The basics of mapping

Maps are representations of the world created by people called cartographers to help other people navigate the world. Maps contain information tailored to a specific purpose.

  • A road map, for example, contains information that helps the reader get from one place to another using a vehicle.
  • The maps found in a geographical atlas will contain information of less interest to a road user, such as how the land in a place is used, the population density and the political boundaries that exist between regions, states and nations.

There are five fundamental things you need to be familiar with to read a map successfully:

  • compass directions
  • grid references
  • map's key
  • title
  • scale

Compass directions

Compass directions are vital for finding your way around a map. There are many ways to remember where each direction goes. You probably learnt a rhyme or a phrase to help you remember - if not, here's one now. Starting at the top and moving clockwise the directions on a compass or map are:

  1. North - Naughty
  2. East - Elephants
  3. South - Squirt
  4. West - Water

Grid references

OS maps are divided into numbered squares. These squares can be used to give a place a four or six-figure grid reference. It is important that you know both four-figure and six-figure grid references.


Eastings are lines that run up and down the map vertically. They increase in number the further you move east (or right). You can use them to measure how far to travel east.


Northings are lines that run across the map horizontally. They increase in number the further you move north (or up the map). You can use them to measure how far to travel north.


  • numbers along the bottom of the map come first and the numbers up the side of the map come second
  • the four-figure reference 2083 refers to the square to the east of Easting line 20 and north of Northing line 83
  • the six-figure reference 207834 will give you the exact point in the square 2083 - 7/10s of the way across and 4/10s of the way up

The six-figure reference on the map below shows a church in Bamford.

Ordnance survey showing Bamford in the Hope Valley© Crown copyright and database rights 2015 Ordnance Survey 100039117