Something we’re noticing more frequently on our map reading courses is people struggling to cope with actually reading the maps due to deteriorating eyesight. Using an Ordnance Survey Explorer map for example, you might find the fine detail difficult to read and miss some features altogether. While this might not be an issue if you’re in your twenties, for those of us over 40, it can make reading a map extremely difficult. But fear not old(er) people, we have some solutions!

Use OS Maps to print out 1:12500 scale

If you’re an OS Maps subscriber, did you know you can print map extracts for your own personal use at a variety of scales? You’ll likely be familiar with the 1:50000 scale used on OS Landranger maps and the popular 1:25000 scale used on OS Explorer maps, but you can actually print out using a number of other custom scales up to 1:10000.

We recommend trying 1:12500 scale – this will produce a map extract that is double the size of the standard 1:25000 scale (so printed at 200%). This will make dealing with scale or measuring distances, for example, much simpler.

The obvious disadvantage of doing this is you’ll need more map extracts than if you just printed at the standard Explorer map scale. But if printed double sided, you might only need two or three sheets of A4 paper depending on how far-ranging your walk is.

Buy a custom large scale map

If you don’t want to bother with printing and laminating multiple large scale map extracts, there’s a company out there who will do all that for you. Aqua3 based in the Peak District provide custom printed, ‘easy to read’ 1:12500 scale maps. They’re printed, laminated and folded just like a traditional map using the same Ordnance Survey data, except they’re printed at 200%. As each map is custom made, they don’t have off the shelf products and instead you create your own via their online tool. Simply enter the place name, OS grid reference or post code for the centre of the map and then adjust the print area as necessary.

Sadly they’re not cheap starting from £24.99 but as they’re waterproof, they compare to an OS Active Map which retails around £16.99 so if you regularly walk around one particular area they could be a good investment.

Try a HARVEY Map

HARVEY Maps is a Scottish map maker who have been doing their thing since the 1970’s. Unlike Ordnance Survey, they only make maps for walkers. They’ve been designed to be clear so that more people can read them without glasses and they’re generally less cluttered by information irrelevant to hikers. So there’s no worry about confusing a footpath with a Parish boundary!

Due to these design features, their maps are widely regarded as being easy to read. Their maps are field checked by surveyors who are themselves walkers and are used and recommend by many mountain rescue teams.

All HARVEY maps are waterproof as standard which makes them tough enough to cope with any weather and are lightweight (around half the weight of a laminated map).

Experiment with digital mapping

This might not be a solution for everyone, for example, if you’re on a Mountain Training or National Navigation Award Scheme assessment, you won’t be able to use digital mapping. But you’ll likely find a digital screen such as a smart phone or GPS device much easier to read than a traditional paper map.

The brighter screen and the ability to ‘pinch and zoom’ will make the detail much clearer and easier to read and understand. Of course, digital mapping may have its drawbacks too with worries about battery life or an expensive device getting damaged. However my two-year old iPhone easily keeps its battery for 48 hours or more (plus I carry a battery bank in my rucksack) and many modern smart phones are waterproof even without a fancy case.

There is a plethora of smart phone apps available today with both Ordnance Survey and HARVEY maps supported. All typically offer free versions but you’ll need to hand over some money for premium mapping. OS Maps for example costs a little under £30 a year (discounts often available) for access to OS mapping for the whole country.

Get some cheap reading glasses

You might be surprised at the difference a pair of £1.99 reading glasses from B&M can make. They’re not just for Grandma doing her shopping list (the person writing this blog is in their 40’s and loves them!) If you’re going to be out in the hills in different weathers, then we would suggest avoiding the ‘granny-style’ glasses you’ll get in your local discount retailer, and instead search online for lightweight, flexible reading glasses. You can buy a pack of three from Amazon for under a tenner and their ‘bendiness’ means they’re great for shoving in the top of your rucksack making them much less likely to break and last longer than a ‘throwaway’ pair. It’s always worth packing a spare too.

For really poor weather or walking in winter conditions, you can even get reading ‘safety glasses’ from the likes of Screwfix or Toolstation. These are primarily designed for use in an industrial setting but are great for when you need to be able to see a map in the less than kind mountain conditions we all find ourselves in at some point.

Reading glasses might become a nuisance if they get steamed up or covered in rain however. Half-moon or cutaway glasses can help prevent the lenses steaming up and try wearing a baseball cap to keep the rain off.

Use a magnifying glass

Most good compasses such as the Silva Expedition 4 come with a magnifying glass which can be a godsend when it comes to intricate detail on a map. A magnifying ‘sheet’ or a credit card sized magnifier can also be useful or you can even buy a small, keyring magnifying glass that includes an LED light for extra help.

Finally, speak to your optician

If you’re spending more and more time in the outdoors and map reading is increasingly important, then it’s worth mentioning this to your optician at your next eye test. Mine know the sort of work I do and have been brilliant at suggesting different options such as varifocal glasses and contact lenses. I currently have two different contact lens prescriptions; one for everyday use and one for when I’m outdoors working with maps. The latter is basically a far sighted correction in one eye and a near sighter correction in the other and it works remarkably well.