What is a MAP Key How is it Used

To understand what a map key is, first, you need to know about the legend of a map. A legend contains symbols that represent specific things. For example, some maps might have symbols for different types of vegetation or land use on them. The legend tells you which symbol corresponds with each type of vegetation or land use. Legend symbols are often located in the bottom left corner of a map.

Each legend symbol is also given a unique identifying label or abbreviation. These labels are used on the map to identify specific features in different colors, shapes, or sizes. A key is an organized list that matches symbols in the legend with labels that are displayed on the map.

Usually, you will find the key at the bottom of the map. Sometimes there will be two different keys on a map, one for land use or vegetation and another for political boundaries, roads, or other manmade features. The legend symbols are usually paired with their corresponding labels in alphabetical order so they can quickly be referred back to when labeling features on the map.

Now that you know about the legend and key, it’s time to learn how to use them. You can take a look at both symbols and labels on the map key and match each one up with their corresponding symbol or label in the legend. Pay close attention when matching symbols and labels so you don’t get anything switched around!

If there are different colors or shapes used for certain Map symbols or labels, then it is important to be aware of what color belongs with certain symbols and which shape belongs with certain labels. To aid in your map labeling, try using a highlighter to mark off each symbol-label match as you make them.

What is a Map Key?

A map key, also known as a legend or map legend, is a visual guide that explains the symbols, colors, and other features used on a map. The key provides a reference for the map reader to understand the meaning of various map elements, such as roads, rivers, landmarks, contours, and other features.

The symbols and colors used in a map can vary depending on the map’s purpose and level of detail, and a key helps to ensure that the reader is interpreting the map correctly. Without a map key, a map can be difficult to read and interpret, as the reader may not know what each symbol or color represents.

Overall, the map key is an essential component of any map and helps to make it easier for the reader to understand the map’s content and information.

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The Purpose of Keys and Symbols on Maps: Unlocking the Language of Maps

Maps are powerful tools that provide us with a visual representation of our world. They allow us to navigate unfamiliar territory, plan routes, and gain a better understanding of our surroundings. However, without a proper understanding of the symbols and markings used on a map, it can be challenging to interpret the information accurately. This is where a map key, also known as a legend, becomes indispensable.

Explain the Purpose of a Key on a Map

The purpose of a key on a map is to provide a visual guide that helps the reader understand the meaning of various map elements, such as symbols, colors, and other features. Maps can include a wide variety of information, such as roads, rivers, landmarks, elevation, and natural features, and each of these elements may be represented by a unique symbol or color. The key provides a reference for the reader to interpret these elements correctly and accurately.

For example, on a road map, different types of roads, such as highways, freeways, and local roads, may be represented by different colors or line styles. Without a key, the reader may not know which color or style represents which type of road. Similarly, on a topographic map, elevation may be represented by contour lines, and each contour line may represent a specific elevation. The key explains the meaning of the contour lines and the elevation they represent.

Overall, the key on a map is an essential component that helps the reader understand the map’s content and information accurately. Without a key, a map can be confusing and difficult to interpret, and the reader may not be able to use the map effectively.

Types of Symbols Found in a Map Key

A map key serves as a guide to decipher the meaning behind the various symbols and colors used on a map. It acts as a translator, helping us understand the language of maps. Here are some common types of symbols you may encounter in a map key:

Maps Colors:

Different colors are often used to represent specific features or characteristics on a map. For example, blue might indicate water bodies such as rivers, lakes, or oceans, while green can represent forests or vegetation. Understanding the color scheme of a map key allows us to quickly identify and comprehend these features.


Maps utilize different types of lines to convey information. A solid line may represent roads, railways, or boundaries, while a dashed line could signify a trail or an area under construction. The thickness and style of lines can also carry meaning. By referring to the map key, we can discern the purpose and significance of these line variations.


Maps use a wide range of symbols to denote specific landmarks, buildings, or points of interest. These symbols can include icons for schools, hospitals, parks, airports, and more. Each symbol holds its own significance, and the map key ensures we can comprehend its meaning at a glance.


In order to fit a large amount of information into a limited space, maps often employ abbreviations. These shorthand notations can represent anything from street names to geographical features. Without the map key, deciphering these abbreviations would be a daunting task.


A map key may also include a scale bar, which provides a visual representation of distance. This helps us gauge the actual size and distances between different locations on the map. Whether it’s miles, kilometers, or a different unit of measurement, the scale bar helps us understand the relative distances portrayed on the map.

How to Read and Interpret a Map Key

Reading a map key is a fundamental skill for anyone looking to navigate and understand maps effectively. Here are a few steps to guide you through the process:

Locate the map key:

The map key is usually located in a corner or along the edge of the map. It is typically denoted by a title such as “Map Key” or “Legend.” Once you’ve found it, take a moment to familiarize yourself with its layout.

Identify the symbols:

Examine the various symbols present in the map key. Pay attention to the shapes, colors, and any accompanying labels or descriptions. Take note of what each symbol represents, as this will be crucial in understanding the information conveyed by the map.

