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Finding Your Way with Maps

Types Of Maps

On the Vicarious Media website both atlases and sheet maps are listed. Essentially both are maps, but atlases are book-style maps usually in A4 size unless the product description says otherwise. Sheet maps are foldout maps which can either be single or double-sided. Generally all the atlases and maps listed are printed on paper, although if they are referred to as laminated this means the pages have a protective plastic coating for added durability. Occasionally town maps are referred to as town plans.

Understanding Scale

Every map has a scale displayed in the following ways: Representative fraction (1:300 000), direct statement (4.7 miles to 1 inch or 3km to 1cm) or a linear scale where a ruler inside the map shows the scale. The scale shows the user how large or small the mapping is, and therefore how much detail the map will include. Direct statement is the easiest way to interpret a map as it tells you what an inch or centimetre reflects in distance. The Michelin France Atlas is in the scale of 1:200 000 (2km = 1cm), whereas the Michelin France sheet map is 1:1 000 000 (10km = 1cm). Therefore the sheet map has a lot less detail than the atlas because 1cm covers more distance.

City Map, Town Plan

Vicarious Media vs Michelin - Mapping and Aire Entries PDF

As a general rule atlases have a smaller scale and more detail than sheet maps. This is because in an atlas you turn pages as you cover distance, but a sheet map displays all the information on a single sheet of paper. Although sheet maps can fold out and cover a seemingly large space, the Michelin France foldout map is 139cm (5ft) long by 100cm (3.25ft) high, if you stuck all the pages of the Michelin France atlas together it would be a lot bigger, and far too big to fold out in your car or motorhome! Be aware that if an atlas covers multiple countries, these may be in different scales. 

Different scales suit different uses. A 1:1 000 000 (1cm to 10km) scale is ideal for overview planning (see Usability). A 1:200 000 (2cm to 1km) scale is perfect for road navigation, while a 1:50 000 (2cm to 1km) scale is usually used by walkers.

Maps without scale are used in campsite and Aires guides to indicate locations of campsites and Aires. These are not intended to be used for road navigation, but to assist the user in understanding the location of the campsite or Aire and to provide some overview planning. The All the Aires locator maps are maps without scale intended as an aid to help in locating the Aires in the All the Aires guides.


Flexibound atlases have spines like a book to hold the pages together. This means they fold open with two pages visible at a time, but they cannot fold back on themselves. Spiralbound atlases can fold back on themselves and this can cause the binding to uncurl with heavy use and the pages can get torn out. Foldout maps can be folded to show an exact position or area, but folding a map against its creases causes the folds to weaken and crack and eventually will cause the map to deteriorate. All maps made of paper can tear and suffer damage from water and wind. Laminated maps are more durable, but can still crack along folds.


Sheet maps and road atlasesAtlases cover large areas like entire countries or continents. The scale is more detailed than foldout maps and this makes them an ideal tool to assist navigation. However, atlases require you to turn pages to see different areas of the map, which can be frustrating when the destination is on the border of two pages. On long journeys the navigator should be able to lay the atlas on their lap, so that they are not holding the atlas for long periods of time; this is easier with A4 spiralbound atlases. Foldout maps pack away into a small space and are lighter, making them ideal for city tours and walking. Foldout maps can also give a quick overview of a continent, country or region and can be folded to display specific sections (see Durability).

All travellers should find maps useful. A foldout continent or country map gives the traveller an overview of their trip and aids planning. Users can use highlighters and pens or sticker notes (which come included with Marco Polo foldout maps) to mark paper maps with useful information, direction of travel and other notes. On laminated maps permanent marker will work better than ball point pens and highlighters. When chatting to fellow travellers or tourist office officials, getting out a map and saying ‘Where is that?’ is simpler than writing the information down somewhere and then failing to find it later.

Anyone planning a road trip should have a suitable road atlas which will serve as an adequate aid for navigation (see Understanding scale). Road atlases provide a huge amount of useful information to the traveller, including tolls, mountain passes and heights, tourist attractions, rivers and their names, picnic areas and scenic routes. Road atlases usually have an index for town names and most will have a number of more detailed town plans.

AA Walking and Leisure MapsWalking maps and regional maps assist anyone planning a holiday in a particular area. The extra detail not only shows footpaths, but also smaller lanes in more detail. Car parks, beaches and tourist destinations, including ruins not mentioned in tourist guides, are also marked.

The style of the maps varies between publishers as they all use different cartography. Cartography is the designing and compiling of maps, and different cartographers choose to display information differently. For Europe, AA road atlases tend to be blockier in style whilst Michelin have the most detailed mapping for France, where you can even see where roads narrow. Navigators who like plenty of detail will prefer either Michelin or Marco Polo, whilst AA suits drivers who stick to main roads.

