Which UK Road Atlas?

Can you read a road map? In these days of SatNavs, GPS devices and Google maps, it's amazing how many people can't read proper road maps anymore. But with all these devices at our fingertips, do we really have to?

I think we do need conventional maps from time to time, - especially if you are planning a touring vacation.

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Do You Really Need UK Road Maps?

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Maps give you the big picture - If you are printing out directions from an online mapping system, you don't really get much sense of geography. If you enlarge the map enough to see road names, turnings, landmarks, you are only going to be able to see rectangles of a few miles at a time - what you can print on a standard, letter-sized piece of stationery. If you zoom out to see more of the landscape, you don't get enough usable detail to plot your course.

With a map or road atlas you can see where you are in relationship to bigger areas - in the case of a UK road atlas, even in terms of the whole of the country, yet you can quickly pick out the roads and routes in your immediate vicinity. How far apart are the cities and towns you'd like to see and where are they in relation to each other? Can you plan a reasonable circuit taking in lots of stops? GPS navigation is good for getting you from A to B, but if you want to add C,D and E to your itinerary you need to look at a map to see in what order you should travel one to the other.

Maps give you ideas - If you are the kind of traveler who likes to tour a region, stopping off at things that catch your attention and interest, a map is the best way to see what's around. Say the attraction or landmark you planned took less time to visit than you thought it would. Or isn't all that great. Or is unexpectedly closed. A good road atlas, marked with landmarks, national parks, indications of footpaths, or just dotted with names of places you've heard or or read about, can give you loads of ideas of where to point your vehicle next, help you deal with detours and plan side trips. Try asking your SatNav, Where shall we go next? and see how far that gets you.

GPS devices can get it wrong - When I bought my first SatNav I was so excited to have it that I occasionally forgot to take my road atlas. Big mistake. There was the time I spent four hours and a tankful of petrol going just 60 miles from home because my SatNav thought my car was a crow and tried to take the as-the-crow-flies route - up and down farm tracks, into unpaved wooded lumbering roads, and worse. On another occasion, in a particularly rural part of the UK I ended up driving on a steadily narrowing road with no way to turn around, into a scene from "Deliverance." The man sitting outside his trailer, reading a tabloid and drinking beer in his string vest, simply said, "SatNav send you here?" Since those experiences, I use a map to get me close to my destination and just turn on She-who-must-be-obeyed (the voice of my dominatrix GPS) when I am almost there.

Parts of the UK have poor satellite coverage - Some of the more remote or rural parts of the UK seem to confuse GPS devices. They don't seem to read minor roads very well. So in parts of the Scottish Highlands, Wales, Dartmoor, the Lake District and similar areas, you need good maps.

Click here to find out which of the popular UK Road Atlases is right for you.

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AA and A-Z Road Atlases Compared

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The Automobile Association (AA) has published road atlases in Britain for years and for many drivers they are the automatic, turn-to reference works when you need a map on the road. Mine get a lot of use and have to be replaced every couple of years.

This year, I decided to have a look at the A-Z Great Britain Road Atlas as an alternative. Although these have been published for several years, A-Z (referred to as "A to Zed" by the British) is better known as a mapper and publisher of detailed, city guides indexed alphabetically and by post code. About.com's London expert, Laura Porter, calls their London Streetfinder A-Z "the only map of London you'll ever need." Even when using their smart phones, online mapping tools and GPS devices, most Londoners also have a well-used, dog-eared copy of the "A to Zed". It's useful for finding the nearest London Underground stations, and bus stops, museums and some of the bigger shops and attractions. Beyond their maps, the key strengths of the A-Z guides are their post code indexes which help you distinguish one High Street, or Station Road, or Waterloo Terrace from another. Most London street names are duplicated many times over and the post code in the A-Z index is the key to finding your way.

Would their road atlas be just as good or better than the AA atlases? When they offered me a review copy, I decided to see for myself.

What I Compared

Each atlas has slightly different features. The A-Z promotes itself as "SatNav Friendly" . As far as I can make out, this is based on one page at the end of its index pages with the post codes of several hundred landmarks, attractions and places of interest. You can then enter the post codes into your GPS. But why would you want to schlep around a road atlas just for that when you can look up a post code to punch into your GPS in any number of digital ways?

I just compared the map pages because in years of driving around Britain I have never found the additional feature pages to be of much use. What matters is what you can find on a map when you are on the road. I compared AA Great Britain and Ireland 2015 and A-Z Great Britain Road Atlas 2015.

Although I prefer a larger scale of 3 miles to 1 inch, I used the slightly more compressed 4 miles to 1 inch scale for this comparison. To compare like with like, a looked at the same area in both atlases - a section around Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath, south of London. The two are pictured, side by side, above.

The Differences

The graphics of the AA map are much easier to read. "A" roads (main, non-motorway routes) on both maps are color coded red and "B" or secondary roads are colored yellow. But on the AA map, the lines representing the secondary roads are also a bit narrower making it easier to find the faster or better roads at a glance. Both maps show undesignated roads - usually country lanes and such - in paler gray but they seem to be larger and easier to see on the AA map.

Place names are different sizes on both maps, indicating the relative size of the city or town, but a good deal more bold face is used on the A-Z map. Trying to read all that bold type is a bit like trying to read a page studded with exclamation points. The equally heavy colored lines of the A and B roads make the A-Z map confusing and hard to scan, particularly in areas where a lot of place names are close togther.

One feature for which the A-Z map scores higher is in the identification of speed cameras. They are shown as bright yellow circles with the speed in bold black inside them. On the AA map, these are indicated as stylised black cameras with white numerals inside. The numerals, are not very clear and many would need a magnifying glass to read them.

But there are a lot of speed cameras around Britain and putting so many bright indicators of them on a map, as the A-Z does, just adds to the clutter and confusion. I would happily sacrifice this feature for a clearer, easier to read map.

The Verdict

When I'm on the road, I can live without features I will never use. All I want is a good clear map that provides enough information to help me get where I am going and to choose where I might like to go next. Clarity is paramount and on that score, the graphics of the AA Road Atlas wins hands down.

Disclosure: A review copy of the A-Z Road Atlas was provided by the publisher. It was compared to an AA Road Atlas that was my own. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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