Ordnance Survey maps: sometimes government CAN do a great job

map, maps, OS maps, OS, Ordnance SurveyThe BBC recently interviewed a cartographer for the Ordnance Survey. This government department is in charge of mapping the United Kingdom, except for Northern Ireland, which has its own agency.

If you like maps or plan to hike in the UK, the Ordnance Survey maps are simply amazing. They’ve been measuring and drawing this green and pleasant land since the eighteenth century and produce the best maps I’ve ever used. In the interview, cartographer Dave Wareham explains how he uses GPS satellites and OS ground stations to get his measurements to within “a maximum tolerance of 2.6cm.” That’s one inch to you Yanks.

The smallest scale maps are truly amazing, with every fence, building, postbox, and public telephone carefully marked. If you know how to read a map and use a compass, it’s virtually impossible to get lost with one of these in your hand. Unfortunately, a poll back in 2007 discovered that the majority of Brits can’t read maps. If the UK government wasn’t ruthlessly slashing education spending they could add a map-reading course.

It’s nice to see a government project that works well. In the days of GPS and Google Maps, the Ordnance Survey still sells three million copies maps each year. They even turn a profit. My only quibble with the OS maps is that they’re updated only once every three or four years, which isn’t enough in some parts of the country, as I discovered while hiking the East Highland Way.

Still, they’re the best maps you’re going to find. If you’re having trouble shopping for that outdoorsy type in your life, grab some of these to inspire their next hike.