UK Outdoor Leisure Maps – A Brief Comparison

Ordnance Survey maps are the ‘go to’ maps for most people. But are they necessarily the best maps to use for every situation and environment? As it’s National Map Reading week, I thought I’d give a little summary of the differences between the two ‘big boys’ of UK cartography.

The two I’m talking about are Ordnance Survey and Harveys. Before we go into details, it’s worth noting one obvious difference in terms of coverage. Ordnance Survey have the whole of the UK covered, whereas Harveys only focus on the areas commonly frequented by walkers, mainly the National Parks. Both offer two popular scales. Ordnance Survey have the 1:50k Landranger series, and the more detailed 1:25k Explorer series. Harveys have the 1:25k Superwalker maps, and the 1:40k British Mountain Map. They also have a newer range of maps, also 1:40k, called the Ultramap, and a smaller range of mountain summit maps at more detailed scale of 1:12,500. All the Harveys maps are waterproof (so far as I know), however Ordnance Survey offer a choice of either paper maps or heavier duty waterproof laminated maps which they call ‘Active’ maps.

The various map products
The various map products

Basically, the OS Explorer map is a finer detail version of the Landranger. Naturally, it covers a smaller area but contains much more information. It will shade land designated as Open Access land, it will contain finer gradient detail (there’s 5m between contour lines on the Explorer as opposed to 10m on the Landranger), and it will show many more points of reference and historical information. For example, grouse butts on open moorland will be shown, stone circles, sites of achaeological interest, distinctive rocks, field boundaries, etc. I personally find that the landranger is more than sufficient for navigation in hilly or mountainous regions, where the contour lines are a little clearer and the shape of the mountains easier to picture. The Explorer map on the other hand is perhaps guilty of showing too much information in mountainous areas, with the detailed graphics of rock features often getting in the way of actually seeing the contours. It can quite easily look a mess. There’s also not a lot of difference in colouring, the many labels can be in quite small print, and the contour lines so faint and close together that it sometimes isn’t exactly clear what you’re looking at. Where the Explorer map really comes into it’s own is on bleak open moorland such as the Dark Peak area, where points of reference are at a minimum and chances of becoming disoriented are high. This is where it becomes really useful to have grouse butts shown, or distinctive rock formations, or even stakes in the ground. Those details can be vital in helping you to get a bearing on where you are. The display of open access land is also useful for those times when you may want to leave the path and go exploring without fear you’re trespassing on private land. The ‘Active’ variety of maps are indeed waterproof and are very durable, however can also be quite bulky and cumbersome to handle.

Ordnance Survey 1:50k
Ordnance Survey 1:50k (Landranger)
Ordnance Survey 1:25k (Explorer)
Ordnance Survey 1:25k (Explorer)

Harveys maps, in their own words, are made by walkers, for walkers. They contain no information that might be deemed superfluous by the average walker, therefore much of the historical information on the OS maps is missing from the Harveys maps. This, combined with a 15m height gain between contour lines, more variety of colour and contrast, and larger print makes for a much clearer and cleaner looking map. In the main, they show similar tracks and paths to the OS maps. There are some differences though in that these show some tracks missing from the OS maps and vice versa. It’s in the mountains where the Harveys maps really impress. In these areas, it’s actually the 1:40k mountain maps that contain the best detail as opposed to the 1:25k Superwalker variety. In the mountain maps, shading and colour is used to denote elevation so it’s easy to see at a glance where the higher areas are aswell as the valleys. The contour lines also change colour to denote a change in terrain. They’re brown on vegetated slopes (most of the time), however change to grey to denote terrain that is predominantly rocky. Also what I find useful is the labelling of popular crags used by climbers and scramblers. Areas of bog are also very clearly shown – something that’s useful for a walker looking for the best route between two points. The lettering is bigger than the equivalent on the OS maps, probably as there’s less to label, meaning that it’s much easier to find locations instead of squinting at a cluster of smallprint words trying to find the place you’re looking for. One other notable thing to mention is that their waterproof maps are still very lightweight and only weigh half as much as a laminated map.

