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Map Use - How to orient maps to make them easier to use


Everybody has had the experience of being a navigator  on a road trip to unfamiliar territory.  Short of buying a GPS unit (called a Personal Navigation Device) the best way to be a good navigator is to learn how to orient a map for easy use.

Let’s assume that you have located your position on a map relative to other places (if you want to know how to do this, see our article on “How to search a map to determine where you are”). Knowing where you are is usually part of finding your way to another place. In order to move between places using the map as a guide, you will need to “orient” your map for use.

Once you have determined your direction of travel, you can orient the map by rotating it so that the geometry of the road represents the landscape as you see it through the front window of the car. Let’s assume: 1) you are driving to Denver, Colorado from Kansas City, Missouri and 2) you are now on Interstate 70 near Topeka, Kansas.


In order to gain the maximum usefulness from your map, turn it so that Denver is at the top of the page. Now, the map is aligned with the highway and all driving maneuvers can be described accurately. If do not orient your map by aligning it in your direction of travel, it is more difficult to describe turns correctly.

Aligning the map with the road direction

If you are the navigator for the trip, orienting the map will make it much easier to describe the driving maneuvers required to stay on course (e.g. keep straight or turn right/turn left). The geometry of the road will be displayed on the map just as you see it looking through the windshield.

Yes, the names on the map might be sideways, or upside down, and you may have to rotate the map to read the names. The alternative is trying to rotate a mental version of the entire map and, then, identify turns based on the mental manipulation. We have all tried this and the directions generally sound something like this “Turn right, oh no...... I meant turn left, and then turn around, no I meant keep straight……” Solve this problem by turning the map so that the orientation of the map matches the orientation of the road.

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