fairly straightforward. We can all picture a building, a tree a road or a body of water and pick these out on a walk but understanding the lie of the land through features that represent height above sea level is trickier and can become important when out on trips in areas with less obvious landmarks. It is these features we will focus on.

Spot Heights and Contours

Spot heights are small dots on the map that have the height above sea level written next to them. They tend to be found at the top of mountains, next to important sites and at saddles between two peaks. Understanding where the higher and lower ground is on the map  helps us to build up a picture of the terrain and understand which way is up! Check out these examples.

Spot Heights and Contours

Note the spot hights highlighted by the red circles and the contour heights by the red lines. From this info we can tell that the slope drops from Castle Hill (728m) down to Rothiemurchus Lodge at around 450m

Contours are the numerous brown lines seen in the example and they link together terrain which has the same height above sea level. The difference in height between contours can be found on the key (typically between 10 and 20 meters) and the exact height of some contours is shown regularly on the map (for the ones in between you have to use those math skills!).

The way one contour line squiggles across the map and its relationship to its neighbours can tell us a lot about what the terrain looks like in reality. When contours are very close together the slope is steep (and potentially hazardous), when they are further apart the slope is gentle. Below are some recognisable terrain features and how they are represented on a map.

Ridge Lines & Valley Floors

These two features are often mistaken for each other on a map as they both appear as a series of ‘V’ shaped contours stacked up together.

The best way to clarify if the ‘V’ shaped contours represent a valley or a ridge is to understand which way is up and down using the height information of the contours. Remember if the height information isn’t immediately obvious find some nearby spot heights or contour heights. Once you have established which way the slope falls, we can now tell whether the ‘V’ shaped contours represent a valley or a ridge. If the ‘V’ points downhill then the feature is a ridge line and if the ‘V’ points uphill then the feature is a valley. Take a look at these examples.

Ridges and Valleys

First take a look at the contours to work out where the top and bottom of the terrain is. Note Sron Riach at 1113m top left and the 600m contour bottom right. The Red ‘V’s pointing downhill show the line of a prominent ridge. The Purple ‘V’s pointing uphill show two valleys either side of that ridge. Also note the streams flowing in the bottom of the valleys and the path along the ridge line.


Summits appear as a series of concentric shapes with the contour rings getting progressively bigger as you move downhill away from the summit.

Remember to look out for those spot heights at the top of the summits. You will also likely find a number of ridge lines (those ‘V’ shapes) extending out from the summit like fingers of a star.


Also known as cols, passes or bealachs (Scotland) these important features mark the meeting point for two valleys and two ridges.

The contours can appear complex here and tend to be heading off in many directions but if you look for the ridges and valleys first an understanding of the broader picture can be built up.

Summits and Saddles

The red circles above show two summits (concentric circle contours) and using the height features on the map we can then identify two ridges and two valleys all congregating at one point. The saddle.

Convex Terrain – getting steeper as you go downhill

On the map convex terrain can be identified by the contours getting progressively closer together as you move downhill.

In real life if you were standing at the top of this feature the slope would drop away in front of you hiding a lot of the terrain lower down.

Concave Terrain – getting less steep as you go downhill

In reverse to the feature above, concave terrain ca be identified by the contours getting progressively further apart as you move downhill.

In real life standing at the top of this feature you would see the whole slope falling away in front of you like standing at the top of a big skate ramp.

Concave and Convex Slopes

As you travel from A to B in the example to the left the contours get closer together so the slope gets steeper. This is a convex slope. As you travel from A to B in the example to the right the contours get further apart so the slope is getting gentler. A Concave slope.


  • Take time to understand the ‘Key’ and start by identifying built and natural features on the map.
  • Work out the height between contours from the key and start to pick out spot heights and contour heights on the map.
  • Once you start to become comfortable working out which way is up and down using the contour heights you can now start to pick out some of the obvious features mentioned above.
    • Ridges – ‘V’ points downhill
    • Valleys – ‘V’ points uphill
    • Summits – spot heights and concentric circles getting bigger downhill
    • Saddles – where two ridges and two valleys meet
    • Convex slopes get steeper (contours closer together) downhill
    • Concave slopes get gentler (contours further apart) downhill

The most important thing is to spend time reading and looking over a map and practicing to pick out the features. The more time spent doing this at home the easier it will be reading the map the next time the wind and rain pick up on your next adventure.

In the next part of the blog post we will look at how to plan a route using a map including how to understand distances and some tips for safely executing your plan.