Harveys British Mountain Map example
Harveys British Mountain Map example
Equivalent area in OS Landranger
Equivalent area in OS Landranger

The Superwalker maps pretty much use the same mapping as the mountain maps however don’t contain the layer shading to show elevation, and are missing the labels for popular crags. They’re also missing some geological information that can be found on the mountain maps. The Ultramaps are very similar to the Superwalker maps, except they’ve been condensed to a 1:40k scale. They’re very compact and easy to slip into a pocket. They’re also designed so that you can easily open to any part of the map without having to unfold the whole thing. Where the Harveys Maps struggle is in areas like the Dark Peak and Dartmoor. As I mentioned earlier, the OS 1:25k maps are really useful in labelling many points of reference that are useful for navigation across spacious bleak moorland. Many of these things, such as grouse butts for example, are missing in the Harveys Maps. Due to the 15m gaps between contour lines, the OS maps may also be clearer in areas where there isn’t such dramatic and consistent height gains and losses on a walk. Another feature missing from Harveys is the display of Open Access land. This would have been a very useful addition although I’m not sure how they’d show it without it interfering with all the other shading currently being used on their maps. The denotation of walls and boundaries is open to debate. The Ordnance Survey maps certainly show more, however some users of the Harvey maps have claimed that they’re more accurate in showing what’s actually still there, excluding old remains of walls that are no longer in use. Where Ordnance Survey most certainly win is in their online mapping options. Full access can be gained to all their Landranger and Explorer maps in digital format for a modest fee of £19.99 per year (if the auto renewal option is chosen). Routes can be created and used on the OSMaps android app, or alternatively exported and reimported into the navigation app of your choice, such as Viewranger. It’s a very nice tool.

Harveys Superwalker example
Harveys Superwalker example
Equivalent area in OS Explorer
Equivalent area in OS Explorer

Of course, these days there are many walkers that have given up with the use of a paper map, preferring instead to use an app, GPS, and in many cases a pre-plotted route to follow. For this type of navigation, I’d personally say that there’s nothing wrong with using the Thunderforest Landscape maps, based on OpenStreetMap data and therefore free to use. The maps are available in Viewranger by default, along with some other popular navigation apps. The maps look very clean and show contour lines, paths, field boundaries, and streams quite clearly, along with the use of colours to denote terrain. Because OpenStreetMap is completely open, relying on contributions from the community, it tends to show more paths than both OS and Harveys, although some of these paths and tracks are sometimes of dubious quality and turn out to be nothing more than a sheep track. The exact path that the tracks take are also easier to see due to the scaling being dynamic, therefore allowing the user to zoom in to see an area in high detail. The map does miss a lot of the finer detail contained on the Harveys and Ordnance Survey maps, and the contour lines are smoothed out meaning that it doesn’t really show the true shape of the terrain quite as well as the other two. It does excel in urban areas though, especially if you switch from the landscape map back to the standard OpenStreetMap view. It’s better than Google maps in my opinion.

Example of a Thunderforest Landscape map - used in various apps including Viewranger
Example of a Thunderforest Landscape map – used in various apps including Viewranger

So which one’s best? Well – the answer is, it depends. In my opinion, the Harveys British Mountain Maps are the best in mountainous terrain such as the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands. The Ordnance Survey Explorer maps are better in areas of spacious moorland, or lower level countryside. And of course, in many many areas outside of the national parks, the OS maps are the only choice. If you’re following a pre-plotted route however on an app using GPS, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the OpenStreetMap based stuff. I’ve used it myself many times. Never forget though that you’re completely reliant on your phones battery life and its ability to operate in adverse weather conditions. It’s always wise to have one of the paper maps in your rucksack, just in case. Assuming of course that you know how to use it! In all honesty, I love all of them and would love to have a copy of each. Both Harveys and Ordnance Survey produce fantastic maps and it’s easy to take for granted how good they actually are. We’re definitely spoilt for choice in what’s probably the best mapped country in the world.

Useful Links

Ordnance Survey – National Map Reading Week
Visual Comparison of Harveys Maps and OS Maps at RouteBuddy.com
Buy Ordnance Survey Maps from the official online shop
Website for OSMaps
By Harveys Maps from the official online shop
Viewranger website

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