Travel Advice - Map use – Browse the legend to understand the symbols used on the map
Your ability to use maps during travel depends on understanding of the marks and symbols used to create these miniature displays of the real world. Symbols on maps represent a unique graphic language.
There is no explicit agreement between cartographers on the marks and signs that are used to represent real world features on maps. In fact, similar looking symbols may be given a different meaning on each map you examine.
Cartographers attempt to employ visual logic when creating maps by associating real world features with the type of symbol used to represent them on maps.
In order to understand the meaning of the various symbols used on a specific map, you need to refer to the map legend.
When you examine the map’s legend, you will notice that geographic features considered by the cartographer to be important during map use are represented by symbols that are visually more important (larger or more conspicuous) than items of lesser significance.
If the map does not have a legend, you should be safe in assuming the following:
1. Large names represent more important or prominent items on the map (e.g., the biggest cities are shown with the largest symbol and the biggest type used for cities on the map).
2. Major highways or toll roads are shown by larger, more contrasted lines. Shields indicating road numbers for major highways are larger or more colorful than those used for roads of lesser significance.
3. Lines on maps usually represent roads, rivers, canals, or boundaries. A little visual inspection can help you tell which symbol represents which feature. Rivers are symbolized in blue and have a more complicated geometry than most roads.
4. Points of interest (locations that a traveler might want to visit) are shown by point symbols (a dot or a square) if they represent building such as visitor centers, museums, etc. If the feature is a park, it will be shown with a colored area symbol showing the extent of the feature.
5. Many points of interest are shown by symbols that look something like the real feature. Forests may be represented by a small, pine tree-like symbol. A forest that provides campsites might be shown with a small, pine tree-like symbol accompanied by a tent symbol. A roadside rest may be represented by a stylized picnic bench.
6. Most mapmakers create abbreviations for points of interest that you can figure out, as they follow a pattern. For example, many map publishers use SP for State Park, NP to indicate National Park, and NF to represent National Forest.
Finally, read the rest of our articles on how to use maps. Click here for a list of our map-use articles.
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