Map Reading and Navigation

A quick refresher on map reading and navigation for offroad cycling


This guide is intended as a quick summary, and not a comprehensive resource. If you want to learn navigation in detail, either buy a book; or better yet, get somebody who knows this stuff to teach it to you in person.

Map scales

For mountain biking you need a map which shows far more detail than just the roads you'll see in large scale maps such as road atlases. The maps you need come in two different scales, 1:50,000 ( 1 cm on the map is 500 metres on the ground), which are branded by the Ordnance Survey as 'Landranger' and have red covers, and 1:25,000 (1 cm on the map is 250 metres on the ground) scale which are branded as 'Explorer' maps and have orange covers.  The latter is more detailed, although the area covered by each map is smaller. Landranger maps will show every road, and most rights of way, and most other features you will encounter. The Explorer maps will show all this, but in far more detail. They also show additional features like field boundaries and every building. For this reason we'd recommend the Explorer series of maps. 

What do all those funny symbols mean?

There are various symbols on the map to give you additional information about the land. Some of them are obvious, and others you might just remember from geography in school. There are sometimes differences in the symbols used on the different map scales, for instance rights of way are printed in red on Landranger maps, and green on Explorer maps.  If you are unfamilar with the symbols, or you're a little out of practise,  we'd recommend looking at the legend printed on each map which explains what they mean. As a mountain biker, you are going to be interested in the symbols for various types of road, and rights of way. A quick reminder: footpaths - which you can't ride on legally - are short dashed lines, and bridleways - which you can ride on -  are long dashed lines. You'll also be interested in water features, which are marked in blue. There are other symbols which give you clues as to what conditions to expect. For instance forests, rock outcrops and boggy areas. It really is worth learning these, so you can work out where you are, and what conditions to expect further on.

Those squiggly brown lines you see all over the map are contours, and are imaginary lines linking ground of equal height (or elevation) above sea level. The vertical interval between contours is 10 metres with slightly thicker lines every 50 metres, i.e. there will be a contour for every 10 metres of height gain. The main point you need to grasp with contours, is that if you cross a contour line, you will change your elevation. A route which crosses many contours in a short distance will be steep, and one which none, will be flat. The exact height of each contour is marked on the map, although you may have to follow the lines around a bit to find them. Various features (such as the tops of hills) are marked with spot heights which tell you how high a particular feature is. Being able to translate all those lines and numbers into a mental picture of the 'shape' of the ground is a useful skill for working out just how hard a particular section of the ride will be.

You'll find an explanation of the various symbols on the legend of the map, or on the Ordnance Survey website: Symbols for Explorer Maps and Symbols for Landranger Maps.

Grid references

Grid reference are a way of writing down a series of numbers which precisely define where a certain point is. We use them in the guide to tell you where an exact place is, as saying "a little bit to the south of Cropton" is not very exact. In event of an emergency they are essential, so you can tell somebody exactly where you are, even when you are in a place with no street names. We use them in this guide to give the exact start point for each ride. A GPS can give you a precise grid reference, although you'll need to configure it to do so, as GPSes usually work in latitude and longitude.

In the UK we typically use 6 figure Ordnance Survey Grid References. Imagine if the whole country was divided up into 1 kilometre squares, like a sheet of graph paper. These are the faint blue lines you see on maps. Each of these squares will have a number for both the east-west axis and the north-south axis. You'll see those marked as a series of blue numbers along the edge of the map. So, if a particular place is in the square marked as 75 on the east-west axis and the square marked 88 in the north-south axis, it would have a 4 figure grid reference of '75 88'.

4 figure grid reference

Map showing the grid square 75 88 selected.

However, it's a little more complex that that. Firstly, locating something within a square kilometre isn't really useful, so we divide each square up into a sub squares (which are not marked on the map). So, if the point we are talking about was halfway across the 75th east-west square it would be 755 (imagine the last figure as a decimal fraction). The same applies to the north-south axis as we'll so we'd end up with for example 955 888 as our six figure grid reference. This is accurate to a square of a 100 metres by a 100 metres, which is certainly good enough for us.

6 figure grid reference

Map showing the full 6 figure grid reference, with the 100 metre grid lines marked to illustrate how each 1 kilometre square is subdivided.

6 figure grid reference close up

Close up of the grid square 75 88

There is still one slight problem, if the grid reference is to be unique: There are actually several places in the UK with the same 6 figure grid reference, as the pattern of numbers will repeat every 100 kilometres. So, we need to add something to uniquely identify which 100 kilometre square of the country we mean. To do this, each of the 100 kilometre squares has a unique two letter code. For instance most of the rides here fall into the NZ and SE squares (there's no particular pattern or significance to these letters).

