When traveling in a country that is completely new to you, the value of a good map cannot be stressed enough. Finding your way and avoiding becoming lost are much easier with a quality, up-to-date map in hand and an understanding of how to use it.
Essentially, a map is a graphic (picture) representation of what actually exists on the earth. By using the information provided on a map, travelers can locate any of the features shown or find there way through or around the map in relation to their actual surroundings. Maps use symbols to represent the real features of a region and a scale to tell you how large of an area is covered by the map. Keep in mind that a map can only show so many features before it becomes overly cluttered with too much information. If a map's purpose is solely for driving, the roads and highways are the most important details, while showing each and every hiking trail would make the map too difficult to read.
The scale on map is represented as a ratio, such as 1:50,000. This means that for every 1 unit on the map, it equals 50,000 of the same units on the earth. If you measured the distance between two cities on a map with this scale and found them to be 2 centimeters apart, that would mean that they are, in reality, 100,000 centimeters apart (which is equal to 1 kilometer).
The scale of a map will determine how much detail is included in the map and how much area it covers. A large scale map (like 1:25,000) will show the greatest amount of detail (and the smallest area) while a small scale map (like 1:2,000,000) will show the least amount of detail but will show the largest amount of area. For example, look at the maps of Uganda below:
Small scale map
The country of Uganda can't be seen very accurately at this scale
Uganda can now be seen. Notice that this map only includes the continent of Africa rather than the entire world.
Uganda's capital city can be seen, as well as neighboring Lake Victoria. A map of this scale could also include other cities.
If you were to view an even larger scale map, you would see rivers, smaller lakes and small cities and villages. To help remember map scale, think of it like this: the features on small scale maps are small while the features on large scale maps are larger.
The map of the entire world has an extremely small scale. Cities will be represented by a single dot, and rivers, a thin blue line. In contrast to this would be a large scale map of a particular city. The amount of area covered is obviously smaller but now there is much more detail. Statues are represented by symbols and individual buildings can be seen. Any rivers would be thicker blue lines with their relative widths shown more accurately.
The scale of the map you choose to use is important when traveling. If you are planning a trip across Africa, you will want a map that shows the entire continent (but you don't need to see every building in each city). However, if you are traveling within a city, select a map that has as much detail as possible (a world map would have too small of a scale in this case).
Symbols on a map represent the cities, buildings, roads, paths, water bodies and other structures of our world. Depending on the scale and focus of a map, some features will obviously not be included. The symbols are usually quite easy to interpret using different colors and shapes (ie. a cross representing a church). If you're not sure what a symbol represents, check the legend of your map, usually found in the corner or on the reverse side of the map. Symbols are not always the same on every map and will depend on the map publisher.
While some people recommend waiting until you arrive in a country to get a map (because they can usually be found for free), your best bet is to purchase a higher quality map before you leave. You will have more choice as to what scale you would like and what your focus will be. I arrived in Jerusalem without a map and had to find my way around the Old City using the local tourist-type map that only featured the stores and restaurants who financed the production of the map. As well, buying a map before you leave will give you some time to look it over and maybe even do some advanced planning.
There are several sources of maps that you will have the option of using. Government surveyors, tour groups and tourist bureaus all produce or offer maps with a variety of features. Even your travel guide will include a limited number of maps of select countries and cities. Find a map that will show a large enough area for you yet still includes the detailed features you are looking for. A larger scale is better for inner-city walking and cycling while a small scale map is best suited for driving or city-to-city navigating.
Map Resources and Online Maps