I’ve been asked to write a few words about maps, and it’s taken me a long time to even begin to write this short article because, well, where does one even begin on the subject of maps? And once I get going on the subject, where do I stop? I meet so many people who are scared of maps, and treat them as though they are some kind of mystical scroll which only the initiated can read. Yet to me, they are works of art, each and every one of them, and are often the start of another adventure. They are a perfect marriage of the artist’s skill combined with the geographer’s knowledge and the mathematician’s puzzle-solving expertise, with a dash of science thrown in. What could be better than a lovely map? I’m a big fan of reading fictional and factual adventures, and with so many books the map is the page I turn to first, and come back to time and time again.
Tolkein’s maps in the Lord of the Rings series is a perfect example of just how beautiful a map can be. The sense of travel and adventure was an integral part of his storytelling, and in one famous line he writes;
‘Not all those who wander are lost.’
Now, having spoken to a lot of Treccies, they seem to fall into two camps: those who love the POR on Day 1, and those who are terrified of the POR and do it in order to get to the Day 2 part that they prefer. The maps are nothing to be scared of, so let’s see if we can get a bit more comfortable with them.
First of all, let’s make sure you are looking at the right sort of maps. For TREC in the UK, you will almost certainly be presented with a 1:25000 Ordnance Survey Explorer map. Now, I can hear some of you hyperventilating in panic already; “what does she mean by this?” Calm down! It is not as complicated as it sounds. Most of the maps we use for anything in the UK - whether for planning permission applications, road maps, and yes, the TREC master map are derived from maps made by Ordnance Survey, which describes itself as Britain’s mapping agency. The two most popular maps are the Explorer which has a scale of 1:25000 and the Landranger which has a scale of 1:50000. The scale is a very straightforward way of telling you how the distances on the map in front of you relate to distance on the ground. With our 1:25000 Explorer map, 1cm on the map is equivalent to 25000cm in real life - ie 1cm on the map = 250m on the ground.
Rather helpfully, if we look closely, our Explorer map is criss-crossed by blue lines running from top to bottom and left to right, known as the graticule. On our Explorer map, these lines are 4cm apart, making up a grid across our whole map of 4cm x 4cm squares. Now, if 1cm = 250m, it stands to reason that a 4cm square contains an area 1000m x 1000m, also known as a square kilometre. Our entire map is broken up into little square kilometres. If we look a little closer at our map, we begin to see that at various intervals on the map the lines are given numbers, marked in blue. These numbers increase from left to right (these are known as Eastings) and from bottom to top (known as Northings.) The best place to see this is if you look at a bit of sea, as there are no exciting land markings beneath it to distract you.
So, I can hear you asking, what has this got to do with TREC? Well, if I’m being honest, not a lot at Levels 1 and 2, which is where most people start. However, it becomes important from Level 2A upwards, and in the winter, there are often training exercises and clubs online to hone your map reading skills, and many of these require a certain level of knowing your way round a map. So it helps to understand as much of what you see on one as possible. Many of these training TREC map challenges will begin, even for newcomers, with a grid reference. These cause much head scratching among map novices, yet they are no difficult at all, and can be extremely useful. Quite often in many areas of life a location will be described in terms of it’s grid reference, and it is possible to pinpoint a location very accurately indeed using a few simple rules.
The best and easiest way to learn about how to read a grid reference on the OS Explorer maps is to learn from Ordnance Survey themselves, so I am going to suggest that you pay their Beginner’s Guide to Grid References page a visit.
For those who wish to be able to find a grid reference, there are various pieces of equipment that can help you. Most of you ride with a base plate compass - ie one which has the compass and a set of measurements along the sides of the plate. These are most commonly rulers which will measure distances on a 1:25000 map and a 1:50000 map. Obviously you need to make sure you are using the correct side, and get measuring your grid references, remembering the rule:
‘Along the corridor THEN up the stairs.’
As the OS Beginner’s Guide to Grid References says, you should always measure your Eastings first then your Northings. However, if you want to get clever, you can buy a small and cheap tool called a romer (or roamer,) which has 2 rulers set at right angles and allow you to measure the Eastings and the Northings at the same time. The one I use looks like this, but there are lots of different romers you can buy online, and it’s a matter of finding one you like to use.
This might sound rather complicated, but it’s really not. If you find an experienced Treccie in the wild, I would recommend catching them and asking them to show you - it is a far easier way to get your head round it than me trying to explain it in words. And then get practicing! This is one area of TREC preparation you can do on a dark evening in front of the fire. Even in a TREC competition, it is unlikely that you will be asked to plot grids whilst actually sitting on a horse, however for the higher level wannabes, it is a good exercise to take your map and romer out and have a go at reading or plotting grids while out on a hack. Fidgety horses always make this trickier!
Right, so we know how to find a specific point on a map. But what else do we need to know? In my opinion, the next part of an Ordnance Survey map you should familiarise yourself with is the key, sometimes called the legend. The key of a map is a list of all the little symbols you will find on a map and an explanation of what they are. Many of the symbols are not relevant to TREC, but it is most helpful to understand features we can see around us. For example, if we are to ride along bridleways and lanes we need to be able to recognise these on a map. On an Explorer map, Public Rights of Way are marked in dark green. You will notice there are various different types of Right of Way, each having their own specific markings. These are the main things on an Explorer map that leap out at me and scream ‘adventure!’ It is also useful to be able to recognise such features as roads, woodland, built up areas, water (eg rivers and lakes,) and so on, as these features can make a potential long ride very short, or vice versa, if they impede our progress along a route. Once you get into map reading, you’ll start to see features such as contour lines (which tell you how flat or hilly terrain is,) field boundaries, even individual prominent trees or historical features. Knowing and understanding how these are portrayed on a map is extremely useful as if you are lost (and most of us will find ourselves ‘temporarily uncertain of our exact location’ at some point - never actually lost, you understand!). You can use what you see in the landscape in front of you to compare with what you see on the map, and try and work out where you are. When these occasions happen, I also find a bit of chocolate or some wine gums essential - your brain needs feeding sugar in ‘lost’ circumstances, and an excuse to stand still, peruse the map, and quite literally get your bearings is never a wasted opportunity.
An Explorer key is quite functional, and most of the symbols are very easy to interpret (although some are a bit obscure.) If you have a complete paper map, you’ll find it in one of the top corners, but follow this link here for those who haven’t got a full paper map.
So what are you waiting for…?
That’s an absolute basic rundown of what you need to get started with map reading. Once you understand the scale, key, and how to read a grid reference, you have the beginnings of a knowledge base that will allow you to explore anywhere you want. As I said at the start, to me every map I see is the start of an adventure, and reading a map is as easy as reading a page in a book. But it undeniably takes practice. My recommendation to everyone who is feeling hesitant or is a reluctant map reader is to start local, take a OS map of your local area out on your regular hacks, and look at the features you can see on your regular routes. Try and identify everything you see on your maps in the real world - have you ever noticed the pylons and electricity wires before? Did you notice the stream beside the road where it passes beneath your route under a bridge? Is that stand of pine trees on the horizon marked on your map? etc. Before long the maps you pick up will tell you a story almost straight away, and rather than feeling scared of the map you’ll come to look forward to the part of a TREC weekend where the map room steward says “you can turn over your maps now!”