So, in our example, the point we are talking about is actually SE 755 888, which a quick look at a map will confirm as the New Inn in Cropton, a place well worth finding.

Magnetic compasses

A compass contains needle which points north. It actually points to magnetic north, rather than the north pole, with the difference between magnetic north and true north (magnetic deviation) being different depending on your location. The exact figure is printed on each map, and changes very slightly over time. In the area covered by this guide the difference is only 2 to 3 degrees, and so we can ignore it, but in other areas of the world this number may be far bigger and you'll have to compensate for it. 

Uses of a compass

The first is to help orientate your map to the ground. What that means is holding the map horizontally so that the north-south grid lines on the map are parallel to the axis of the compass. You can then look at the map, and the landscape around you, it's then much easier to see a feature on the ground and work out what it corresponds to on the map and vice versa. Being able to use a map and compass together in this way is a vital navigation skill.

Aliging the map to the compass

Aligning the needle of the compass to North-South grid lines on the map

A compass is handy to check which path to take at a junction, when you can't trust your own sense of direction. For example, if the map shows the path you want is due west, a quick look at your compass will confirm which path that is.

A compass is used in setting a bearing. This is very helpful if you want to travel in a particular direction. Of course, on a bike you are rarely, able just ride in a particular direction, as you can on foot, so this technique is most often used by walkers. Even if you rarely use it, it's a worthwhile skill to have in reserve should you find yourself in fog, on the moors, with no obvious track to follow.

Here's how it works: First, using the map, you work out the direction you want to go, as a number of degrees clockwise from north, and then set the compass to that number, by rotating the centre part of the compass. Then, holding the compass horizontally, and in front of your, turn yourself until the north end of the compass needle is aligned with the arrows on the rotating part of the compass. Then, ensuring the compass is held level, with the needle aligned with the arrows, move forward in the direction indicated by the arrow on the compass base. At this point it's worth doing a 'sanity' check, and make sure you really are going in the direction you ought, as it's possible to set the bearing 180 degrees from where you want to go, by accidentally lining up one of the arrows the wrong way. Parts of your bike may be magnetic, so you should hold the compass away from the bike if possible. A handy tip is to pick an feature that can be seen dead ahead of you, and aim for that point, when you reach the point, find another point to aim for and so on. This helps you carry on in the right direction, whilst allowing you to deviate slightly around small obstacles. Setting a bearing takes a little bit of practise, and travelling on a bearing is slow and tedious. Becoming proficient at the whole process takes a bit of practise, so it's best to try this in good conditions first to see how you get on. Remember, in this simpified description, we don't take into account the different between magnetic north and map north.

Setting a bearing with a compass

Click on a header to see the step explained:

Getting from A to B

Imagine you are at point A on the map, and wish to head towards a bridge over the river at point B. However, visibility is very poor, and you can't see the bridge or any other landmarks.

Align the compass

Align the axis of the compass base plate with the direction you wish to take, with the arrow pointing toward the destination. Make sure the arrow on the compass base points towards your intended destination. For the sake of simplicity, in this example we don't take account of Magnetic Deviation, as the difference is small in the North York Moors, however in other areas it may be different.

Setting the compass

Rotate the compass housing so that the arrow in the rotating part is aligned with the north-south grid lines on the map. Ensure the arrows on the rotating part point towards north on the map. Ignore the compass needle at this point.

Moving on a bearing

Remove the compass from the map, and holding the compass horizontally in front of you, turn until the compass needle is aligned with the arrow in the rotating bezel of the compass. Ensure the north (red end) of the compass needle is aligned with the direction the arrows on the rotating part of the compass. Move forward in the direction indicated by the arrow on the compass base.

Aiming to miss

In the simplied example above, we aimed directly at the point we want to reach. But imagine if the point was a bridge over a river. After setting the bearing, and moving along it, you eventually arrive at the river, only to find no sign of the bridge. As following a bearing exactly is difficult, small errors will grow larger, and you'll inevitably drift from your intended course. Rather than have to walk up and down the river looking for the bridge, there is a trick you can do: delibrately aim off to the side of the feature you want. I.e. you would set a bearing to a point on the river 200-300 yards left of the bridge. When you arrive at the river, simply turn right and carry on and carry on along the river until you find the bridge. This will work when ever you need to find a point on a linear feature, such as a road junction or a bridge over a river.

Other compass features

Some compasses also handily feature a sort of ruler, called a roamer, which allows you to measure the last figure of a grid reference (which set of lines to use depends on the scale as the size of the grid squares will vary). Use these to measure a more precise figure for the smallest number of a grid reference in both the east-west and north-south axis.

