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Know your map~how to read maps

Being the largest producer of maps in Southern Africa, when it comes to maps you will be surprised how many people do not know how to read a map! So let’s take a look at the features of a map and the different types of maps.

Each map displays different information and most include a scale in which to map distances.

Here’s a look at some different types of maps.


Climate maps 

Give general information about the climate and precipitation (rain and snow) of a region. Cartographers, or mapmakers, use colors to show different climate or precipitation zones.

Economic or resource maps 

Feature the type of natural resources or economic activity that dominates an area. Cartographers use symbols to show the locations of natural resources or economic activities.

Physical maps 

Illustrate the physical features of an area, such as the mountains, rivers and lakes. The water is usually shown in blue. Colors are used to show relief—differences in land elevations. Green is typically used at lower elevations, and orange or brown indicate higher elevations.

Political maps 

Do not show physical features. Instead, they indicate state and national boundaries and capital and major cities. A capital city is usually marked with a star within a circle.

Road maps  

Show major—some minor highways—and roads, airports, railroad tracks, cities and other points of interest in an area. People use road maps to plan trips and for driving directions.

Topographic maps 

Include contour lines to show the shape and elevation of an area. Lines that are close together indicate steep terrain, and lines that are far apart indicate flat terrain.

The features of a map


The map title tells us what the map is about. It is important to study the title, and to match it with the information that is in the map key.

The map key represents real places and what the places are like on the ground. There is often not enough space in the maps to write down everything that is at that place, so symbols are used. A symbol is a special line or shape. The symbol represents or show, what is at that place and where everything is positioned.

Every good map, has a list of symbols. Each symbol is explained and this list is called a map key. The map key explains the ‘language’ of each map. Colours are an important clue to what the symbols mean. Blue is usually water, green for plants. Red or orange or yellow may be used to main roads between one place or another.

Height on maps

On some maps, colour is also used as a symbol to show the height of the land.

The world is made up of land and sea. All land (islands and continents) rises up above sea level. This means the land “sticks up” out of the sea. When makers of maps want to show how high the land rises above sea level, they often use different colours. Each height is a different colour. Each area that is the same height above sea level is shaded the same colour.

The highest peaks of mountains or hills are shown with a small triangle. Maps that show height are called physical or relief maps.

Types of map symbols

Point symbols show where things can be found at particular places (or points) on a map.


Map legends

Every good map must have a map legend.


The map scale


We use the scale of a map to tell us how much distance on the ground is shown on the map of that ground.

Line scale

A line scale is a line which shows how much distance on the ground is represented by distance on the map. The distance on a map is usually shown in centimetres. The numbers on the top of the line scale give the distance on the ground that the distance on the map represents.

This is how we use a line scale to tell the distance from one place to another. Hold the straight edge of a piece of paper on the map between the two places. Mark on the edge of the paper the distance between the two places on a map. Hold piece of paper against the line scale. Read from the scale the distance between the two places on the ground.

Statement of scale

A statement of scale shows how much distance on the ground is represented by distance on a map. For example, “one centimetre on the map represents sixty kilometres on the ground”. This can be abbreviated like this.

Ratio scale

A ratio scale (or a representative fraction scale) uses numbers to describe the relationship between the distance on a map and the distance on the ground. The unit measurement used for each part of the relationship is the same. We do not therefore need to say that unit in words.

This is how we use a ration scale to tell the distance from one place to another. Measure in centimetres the distance between two places on a map. Multiply the distance that you measured by the number on the right of the ratio scale for that map. This total is in centimetres. Now convert this total into kilometres (divide your total by 100 000). Or you can convert your total into metres (divide your total by 100). This will be the distance on the ground between the two places.



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