Touring tip #1: Why Ordnance Survey maps are best and how to get them for free

The British Isles are blessed with the world’s best maps for travel and adventure, made by the expert cartographers of the Ordnance Survey. There’s nothing like stopping by the side of the road, leaning your bicycle up against a dry stone wall and wrestling with a rapidly, uncontrollably unfolding paper map, like a waiter at a windy seaside restaurant fighting a losing battle with a large tablecloth. Eventually, you get the map under control, pinpoint your location and are filled with joy to discover that just a few yards away, in the field on the other side of the dry stone wall, is a neolithic hut circle!

Of course, proponents of the wiki-democratic Open Street Map loath the Ordnance Survey with a passion. It stands for everything they’re against: closed systems, the tyranny of the professional and paying for stuff. The Open Street Map is a marvel of internet technology and collective, volunteer action. In many ways, it is far more powerful than a paper map. But there is such a thing as too much information. And too little. On my travels I have found whole villages absent from OSM (I dutifully added them to the OSM database when I returned home).

If maps are works of art, I find the Open Street Map less attractive to look at and less easily comprehensible than an OS map. Open Street Map feels cold and computer-generated when compared to the subtle craft of the Ordnance Survey’s cartography.

Ordnance Survey Landranger Series (1:50,000)

Andy Allan's Open Cycle Map (a version of the Open Street Map), for comparison

More importantly, the Open Street Map is only available on a computer screen. Call me a Luddite but I like a nice, big paper map where I can gaze, like Gulliver in Lilliput, over an entire landscape laid out before me. With a computer map I get lost scrolling back and forward and zooming in and out. And once you’re on the road, what use is a computer map?

That’s all very well, I hear you say, if you’ve got deep pockets. It’s true, OS paper maps are expensive. OS Landranger maps are 40km x 40km, and an enthusiastic cyclist with a decent tailwind could well travel across a whole sheet in a single afternoon. At £6.99 (less on Amazon) the costs for a tour can mount up. Some might quibble that the optimum scale for the touring cyclist is 1:80,000 rather than the 1:50,000 of the OS Landranger series and they might have a point.

But help is at hand in the form of your nearest public library. Most keep a complete range of OS maps: both 1:25:000 (best for walking or for scoping out possible wild camping spots) and the more cyclist-friendly 1:50,000 as well as the somewhat rough-and-ready Touring Series. They’re usually the more expensive, laminated, weather-proof, fold-resistant versions too.

My local library allows me to borrow up to twelve maps for three weeks at a time. I can even renew them online. Even if you prefer to use a GPS device for navigating – and there’ll be a post on digital mapping and GPS to follow – for general route planning, there’s nothing like sitting down at a gigantic table in a library map room with a chaotic expanse of OS maps to make you feel like a real, bonafide adventurer. On a rainy day such as today, can there be any better way to prepare for a bicycle tour?

This is the first in a series of articles, tips and notes about cycle touring.

16 thoughts on “Touring tip #1: Why Ordnance Survey maps are best and how to get them for free

  1. I love maps too and always buy a new one in whatever area I’m in. They are lovingly marked with cycle rides and walks that we’ve been on. And reminders like, ‘peregrine’ and a date, or nice pub.
    You can’t beat an OS.

  2. No doubt you’re familiar with Mike Parker’s recent book ‘Map Addict’? He’s also an OS fan…
    I’m trying, by accident, to obtain all 204 OS Landrangers.

    In other words, I’m not interested in buying maps purely to fill in the gaps; I buy them as and when I cycle there, if I don’t already have the one covering it.

    One day I hope to find I’ve finally got round to buying the final obscure piece of the strange square-piece OS jigsaw, 29 say (Banff & Huntly, Portsoy & Turriff) or 83 (Newton Stewart & Kirkcudbright, Gatehouse of Fleet).

    And once I’ve spotted a curious thing on an OS map, I can’t resist cycling to it – the only place in Britain with a capital X in the name, say, or two separate villages next to each other with the same name, or the blankest square, or the point furthest from a road. I’ve blogged about such places at

  3. It’s horses for courses, surely? When planning – say, a long cycle tour – there’s a lot of joy to be had poring over paper OS maps. I also enjoy poring over them online, via

    And when cycling I use OS mapping on my iPhone by using

    • Like most Open Source projects, OpenStreetMap is useful if you’re lucky enough to need a bit that’s been lucky enough to receive some focus. If I want to get around Wokingham, every house is there, numbered and more or less properly positioned (although neat rows of houses deviate from a straight line by more than half their length in places). Go to Gillingham and you find no house/house numbers, multiple, inaccurate labels, obvious labels missing, etc.

      If I actually have to rely on a map, I’ll take the OS every time.

