You’ll probably recognise the iconic orange Ordnance Survey (OS) Explorer and pink OS Landranger maps. They’ve been loved by outdoor enthusiasts for decades, but how much do you know about their history? We explore the surprising evolution of OS’s most famous products.

How it all began

OS was formed in 1791 and published its first map in 1801. The agency went on to map the entire British Isles by the late 1880s – quite an achievement! The beginning of the OS Landranger map dates to that first product, a map of Kent at one-inch scale. OS’s original purpose was to produce a map that would assist the military to protect Britain. Kent was the area most at risk of French invasion, as England’s most south-easterly county, so was mapped first. The map was designed to help soldiers, showing the county’s communication routes and elaborate hill shading to highlight the landscape. In fact, OS had a military focus for some time. It supported the armed forces with maps during both world wars – printing an incredible 342,000,000 maps for World War Two alone.

After mapping the British Isles, OS printed several series of maps in various styles and formats. It was after World War One that it began producing experimental maps with the same scale as OS Explorer maps, 1:25 000 (with 1 mile equivalent to 2.5 inches on the map). They were created to help students with geography. OS hoped that if they proved popular more maps could be produced, intended to capture a growing interest in the great outdoors. At the dawn of World War Two, OS began releasing its New Popular Sixth Series. Each sheet covered 40 x 45km and included the National Grid. In the 1960s, the government introduced metrification and OS maps evolved again, by printing the 1:50 000 scale map for the first time. The First Series of these maps were printed in two blocks, in 1974 and then 1976.

A 1970's Outdoor Leisure map
A 1970’s Outdoor Leisure map

As the 1970s began, outdoor pursuits were becoming more popular. It was the perfect moment for OS to promote its 1:25 000 scale mapping. The national mapping agency printed its first Outdoor Leisure map, OL1, in 1972. It covered an area of the Peak District, the Dark Peak. Other OL maps soon followed, mapping Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and national parks. OS, spurred on by the popularity of these maps, developed the Pathfinders series.

Notably, Pathfinder maps of England and Wales featured all public rights of way. Walkers could now plan routes safe in the knowledge they wouldn’t be entering land without permission.




A 1970's Outdoor Leisure map

The Second Series of OS’s 1:50 000 maps appeared in the 1980s. OS had added some useful additions to the new series – tourist information and metric contours, being just two of them. Later, grid numbers were added to the body of the map, as well as tree symbols. And the most important change of all – the name ‘Landranger’ was added to the maps for the first time.







Explorer Maps

By the 1990s, Pathfinder maps were still popular. OS was working to make them more user-friendly though, with Explorer maps first printed in 1994. They covered areas of the Chilterns, Northumberland and the Mendips. They were an improvement on Pathfinder maps, plotting three times the area of the older series. They had more of a focus on leisure and tourism information too, with national park boundaries, youth hostels, picnic sites and more depicted on the maps. Now map readers could even plan where to visit the nearest public loo! OS converted all its Outdoor Leisure Maps and Pathfinder maps into the Explorer series by 2003.

The next decade brought an exciting opportunity for the public to get involved with OS map design. In 2015, the agency worked with The One Show to organise a competition to design new map symbols. Six winning symbols – for an art gallery, electric car charging point, skate park, toilet, solar farm and kite surfing – were chosen from over 7,000 entries. The symbols can now be seen on OS maps.


Explorer and Landranger maps today

Today the Explorer series is the OS Consumer business’ bestselling physical product range and Landranger maps have also seen a resurgence in popularity. OS Product Manager, Paul McGonigal thinks they’ve been particularly important since the start of the pandemic, enabling people to get to know their local area better. Both maps plot the whole of Britain, so wherever you are they’ve got you covered. There are 607 paper maps across the Explorer and Landranger series, 403 of which are Explorer and 204 of which are Landranger maps.

They’re all available in the ‘Active’ format – a weatherproof version of the map that’s produced at Dennis Maps, along with the classic paper versions. Handily, they all come with a digital download for the corresponding area too. Outdoor enthusiasts have another digital option as well, with the award-winning OS Maps app. Users have access to all Explorer and Landranger mapping, aerial photography, augmented reality and much more!

Mapping the future

So, what’s next for OS Landranger and Explorer maps? “We have a clear responsibility to protect these valuable assets and improve them wherever possible,” says Paul. OS is committed to continually reviewing the materials and processes it uses for its maps, ensuring they keep pace with changing user requirements and new technology around sustainability. Different substrates and sizes could also be possible in the future. We’re sure that whatever comes next will just be as exciting as the history of these iconic products.

This blog post is based on the following articles by Ordnance Survey: A history of paper maps, The beginning of our paper maps, Top 10 mapping moments in OS history, New OS map symbols make it into print and One Show map symbol competition winners.

All images courtesy of Ordnance Survey.

Dennis Maps is one of the leading map printers in the world, producing more than two million maps and charts every year. We offer comprehensive pre-press services, large format print solutions using both large format litho printing and large format digital print technologies, plus specialised map folding and map finishing techniques.

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