Other ways of telling direction

Long before magnetic compasses, people were able to tell direction from natural phenomena such as sun, stars and plants. These methods are not always very accurate, or practical, and are no substitute for a compass.

All the same, they are useful to know in an emergency, and quite fun to know.


Wind will shape the growth of trees, bushes and even grass, as the wind will tend to make vegetation lean away from the wind. In the UK, the prevailing wind is from the south west, which means trees will typically lean towards the north east. However, the shape of the ground may alter the wind direction, by sheltering the tree from some directions, or channelling wind in a particular direction. This is particularly true on cliff tops and narrow valleys. On open moorland this method works much better.

Lichen and moss prefers damp conditions. As the sun dries out the south face of the tree more than the north side, the north side of the tree is this more favourable to Lichen and moss, so will tend to have more of it. More sunlight on the south side of the tree will also mean the tree grows more branches and leaves to take advantage of extra sunlight. When local conditions alter where the light comes from, such as at the edge of a wood, these methods don't work very well, but on a solitary tree, or inside a wood it can give you a general sense of direction.

Using the sun. The sun, if you can see it, provides two easy way to tell direction. They are not as accurate as a compass, but better than vegetation.

If you point the 12 o'clock mark of an analogue watch at the sun, and draw an imaginary line halfway between the hour hand and 12, the line will point south. Of course during summer time, you need to add an hour, so point 1 o'clock rather than 12 o'clock at the sun.

The second method is to place a stick in the ground, and mark where the shadow of the tip of the stick falls with a stone, then wait for half an hour or so, and once again mark the position of the tip of the shadow. If you draw a line between the two marks, this line will be roughly east to west, with most recent mark being at the east end of the line.

Cycle computers and GPS devices

A cycle computer is a very handy device. By measuring your distance from a known point you can anticipate what lies ahead, and how much further you have to go. For example, by recording your distance at a particular point, for instance where you cross a river, you can work out how far you are along the route.

A GPS device can tell you exactly where you are. However, unless you have one of the top of the range units, which have a topographic map built in, you'll still need to refer to a map to know what features are around you. It's also foolish to rely solely on a battery powered device to tell you where you are, as batteries have an unfortunate habit of running out. This is especially so when it's cold, as below freezing temperatures shorten battery life considerably.

Mapping software

There are now several software package, such as Memory Map, Anquet and Tracklogs, which allow computer users to display Ordnance Survey maps. Unfortunately, none of these are free, and the costs are based on the quantity of mapping you purchase, and are quite a lot more than the paper map versions of the same area. As well as being able to display map data, download routes from internet sites, you can plan routes and find out information about those routes, such as the elevation profile, total climb, and distance. Many let you view a 3D representation of the route, which is great if you have difficulty visualising how hilly a route is. You can also upload routes from the software to a GPS, so you can follow a route with your GPS. You can also download tracks from your GPS, to see where you actually rode, and how long it really took you. You can also print maps and routes. However there are a few gotcha to consider. Due to the way in which map data is licensed from the Ordnance Survey, the size of the map is fairly limited, so you are pretty much limited to printing a single route at once. Also, it's worth remembering is that maps printed on normal paper by an ink-jet printer are not waterproof. If your map gets hit by rain drops, the ink will run and you'll be left with a useless soggy piece of paper.

As well as computer programmes featuring Ordnance Survey mapping data, there's Google Earth. The good news is it's free (if you want to download routes to a GPS you'll have to upgrade to version which isn't free). The bad news is the mapping data is limited to just roads, although you can see elevation data and satellite photos as well. As of September 2006 the satellite photos for the North Yorkshire Moors and Wolds is not very detailed, and despite the 'wow' factor of being able to zoom and fly around, it's no substitute for a Ordnance Survey map. Still, it's quite a nice way to explore z new area and get an idea of what the place looks like without ever leaving your computer.

Learning more about navigation

This page is only a start. There are several ways you can improve your skills further:

  • Books to help you with the theoretical side of navigation. Most are aimed at walkers, but the techniques are just as applicable to mountain bike riders.
  • Doing it yourself. You'll gradually gain experience as you try bigger and harder challenges.
  • Learning from somebody who knows this stuff. Either by riding with an expert, or taking a course.

Need a map?

AQUA3 logo

Buy Aqua 3 Ordnance Survey maps, save money, and help support this site.

North York Moors-Western Area
Moorland routes to the west of Pickering
North York Moors-Eastern Area
Moorland routes to the east of Pickering
Howardian Hills & Malton
Routes in the Howardian Hills and Wolds

Special Offer Buy both North York Moors maps & get a 36% discount

Digital mapping

Memory Map North York Moors digital mapping.

Further Reading