Road maps are an essential tool for all manner of travel, even in the days of modern technology. While an in-car GPS unit may be able to instruct you on the way to a destination, it can't tell you anything about what to expect along the way. What kind of terrain will you be traveling over? What are your options if your way is blocked for any reason? What other features are in the area that you might want to know about? A road map can tell you all this and more, keeping you more fully informed while you're on the road for safer travel and a more enjoyable experience.
Orientation on a road map
Every road map is oriented to the directions on a compass, as is generally printed in a corner of the map itself-up is north, down is south, left is west and right is east. If you're unsure of where you are at any given time, this may help re-orient you if you can find a road sign anywhere that gives you a clue as to where you might be. Mile markers may also be useful in this endeavor, helping you pinpoint your exact location as it relates to the map.
Road map features
A good map will not only inform you of where the roads are within the map's area, but it will also tell you a great deal about the "lay of the land," so to speak. Topographical maps will give you a good idea of whether you can expect to drive through flat plains, hills or steep mountainous areas, and alert you to the presence of any bodies of water. Many maps will also indicate the populations of towns, and some may indicate rest areas and available amenities in any given area. If you're accessing an online map as opposed to a traditional paper one, you may even have the option to look at a street view, where you can see an exact photographic depiction of what your destination looks like.
Reading the legend on a road map
Because every map is made a little bit differently, each will have a legend somewhere in the margin. This legend is a list of symbols, colors or other annotations that help you interpret the map. A primary use of the legend is to determine the scale, which will tell you what space on the map corresponds to a mile or kilometer in the real world. While you're planning your trip, this is essential for gauging your travel time and planning re-fueling stops.
The map may color-code town names for population, place symbols for different types of businesses or way stations, or otherwise give you additional information about the area. If you're uneasy about mountain driving, the legend will also inform you of the elevation change that corresponds with each topographical line, letting you know whether you're looking at a gentle slope or a steep white-knuckled trek.