Choose the right map 1: The big road atlas
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Something nobody ever talks about is buying a map. For city-hoppers, who fly from Phnom Penh to Beijing via Ho Chi Min and Tokyo, there’s probably little need for the various types of maps I’m going to talk about here. If you’re driving from A to B, however, you need a good map (even if you have an awesome sat nav) so you don’t end up at the wrong sea.
The two types of maps you need:
1. A big road atlas.
2. Smaller destination maps – this might be an A-Z city map book or a few Ordnance Survey sheets for the wilderness.
This article is going to talk about how to choose a road atlas. Stay tuned for next Travel Tuesday when I’ll talk about how to choose smaller destination maps.
1. A big road atlas. This has largely been superseded by GPS navigation, aka Sat Navs, but it totally depends on where you want to go. If you are travelling somewhere with poor mobile phone/GPS coverage, or you don’t have the right countries in your sat nav (or even if you do) it’s well worth taking a paper map as a back up. At the very worst, you can use it to do big-picture route planning and see where you are compared to your overall travel goal. I bought a Philip’s European Road Atlas last year for driving from York UK to Rome, Italy via Salzburg, Austria and Stuttgart, Germany. I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to which one I bought – I thought I’d spent plenty of time choosing one with the most countries covered and the best scale of detail. At 2am, somewhere in central Germany on our first travel day, lost in a hell of redirecting ring roads and traffic cones, with nothing on the (ample) signposts matching ANYTHING on our map, however, I wished I’d spent that little bit more time (and money) and selected my map a bit more wisely. The AA one looked a lot better when I flicked through it in a shop – so I’m going to get this one. I’m also considering a separate, broader scale atlas just for France and Germany.
Things to look for in a big road atlas:
1. Scale. Does it cover ALL of the countries listed at the scale advertised on the front? We bought the Philip’s European Road Atlas because we wanted to go to Romania, and it was one of very few that covered it. We did not end up going. When the Philips Road Atlas arrived, it transpired that it only did Eastern Europe in 1:4,000,000 scale (which would be fine if they didn’t have roads, junctions, towns, etc etc that weren’t remotely marked on the map) in the route planner pages at the front, and only did Western Europe in the advertised scale of 1:800,000, which wasn’t the best scale for the densely populated countries such as Germany and Belgium that we passed through on our journey, and it did struggle in Italy as well.
2. Coverage. Does it cover the countries between your starting point and your destination in enough detail to enable you to actually get there? For example, if we had gotten a map which only covered Western Europe but that covered it in a better scale, we could have saved about one full travel day not being lost (we lost on average 2 hours a day from accidentally taking the wrong road or not having any of the options on the signposts match up with anything on the map), which would have meant more time and energy for sightseeing. Because our original trip focus was Eastern Europe, I didn’t pay attention to how good the mapping of the Western European countries was, which ultimately made our trip less awesome than it could have been. Because there are more people per square kilometre in Western Europe, there is more infrastructure and there are also more settlements. This means you need a map with the same level of detail as you would need to drive around the south of England, not the north of Scotland.
3. Symbols. WTF do those symbols mean??!! If you don’t know, this might not be your best map. Usually there’s a symbol guide at the front (along with the scale, and approximate times and distances), but if you’re struggling or if it’s all in a funny font or all in a foreign language that you don’t speak, try a different one.
4. Font size. Some maps have a font size that is far too small for driving. I don’t recommend reading maps whilst the vehicle is in motion, but even when you’ve stopped, you need to find where you are as quickly as possible. If you can’t read the words because they’re too small, you WILL struggle, because remember they’ll all be unfamiliar words anyway. Make it as easy as possible for future you to get the job done.
5. Price. Most people buy the cheapest map they see. STOP! Don’t do it. I spent a couple of hours choosing my map, and it still wasn’t a good fit. Buying the cheapest one you see will cost you money in the long run in the form of all that petrol you’ll waste when you’re driving around and being lost.
Final advice on your road map:
1. Never see it as a “just in case” for if your sat nav breaks, even if that’s the intended use. Scrutinize that map so you know whether it will actually get you to where you need to go when it matters most. When you lose sat nav signal (I did once we left Dover, and never got it back all through Europe), you will be stressed, usually in a hurry to make a decision or not in a sensible place to stop, and you will need that map to work fast. My map was a back up, but it wasn’t good enough. There’s no shame in buying a second one after the first one arrives if you bought it online and its crap.
2. Change the page on your map every day of your journey, so you can just pick it up and find where you are when the sat-nav loses signal.
3. Familiarize yourself with what your route looks like on the map, so your brain can speed up your response using it’s pattern-recognition abilities. The human brain is an incredible tool if you use it right – I always do this when I’m road tripping so I can find where my car is on a page as fast as possible.
4. Draw with a marker pen where you’re going (if you’re cool with writing on your map). I wish I’d done this at every rest stop. Or at all.
5. If you have a passenger navigator, get them to follow the route with their finger or regularly update themselves on where you are in relation to the map in some other way. Pins, post it notes, or a pen would also work but a finger leaves no trace so the map is still readable.
Stay tuned for next Travel Tuesday when I will talk about smaller scale sheet maps, and feel free to ask me any of your questions about maps in the comments or via Twitter.