How to read a map

Learn to read the basic information given on some of the most popular maps


A mobile phone with an offline map from Wikiloc on the screen
An offline map from Wikiloc

Having a great variety of high-quality maps is important, but it is also important to know how to read them. After all, being able to read a map for any of your outdoor adventures will be very helpful, from the moment you begin to plan your trail to once you follow them.  

Before examining the most popular maps available and understanding the information we can retrieve from each type, we should put ourselves in the context: What is cartography? Cartography is the science which takes on the responsibility of representing geographical information about the land on maps. This information can be collected through the observation of the land, a job that is vital to being able to provide the various layers of information required to draw up detailed and precise maps.

In order to properly interpret this information, there are some factors to take into consideration: 

The map scale

The scale is related to the proportion between the distance of two points on a map and its actual distance on the earth’s surface. The scale tends to appear as a number indicating the distance on the map and the real distance, separated by a colon (:) or by a slash (/). For example, a scale of 1:325,000 means that every millimeter of separation between two points on the map is the equivalent to 325,000 millimeters.

When referring to a map as small scale, this is because it is less than 1:100,000. Contrary to what the name may lead people to believe, it is used to show vast geographical information such as countries, continents or hemispheres. On these maps, the level of detail is lower. On the other hand, large scale maps tend to be more widely used and are those maps greater than 1:10,000. Their use is common for their rendering of small areas since the detail on the maps are greater. For the same reason, the practice of outdoor activities makes large scale maps the most common.

On fixed maps (such as a paper map) the scale is shown in the legend. On the other hand, digital maps will vary depending on the navigation. In many cases, like in the case of Wikiloc, the ideal scale is shown by default to ensure a positive experience.

The orientation of the map

To get a proper reading of a map, you should consider where north is. Maps tend to set north at the top so that you will be able to get your orientation easily by placing a compass on a paper map making sure the cardinal north point matches up between them. On the Wikiloc App, the position of the north appears in the compass icon on the recording or following trail screen. On this screen, the map moves automatically keeping the cardinal points in your direction. To deactivate this feature, all you need to do is press the compass icon once and the map will stay still in the direction it was the moment you paused it. 

The characteristics of maps

It is important to understand the peculiarities of the map you are navigating with. These are some of the most popular map types available on Wikiloc:

Satellite Map

A mobile phone with a satellite map from Wikiloc on the screen
A satellite map

The satellite map allows us to retrieve a photographic rendering of the planet, with landforms like seas, mountains and deserts. This map is made up of photographs taken from various satellites, with a quality that is high enough to take in the finest details. 

To interpret these maps, it is important to analyze elements such as patterns, shapes, textures and colors. For instance, using just the right scale, volcanoes and craters are easy elements to distinguish based on their round shape, as well as the mountains for their bumpy and wavy textures. Thanks to the colors, it is easy to deduce whether the surface is covered in water, vegetation or if it has a desert-like atmosphere. For the most part, water is represented by a dark blue whereas the snow, ice or salt flats are shown in white. Likewise, areas covered in vegetation are represented in green tones while desert lands are seen in brown hues. 

Apart from colors, satellite maps can also add layers of information. On a satellite map on wikiloc, you can find roads, country borders, names of regions, municipalities and other geographic areas, such as nature preserves. The PNOA Orthophoto layer of the IGN (National Geographic Institute in Spain) also includes satellite images. We’ll go into that further later on!


A mobile phone with an offline Wikiloc map on the screen
Offline Map from Wikiloc

OpenStreetMap is a collaborative project with a view to create free maps that can be edited by anyone. This map includes rather precise geographic information obtained through orthophotography, GPS devices and other methods that are free to access. The OpenStreetMap map in Spain contains data from the IGN. 

The OpenStreetMap map is ideal for the manual creation of a trail or for following a route while doing outdoor activities. 

The offline maps from the Wikiloc App have been generated using OpenStreetMap data. You can download these maps for free and use them without coverage, using data, or being connected to the internet (even on flight mode!). In order to offer more information, Wikiloc has added a layer with some waypoints (see the icons and their meanings). So as not to take up valuable space on your devices, the offline maps can be downloaded from Wikiloc by country or region. 

Spain specific maps

Base Map

A computer with a Base Map on the screen from the National Geographic Institute
Base Map

If you are interested in urban trails, the map for you to depend on for your activity could be a Base Map. This easy-to-read map contains an abundant amount of information in residential areas. You may refer to the cartography of the different municipalities with their streets, roads, parks or other elements such as buildings and municipal borders. In rural or natural areas, this type of map shows rivers, mountains and other land formations in a 3D rendering of the terrain.  

Raster Map

A mobile phone with a Raster Map from the National Geographic Institute on the screen
Raster map

If you are familiar with maps printed out on paper, the Raster Maps will surely prove easy for you to interpret. It basically uses the same format normally applied in the cartographic rendering on paper, but in a digital version. This map allows you to navigate freely within the whole Spanish territory but with the scale you wish to use (from 1:2,000,000 to 1:25,000). Either increasing or decreasing how detailed the map is, you choose which map you see at any given moment

Satellite - Orthophoto PNOA

A computer with a Satellite map on the screen - Orthophoto PNOA from the IGN
Satellite Map - Orthophoto PNOA

To see your trail over an image, the IGN’s Orthophoto PNOA layer is a good choice. This layer of information allows for the visualization of the terrain through the Spanish orthophoto project PNOA (Plan Nacional de Ortografía Aérea), National Aerial Orthography Plan in Spain. Starting at a scale of about 1:70,000, this map counts on a level of detail of about 25 and 50 cm. Moreover, it offers labels with names of places and geographical entities which will be quite helpful for the proper reading of a map and for getting better geographically oriented.

Lidar Map

A computer with a Lidar map on the screen from the National Geographic Institute
Lidar map

If you want to know the relief detail for where a trail goes through, the map for you is a Lidar Map, a digital representation of surfaces. In this kind of map, a different splash of color is used for every layer, establishing a gradient in the information corresponding to the vegetation and buildings depending on its height in relation to the terrain. Shading is also applied in order to improve the true sensation of the relief. This map then gives you a 3D image of the reality of the terrain. 

The Spanish National Geographic Institute and the National Center for Geographic Information in Spain appreciate the writing of this material in collaboration with Wikiloc.