By: Julia Bellotti
Hopefully you saw our recent infographic and article on 10 Things You Should Keep in Your Car At All Times and you followed our advice to have a map in your car in case your GPS stops working. But perhaps you’re in an unfamiliar city and your phone died but you have a walking map from your hotel. Either way, you have a map. Now what? You need to figure out where you are.
When I was little, my mother used to tell me if I became lost, I should stay in the same place. This is good advice in theory, but you need to drive, walk, or move around at least a little to figure out where you are. This is also where your observant skills come handy. Do you remember any signs you recently passed? Do you see any parks? Schools? Landmarks? Which streets do you see? If you’re on the highway, what exit(s) are next? Is the sun rising/setting?
Take note of that information, and pull over to look at your map.
Step 1: Orient your map.
Most maps have a compass rose, which will detail the four cardinal directions: North, South, East and West. You should hold your map with North facing up. If your map does not have a compass, assume that if you are reading words right side up, the top of the map is north. Some maps may have a variation of the compass rose, such as the one circled below.
Step 2: Find the Legend.
A legend, also known as a key, helps you read the map. It explains the meaning of all the symbols you see. Some examples of legends are below.
Legends try to use intuitive symbols. Trees = Forest. Knife and fork = food. Tent = Campground. Airplane = airport. Blue = water. All of these symbols can help you figure out where you are.
Step 3: Understand the scale and how to use it
The scale of a map is a ratio that tells you the distance equivalent from the map to the ground. You will usually find the scale near the legend or at the bottom of the map. The scale can be written in three different ways:
1 inch = 1 mile 1:18,000 (map to in real life)
I find the first and third scales the most helpful. If you don’t happen to have a ruler on you (who does?), don’t despair. First, see if you have any dollar bills. All US currency is 6 inches long. Fold it in half and it’s 3 inches. And so on and so forth. This can be a great measuring tool if you’re trying to figure out straight distances. Non-direct distances are best measured with string, ribbon, shoelaces, hair, noodles, etc. Curve your string along the path you need to take, and then you can compare it to the scale to find the total distance. But how do you know where you are and where you need to go? We’ll use these first three steps to put it all together.
Step 4. Figure out where you are and where you need to go
As I mentioned earlier, you need to put on your detective hat and use your observant skills. Use the legend to determine your current location. Do you see a body of water near you? Start looking by the blue on your map. Which exit is coming up next on the highway? Are you near any buildings? Gas stations? Libraries? Schools? See where those are on the map. This will start to narrow down the areas where you could be. Do you know what you passed already? That can help you determine which direction you’re going in. Other tips to determine your cardinal direction:
So now that you know where you are, locate where you need to go. You will primarily be using the legend to find your destination. Now, look at the best way to get there. What roads do you need to take?
Use the scale to figure out how far away your destination is. How long will it take you to get there? If you’re driving, this will depend on your speed. The average human can walk 3.1 miles (5 km) per hour – just under 20 minutes per mile.
And that’s it! As best stated by Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go.” Good luck and happy traveling!