    • In my experience, an iPhone battery will last about 3 hours between charges when used for turn-by-turn navigation on the road. I don’t want to be slave to the charger, or spend time rigging up something to connect my dynohub to the iPhone.

      I know there are external power packs available but it all adds to the clutter of devices and one of the things I enjoy about cycle touring is the freedom from technology.

      You’re absolutely right that OS maps are weaker for big cities, or even large towns. That’s when a map enabled smart phone can come in handy, and I’ll be posting on the pros and cons of GPS and computer mapping later this week.

      • That’s if you’re using the phone constantly. On bike tours I’ve used satnav apps when necessary and turned ’em off when not. Full day is then possible. The beauty of an iPhone app (or three) is that it’s on the tech piece of kit you’re already schlepping.

        It’s not either/or. You can love printed OS maps (I have a box by my desk groaning with them) but the ease of navigation on-the-go, having a digital and scrolling OS map on your handlebars, is excellent, too.

  4. I’ve just completed a four day tour around East Anglia. One of our group had a Garmin. He devised our route on the internet in advance and uploaded it. My Dad had an OS map as back up. On day two, the Garmin had a funny five minutes, and for the rest of the weekend decided we were a car that needed to get to our destinations by major A roads. Just as well then that we had an OS to hand (although we did have to stop a few times to unfold the thing!)

  5. Tracklogs, Memory Map, Anquet offer OS mapping in digital form. It’s not cheap (though a lot cheaper than it used to be) at c£120 for 1:50 Great Britain, £80 for England though you can buy smaller segments and add to them over time. You can then print just the areas you need for your trip and print at whatever scale is most appropriate. I stick the printed maps in an A4 document sleeve and seal the end with tape to create a pocketable waterproof map.

    That’s not to say I don’t have a fair collection of folded maps as well. If the Landrangers are nice the 1:25 Explorers are another level of beauty. I’ve tried and failed to love OpenStreetMap.

  6. I love the maps too, they are also part of my day to day job. And I will add that the OS maps are indeed very good but having used the French IGN extensively will add that these are at least as good and I would argue to be the best in the world!
    Thanks again for the show!

    • I agree. The IGN Top 100 series is superb for cycle-touring. As well as a better scale, the IGN maps stand up to rougher treatment than the OS maps, they are just as clear and informative (although I once found a dolmen in Brittany which wasn’t marked on the Top25 for the area), and they don’t have the annoying cardboard cover which can so easily tear the map when you remove it. IGN does some excellent weather-proof maps, such as the 1:12 000 plan of Paris, which is untearable and waterproof, a nicer material than say the Harvey maps, and compact for a cycling jersey’s pocket, unlike the laminated OS maps, which are all bulk. It would be cyclists’ heaven if both OS and IGN did a full set of 1:100 000 maps in this material.

  7. I’d echo your appreciation for the OS… but believe it or not, I’m an OSM person!

    OSM people don’t “loathe the OS with a passion”. Not at all. I’m lead developer of OpenStreetMap’s online editing software and a member of the OSM Foundation board, which I guess qualifies me as a “proponent of OpenStreetMap”. And I love the OS. The Landrangers are the single best cartography anywhere in the world. I look left to my map shelf and see about 70 of them, plus a complete set of the 1940s New Popular Edition one-inch maps.

    But they can’t do everything. On the topic of cycling, for example, the OS has never quite got the hang of showing the NCN, which OSM (in OpenCycleMap guise) does extraordinarily well. OSM’s “one dataset, many renderings” concept means that you can make cycle maps showing path surfaces, gates, cycle lanes, whatever you like. Even on paper – Sustrans’ new regional cycling maps, for example, are made by Cycle City Guides from OpenStreetMap data. And sure, you can indeed make boring maps from OSM data, but you can also make artistic ones: take some of the amazing stuff that US design firm Stamen have done.

    A couple of years ago Mary Spence, president of the British Cartographic Society, cited OSM as the one online mapping service that _doesn’t_ suffer from “corporate blankwash” ( I’ll admit to using both OSM and OS maps when touring – OSM on a handlebar-mounted Garmin, a Landranger or two in the panniers – and I’m sure I’m not alone.

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Richard. You’re right. Not all OSM people oppose OS. But I definitely recall OSM boosters who said the new tech of the internet would one day supplant the old tech of the OS.

      Stamen have done some cute work with OSM data but most of it is decorative rather than functional. The wonder of the best OS maps is that their beauty is matched by their functionality, you could say they enhance one another.

      As to the presentation of cycle routes, I actually prefer the green dots of the OS to the heavy shading of the Open Cycle Map, which I find visually overpowering. Cycle routes are largely wayfaring tools rather than real infrastructure, so the green dots somehow seem more appropriate.

  8. So Ordnance Survey maps are “best”….. because you have an irrational, emotional attachment to them? I’ll stick to OpenStreetMap thanks.

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