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Second Sense - Beyond Vision Loss

Mental Map: A Tool for Traveling with Less Worry

October 1, 2020 | Leave a Comment

by Eleni Gaves, COMS

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Compass Directions on the outside of circle


When you travel to a new destination, how do you know how to get there? What steps do you take to prepare so you will find your destination with minimal risk of getting lost?

A sighted person can use GPS, consult a physical map, read street signs and look out for visual landmarks.

People with vision loss, whether you use a cane or work with a guide dog, must think more carefully about how they will get to their destination. This is where a mental map comes in.

A mental map is a representation held in your mind and updated as you travel to keep you aware of where you are going. A mental map includes landmarks and clues like traffic that will guide your travel. You use this map to get where you want to go with less worry about missing an important turn or clue that will keep you on the right path.


Important Cues

The important things to remember when creating your mental map include:

  • Compass Directions: We use compass directions because they are universal. Nothing changes about where North is no matter which direction you are facing. This is does not hold true when using right or left. If during your travels, you get turned around without knowing, left now may mean right and you could easily miss your destination.
  • Traffic Sounds: In areas with moderate to heavy traffic, the traffic sounds can give you a way to orient yourself to the environment and keep you on track. Imagine walking North on Michigan Avenue. There is traffic on your left side. After you stop for a break, you can use that sound to continue North by keeping the traffic sound on your left. Or you can turn South by putting the traffic on your right.
  • Landmarks: Other landmarks can be physical places like train stations, open areas, water features, steps or changes on the surface you are walking on. They can also be the smell of fresh coffee at the corner shop or the sound of the elevated train. Good landmarks are unique enough that they happen only once on your route.

Planning and Updating Your Mental Map

  • Use the address. You can use it to predict how many blocks away your destination is, what side of the street it’s on and how far down the block it is.
  • Call ahead to get information that can help you identify the destination more reliably. Are there benches, window boxes or stairs? Maybe they play music or are near somewhere that plays music. Every detail you can get ahead of time will help you when you arrive in the area.
  • Ask yourself some questions: Based on your current location, do you need to cross streets? How many? Do you need to make a turn? Where? This is what makes up the largest part of your map.
  • Update your map. As you travel use traffic sounds or other landmarks to determine if you are where you expect to be. Is traffic on the correct side? What street are you on? What direction are you facing? Asking yourself these questions along the way, like using a checklist, will keep you on the right track.

Picturing the Route

  • A common way to think of the route is to use letters. An “I” shaped route is one that simply takes you down the street, while a “U” shape route will go down the street, over, and then back up a different street. An “L” shape route will take you down the street and over. If you can identify a letter or shape that closely resembles the overall shape of the route, it will be easier to keep in mind the turns you have in your route.
  • This is an easy element of mental mapping to practice. Think about routes you normally travel and determine what shape they are.


Creating a mental map is a skill that goes along with your other travel skills like analyzing traffic patterns, using your other senses to determine your location and asking for directions. There are a lot of factors that go into creating and using a mental map, but once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll have no problem, and travelling independently will be much easier. Hopefully this gives you a way to start thinking about things, or add to some of the techniques you were already using in your travel.

Join us on Thursday, October 15, 2020 for a remote workshop on creating mental maps for independent travel. Please call 312-236-8569 or email Eleni Gaves to register.

Eleni is Second Sense’s Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist

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