If you have a GPS satellite navigator, which you use exclusively for navigation, it is still recommended to have a map. Foldout maps are useful for overview planning and note making, but it is still advisable to have a detailed road map as this will enable you to navigate should your GPS break down. In addition, you can cross reference the road chosen by your satellite navigator to check is it a route you are prepared to drive. One of the problems with relying on a satellite navigator to choose your route is it cannot make human decisions. The program often only allows choosing the ‘fastest’ or ‘shortest’ route, which are often equally poor. The shortest route may take you straight through a town centre, as opposed to around the town on a ring road. The fastest route will calculate the maximum speed limits of a road, not its drivability. Rush hours, narrow roads, poorly surfaced roads and traffic lights are often not taken into account. Toll roads can either be on or off, but this doesn’t help if you have to drive miles of mountain passes because a tunnel was tolled and therefore avoided. Virtually everyone has a story of blindly following GPS and ending up somewhere unsuitable! GPS satellite navigation is excellent if you suddenly need to change your route due to road closure, and is an excellent aid to help get through towns or to find the exact location of the final destination. Zooming in and out of the GPS for detailed plans and overviews and setting new via points can also be very helpful.

How Vicarious Media Uses Maps

Vicarious Media Planning Map

No matter where we travel in the world, once the decision has been made about the destination a map is purchased. If it is a short city break, then the sort of map provided with the Marco Polo guides is often enough. If we are heading off on a road trip, then an AA, Michelin or locator map sheet map is used as a starting point. Key points of interest and places to stay are marked on the map and road choices are highlighted as is direction of travel.

During the trip this map becomes the guide, so instead of walking around constantly referring to the guide book we simply refer to the map. If it’s a road trip the map is kept on the dash so quick reference can be made between the overall plan and the road atlas.


Vicarious Media Map, Chris and MeliThe road atlas is again marked, often with arrows showing direction of travel across pages for ease. The atlas is looked at for any interesting information which may be worth a diversion, and these are circled so they don’t get missed. Our best map find was a stream named Acqua Calda, hot water in English, which fed a delightful thermal pool. This pool was not a tourist attraction and not mentioned in any tour guide.

We prefer to navigate ourselves rather than allow our satellite navigator to dictate our route and therefore we prefer to use the detailed Michelin or Marco Polo atlases when in Europe. We do travel with a satellite navigator which is set on silent and placed where only the navigator can see it. The navigator then tells the driver which way to go using the combination of satellite navigator, road atlas and overview map.

Map reading is a very useful skill which can be a bit overwhelming to learn. Anyone new to map reading should start with a map on their lap and the satellite navigator set to silent, which allows the navigator to make decisions without being shouted down by the satellite navigator. Oh, and as long as you make it to your destination the driver never needs to know if you went the right way!


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  • I have been a coach driver since 1971 and eventually spent later years driving on the continent and had to rely on maps and my instinct to get from A to B. Even now I reject the use of SatNavs ( I used one to get from Southend to Folkestone and it took me a totally different and got me lost!) Also, how is it that the Highway Code forbids the ability of a driver to have any form of visual screen in a vehicle within view of the driver? We had television on our coaches and I must have listened to Shirley Valentine a hundred times! Today I see drivers talking on their mobiles, staring at satnavs, texting and playing with their satnavs. When I contacted the DoT regarding the satnavs, they merely said that they would rather people looked at satnavs, than read maps while they were driving!
    However, I love maps – I did purchase a brand new AA atlas of Europe when I first stated driving abroad, wrote out a route in felt tipped pen on a sheet of paper with the road numbers on, only to find that they had all been changed 3 months after the atlas was printed- this was a bit disconcerting to say the least! Mr Michelin has guided me for years, and I use his France Atlas at 2km- 1 cm). I also use IGN detailed maps ( discover and tourism, I believe.) as I find the colouring is clearer. Most importantly- and my only real concession to modern technology, is Google Maps and street view. I led a group of military vehicles from Calais to Port en Bessin in 2014, and didn’t get lost once, as I had driven the route on street view and knew which signs, houses, rivers and other landmarks to look for.
    Part of the enjoyment of driving/ motorhoming, is finding your way by a map, and not by some irritating voice telling you where to turn etc. Long Live Maps!

    Ian Milton
  • I think this is an excellent introduction. I have frequently driven alone (with my boat on a trailer), so have to manage without a navigator. In this situation I try to make a pre-plan for the route, using Google Maps (easier to adjust as you look for the best route) and viaMichelin (gives you toll costs). On some journeys such as Calais to Croatia major savings are possible by looking at alternatives – sometimes one finds that the alternatives are not mentioned because they take a few minutes longer, but avoid the toll costs of, for example France and Italy.
    One little niggle: the article says “As a general rule atlases have a smaller scale and more detail than sheet maps.” I think 1:200,000 (my favourite Michelin Detailed Road Atlas) is “Large Scale”, while a Sheet Map such as ‘Michelin 721: France’ at 1: 1,000,000" is “Small Scale”.
    Every few years I treat myself to a new Michelin 726 “Route Planning France”, and wish there were similar maps available when heading North East or South East across Europe. Trying to use the planning pages on an atlas of Europe doesn’t work very well for me!
    Having said all this, I’m over the moon with the Sat-Nav I have had for the last few years. Yes: it tries to send you on bizarre routes and you still have to choose the route beforehand, but as you approach a night halt tired and in the dusk, it’s hugely useful – and makes life safer.

    Richard Hart

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