Refer to the map:

With the map key in mind, scan the map for symbols that match those in the legend. By associating the symbols on the map with their corresponding explanations in the key, you can interpret the features and information portrayed.

Consider the context:

While the map key provides a general understanding of the symbols, it’s essential to consider the context of the map. Factors such as the scale, orientation, and any accompanying textual information can provide additional insights and aid in accurate interpretation.

Uses of a Key on a Map

A map key, also known as a legend, is a visual explanation of the symbols used on a map. It is usually located in the lower-right corner of the map and includes a brief description of each symbol, as well as the scale of the map.

The key is an important part of any map, as it allows you to understand what the symbols mean and how to interpret the map. Without a key, it would be very difficult to use a map effectively.

Here are some of the uses of a key on a map:

  • Identifying features: The key can help you identify different features on the map, such as roads, rivers, cities, and mountains.
  • Understanding the scale: The key can help you understand the scale of the map, which is the relationship between the distance on the map and the distance on the ground.
  • Interpreting the map: The key can help you interpret the map, such as understanding the direction of roads or the elevation of mountains.

If you are using a map, it is important to always consult the key to understand what the symbols mean. This will help you use the map effectively and get the most out of it.

Here are some examples of symbols that you might find on a map key:

  • Roads: Roads are usually represented by lines. The width of the line can indicate the type of road, such as a major highway or a local road.
  • Rivers: Rivers are usually represented by blue lines. The width of the line can indicate the size of the river.
  • Cities: Cities are usually represented by circles or squares. The size of the symbol can indicate the size of the city.
  • Mountains: Mountains are usually represented by triangles. The height of the triangle can indicate the elevation of the mountain.

These are just a few examples of the many symbols that you might find on a map key. It is important to consult the key for each map to see what symbols are used and what they mean.

Examples of Map Keys in Different Types of Maps

Map keys are utilized in various types of maps to assist with interpretation. Let’s explore a few examples:

Topographic Maps:

These maps depict the physical features of a region, including contours, elevations, and landforms. A map key for a topographic map might include symbols for mountains, valleys, cliffs, and rivers, helping us understand the terrain.

Road Maps:

Road maps focus on transportation networks, highlighting highways, roads, and intersections. The map key in this case would provide symbols for different types of roads, such as highways, local roads, or one-way streets.

Weather Maps:

Weather maps illustrate atmospheric conditions and patterns. The map key might include symbols for various weather phenomena, such as rain, snow, clouds, or fronts, allowing meteorologists and enthusiasts to interpret the current weather conditions.

Tourist Maps:

These maps cater to travelers and tourists, showcasing points of interest, landmarks, and attractions. The map key for a tourist map would feature symbols representing hotels, museums, restaurants, and other tourist destinations.

The Importance of Map Keys in Navigation and Planning

Map keys play a vital role in navigation and planning by providing clarity and understanding. Here are a few reasons why map keys are indispensable:

Efficient interpretation:

Map keys enable quick and accurate interpretation of maps by decoding the symbols used. This saves time and allows users to focus on navigating or planning their journey effectively.

Enhanced navigation:

By understanding the symbols and features on a map, individuals can navigate with confidence. Whether it’s identifying nearby amenities or plotting a route, the map key provides essential information for successful navigation.

Effective planning:

When preparing for a trip or adventure, having a thorough understanding of the map key allows for better planning. It enables users to identify areas of interest, evaluate distances, and choose the most suitable routes based on their needs.

Promotes safety:

A clear comprehension of map symbols and their meanings promotes safety in outdoor activities. Whether it’s avoiding hazardous areas or seeking emergency services, the map key equips users with the necessary information to make informed decisions and stay secure.

What is the difference between a legend and a key?

The terms legend and key are often used interchangeably, but there are some subtle differences:

  • A legend usually refers to the explanatory text accompanying a figure, image, or map. It helps identify symbols or patterns used in the graphic. A key is a more structured visual guide that translates symbols into words or phrases.
  • A legend tends to be more open-ended and discursive, while a key is a tighter cross-reference between specific symbols and their meanings.
  • Legends are more commonly used with geographical maps, while keys are more widely used in statistical charts, graphs, and diagrams.
  • A legend usually appears within or next to the figure it refers to, while a key is often placed at the margin or in a separate box adjacent to the figure.
  • Legends explain and provide context, while keys simply label and define. Keys are a bit more abstract, focusing on one-to-one correspondences between symbols and referents.

So in short, the main differences are:

  • A legend is more explanatory while a key is more definitional.
  • A legend appears integrated with the figure while a key tends to be in a separate section.
  • A legend is used more often with maps while keys are used more widely with charts and graphs.

But in most cases, either a legend or key can be used to label and annotate a visual representation to help the reader decode and interpret it. For many graphics, legend, and key are interchangeable terms.


In conclusion, the map key serves as a crucial tool for unlocking the language of maps. By understanding the types of symbols found in a map key, learning how to read and interpret it effectively, and exploring examples of map keys in different types of maps, individuals can harness the power of maps for navigation, planning, and exploration. So next time you find yourself with a map in hand, remember to refer to the map key and unlock the world of possibilities that lie before you.

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