Understanding Map Symbols

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If you are new to using maps, you may find the amount of information slightly daunting. Cartographers (map makers) have spent a lot effort to make map symbols useful and easy to understand while still giving as much information about the area as possible.

An Ordnance Survey symbol is the mapping language that will guide you through every walk, bike ride, run or geocaching adventure that you go on. Think about how many different man-made or natural features are around you:  buildings, rivers, roads, hills, paths and more. Every feature appears on the maps you use and the OS map key helps you to understand what your map is telling you.

Map symbols are also called a ‘legend’ or ‘key’ and there is a list of the symbols on every printed Ordnance Survey map that will help you to discover new places and find how to get there.
Map symbols are often very literal. For example, fishing lakes are an image of a fish, a small tepee shows a camp site while a castle shows the location of a castle or fort.

The Ordnance Survey map symbols that appear on map can be put into the following categories:

  • Leisure signs - showing attractions, viewpoints, places to go, camping and caravan sites, national parklands and trails
  • Roads – all roads from motorways to unfenced farm roads
  • Paths - footpaths, bridleways and cycle routes, both in the countryside and cities
  • Buildings – churches, car parks, train stations, libraries and schools
  • Terrain and landscape features – beaches, marshes, scree, mud, rocky outcrops and cliffs
  • Contours - lines showing the height (elevation) and shape of the terrain

Learning Map Symbols

All children are taught about maps and navigation at school as part of the National Curriculum. At Key Stage 3 of the National Curriculum for Geography in England and Wales and as part of the Framework for Environmental Studies in Scotland, children will be learning how to identify various Ordnance Survey map symbols.

Try using the Ordnance Survey Map for your local area, and see if you can use the legend to identify local features. There is also a downloadable guide to reading maps (Search for 'Map Reading Made Easy') that covers all the basic features, as well as some more advanced ones, such as understanding contour lines and using a compass.

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