Let’s start this with a firm statement; the paper map is not dead and it never will be. Regardless of the range of electronic options for navigation available now and into the future, humans are spatial creatures and physical references will always be required as a ‘plan B’. Anything from power fails to magnetic and atmospheric interference can render your GPS useless… heck, one day all the satellites might fall out of the sky. You just never know.

This is why reputable companies still produce paper maps, alongside their GPS and software products… and why everyone should have at least basic map reading skills up their sleeve. With a good quality paper map and a compass, there is no reason why your electronic navigation system dying should ruffle your feathers.

Very few of us, I imagine, ever stop to think of the sheer genius involved in making the first map; of translating a three-dimensional environment onto a flat surface. The very first map was probably drawn by Homo sapiens with stick in prehistoric sand or dirt – but transferring that original mud map to something that could be carried out continually referred to, like an animal skin or a sheet of papyrus, was even more brilliant. By our exacting contemporary standards, these early maps were woefully approximate and imprecise, but people worked with what they had.

By contrast, we expect our maps to be easily understood and absolutely accurate, and in most cases (depending on the mapping company) they are. For example, when we’re travelling on a compass bearing in one of our deserts, away from recognised tracks (something that because of regulations, is getting increasingly hard to do) we use 1:250,000 topographic maps; and have found that even the positioning of individual sand dunes and ridges is spot on. This is only possible because the Australian desert dunes are vegetated and therefor stable; expecting the same precision on the shifting dunes of the Sahara would be suicidal. There are many types of maps available, but the two we are going to concern ourselves with are ‘Tourist’ and Topographic.

The term ‘Tourist’ is somewhat denigrating to maps like HEMA’s Great Desert Tracks series, which are suitable for the most adventurous Outback travellers.

Tourist maps have no contour lines, but are accurate in that they exactly portray the dimensions of section of land (eg National Parks or State Forests) They normally also show distances between towns or key points, and thus are most useful when knowing that you’re going to stick to the road while travelling.

‘Topo’ maps, as they’re known, accurately portray the physical features of the land by means of contour lines. These lines link points of equal elevation – and we will look more into that a bit further on. But what map do I need?

This is where research comes in. Work out where you are going and purchase a map that not only covers the immediate area you are travelling in, but also a fair amount of area around it as a safety buffer. If you intend on going off main road, a detailed topographic map that shows not only main thoroughfares but also minor tracks and trails is a must. For the Australian market, Hema and Westprint products are a great place to start.

We aren’t going to mention your GPS much in this section. The idea is to give you the basic skills you need to understand what you are looking at, with this information easily transferred to your GPS – it’s all about learning what those little lines mean (in a nutshell) We suggest you look into furthering your knowledge of map reading before any big trip, but the info here may get you out of a bind if your GPS loses the plot…literally! maps1

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