The How, What and Why of Maps

Why are maps important?

Maps have informed and guided humans for thousands of years, first appearing as simple sketches on clay tablets, cave walls and mammoth tusks, as a form of storytelling and a documentation of how we saw the world back then.

Claudius Ptolemy, astronomer and astrologer, invented geography in the second century A.D. after bringing to life latitude and longitude and creating the first realistic and extensive two-dimensional map. When the Roman Empire fell, his research was lost for nearly a millennium before it was rediscovered, from which point maps began a steady increase in accuracy and detail all around the world.

Today, anyone can google any kind of map, for any purpose, and assume it will be correct, thanks to the abundance of technology and knowledge we now have access to in our society.

These days maps are specialised to show all kinds of features, to suit a wide range of different purposes. There’s likely a map to cover every topic, some good examples being climatic, economic and agriculture production maps, all of which hold information about their respective themes in terms of location. However, classically maps are known to help us get from point A to B, and knowing the average climate of an area generally doesn’t affect that.

Here are some of the most important and relevant kinds of maps for travel and navigation.

Political Map

The political map includes countries and borders, major rivers and oceans, and important cities. It’s the most widely known type of map, that you would typically expect to find displayed in primary school classrooms and similar. Most of the time this map shows the entire world, but sometimes it can be used to show smaller, more specific areas.

Physical Map

Physical maps are much more detailed than political maps, and show more of the physical and natural features of the earth such as mountains, smaller bodies of water, oceans, valleys etc. They use colour to indicate different levels of elevation, for example green turns into brown the more elevated the land is, and shallow water is shown as light blue, whereas deeper water is shown as dark blue.

Time Zone Map

Time zone maps are used to simply show the time in each area relative to all the others. More than 24 time zones appear on a time zone map, and they are helpful when calculating what the time is in another country.

Topographical Map

Topographical maps are a favourite among the hiking community for their simple yet effective way of demonstrating the steepness of any hill or mountain. They show the shape of the of the Earths surface and have contour lines that represent the elevation of an area. They are very detailed, and they show all the natural and cultural features of the location. They are widely used in the outdoors for planning and navigation.

Road Map

Road maps show different lanes, bridges, roads, highways, or railways. They are highly detailed, and almost always specific to small areas. They are used to navigate usually when driving. In recent years these maps have become almost entirely digital, in the format of a GPS.

Overall, maps are an amazing thing. They represent the earth on a much smaller scale, a simplified visual that has been crafted from incredibly complex data to help us to get a better understanding of the world around us. They tell us how to get from point A to B, and they can be used to figure out where we are, no matter where we are.

Unfortunately, humans are gradually becoming less and less reliant on paper maps, and more so on digital maps on phones and navigation devices. It’s easy to understand why this is happening, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. There are several reasons why maps are much more beneficial and efficient than GPS.

Firstly, GPS will send you to your destination usually via the fastest route. At first this may seem like a good thing, and often it is, but there are countless situations in which the fastest route isn’t the best option. It may send you through a dangerous neighbourhood, or towards a flood. Using a paper map that shows the route in relation to everything surrounding it allows us to make decisions based on our knowledge of the area we’re in, that the computer may not be aware of.

Second, GPS is much less of a reliable option, and many of us have now become entirely dependent upon it. What happens if the GPS dies, or you enter an area that doesn’t have any cell signal? GPS is so straightforward and easy that some people don’t even carry a physical map with them anymore, but it is still important to keep one handy, as it may end up getting you out of serious trouble.

GPS also eliminates much of the need to pay attention, and it’s not difficult to guess some of the consequences this may have. There are even stories of people driving into lakes because they were so focused on following the directions from the navigation device, they weren’t paying enough attention to what they were travelling towards.

Finally, there is research that suggests that too much GPS use can lead to a decline in spatial thinking and memory skills, both of which are helpful in other fields of knowledge. This is because GPS navigation is far less ‘cognitively demanding’, as you really don’t have to think about anything when you’re following the directions. Map reading is a very important skill, and it has been proven to help us in other areas of life.



Dahmani, L., & Bohbot, V. D. (2020). Habitual use of GPS negatively impacts spatial memory during self-guided navigation. Scientific Reports, 10(1).

‌Dorbecker, M. (2019, July 25). 10 Reasons Why Maps Are Important. The Map Shop.

‌Why are maps important? – 4-H Learning Network. (n.d.).

‌10 Different Types of World Maps. (2020, February 17).

‌Thompson, C. (2017, July). From Ptolemy to GPS, the Brief History of Maps. Smithsonian Magazine.