Why You Should Know How To Read Road Maps

Getting from point A to B is entirely too simple these days. Between GPS devices, navigationally equipped cars, and each of us having multiple map apps on our smartphones, there’s always a voice to tell us when to turn left (often right after we’ve passed the turn). Here on carbibles.com, you can find modern car GPS systems and choose the one to match your needs. We can set out blindly into the unknown and trust that there is a device that will get us there. Except what about when those devices fail?

Last summer I was traversing the southern tip of Cornwall in a rental car that turned itself off entirely every time the car came to a full stop. Coincidentally enough, I was relying on a GPS that wouldn’t hold a charge and also turned off every time the car’s engine shut down. I couldn’t use my phone as my service was spotty to non-existent and the data charges were astronomical.

Now picture yourself in a foreign country, going on hour 38 of no sleep from traveling, in a very old, confusing town with directions that had to be re-programmed every time you came to a roundabout. To put it lightly, I was a stop-starting cliche of a tourist abroad: hapless, lost, and without a clue. Or I would have been if I hadn’t extensively studied road maps of the region and familiarized myself with the major roads before I left the States.

The art of map reading is rapidly being lost. We’re hanging them on our walls as art and relying less and less on holding a document in our hand to get ourselves where we need to be, but it’s a skill I think we would all benefit from keeping on our CVs. Even if we’re using Google Maps instead of a huge fold-out road map stored in our cars, being familiar with how to read and use a map can save your hide.

That’s why before I set out on any prolonged driving adventure, whether it be in my state or in a foreign country, I spend a lot of time on Google Maps. I check out the suggested routes, familiarize myself with the road names and the towns along the way. I try alternative paths out to see if it might make the journey more scenic than a straight trip down the interstate. When abroad, I spend a lot of time looking at the type of roads I’ll be on and learning what that might mean. If I’m in England and I need to be on a “M” road I know it’s a major motorway with a high speed limit (like our interstates), an “A” road is going to be smaller single or dual carriageway but with plenty of networks off it, and a “B” road is a regional road that could be anything from a gravel-lined cliff to an unmarked bicycle path through the hedges. There’s been many a time I’ve saved myself a lot of headaches by rerouting around a “B” road.

Another thing to look at is how zig-zaggy is your route? If you’re in the mountains and Google is showing a route line that looks like a comatose frat boy drew it with his toes, you might want to watch out. The closer and sharper the zig-zags or curves appear, the more switchbacks, tight blind corners, and windy the road is going to be. If you’re not a skilled driver comfortable with these roads (or if you know you’re traveling at night) it might be a sign to find a new path. After all, wouldn’t you rather know what’s in store before you take a blind curve head-on to a tractor trailer’s high beams, blinding you as you try to stay on a tiny road?

The fact is, you don’t have to be a cartographer, Boy/Girl Scout, or a geography major in order to keep yourself from getting lost the second your GPS goes out. You only need to be prepared. Review your route, familiarize yourself with the landmarks, know the general compass direction you’re going (most cars tell you, or you know, check the sun). Another big one is to just read the road signs. If you’re heading from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Florida, it’s pretty easy to figure out you need to head south, and staying on an interstate that runs north and south (they end in odd numbers, i.e., I-95. East-west highways are even numbers, like Route 66). You might not see signs for Florida from the start, but you will see them for Richmond, Rocky Mount, Charleston, Savanah, etc., which are all cities along the way. It’s an easy sign you’re heading in the right direction and the closer you get, the more accurate the signs will be to your destination. It may not direct you to your BFF’s beach house, but simple road signs can at least get you in the right direction.

This may seem like common sense to many, but you’d be amazed how many people lack this skill and when they lose a GPS or phone signal, they wind up lost on dark dreary roads in the rain where axe murderers lurk. So the moral is do yourself a favor and learn to read a map, or you might get axe murdered.

See Also
woman looking at the map

Resources for Map Reading:

How Cast Video—How to Read a Map

The Lost Art of Reading a Road Map

National Geographic—Practice Your Map Reading

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