Geography: learn to map with BOLTS

Geography: learn to map with BOLTS

BOLTS? That’s Borders, Orientation, Legend, Title and Scale to you…

One of the most useful skills when you’re embarking on your geographical career is mapping. (It also helps when you’re designing worlds for your next roleplaying game.) So here’s a simple way to remember the key elements you should include, before you get too distracted by which shade of blue the rivers should be and where the elves live.

Before we start, a “small scale” map shows a large area with smaller detail, eg. a world map, where a “large scale” map shows a small area with a larger amount of detail. And this map shows where the sheep were in 1920.


This is pretty straightforward – it’s the frame. The four straight lines that show where your map begins and ends. Make sure it’s obvious where your map edges are. Thick lines work well, especially if you don’t have time to sketch dragons all across the outside.

Your border should incorporate a reference system. Standard reference systems are latitude and longitude on a small-scale map. (Remember latitude as “flat-itude”, the horizontal lines.)

Other standard reference systems are Area or Grid References – these are where each of the horizontal and vertical lines on the map have a two digit number. Another common reference system, often seen on those old-fashioned road maps in your grandparents’ car, are Letters and Numbers. Find the intersection in Grid A9, say.


Which way is north? This is important to know when you’re trying to read a map, so include a north-pointing arrow or a full compass rose somewhere out of the way. Unless there’s a very good reason, north should point towards the top of the page. (Our sheep-lovers above forgot this step. Maybe because they assumed anyone reading the map knows which way up Australia is.)


If you’ve decided an upside-down V means “mountain”, you have to let your map-readers know. Even if it’s only for your personal use, include a box in the corner that explains the meaning of all your symbols and colours.


What are we looking at here? Include a title so people know if this is a map of your favourite spearfishing site, all of Wollongong, East Germany in the 1970s or the Elven Kingdom of Ibus Canesh, where fursonas run free and even the goblins join archery competitions.


To be useful, a map has to tell you how much distance is covered by, say, each centimetre. This can be expressed as a drawn line, liiiike a 4cm line that’s equivalent to 4km on the ground, a sentence that explains that liiiiiike “1cm is equivalent to 1km on the ground”, or as a ratio liiiiiike 1:100,000.


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