Creating maps in QGIS: Where to start?

Now that you have QGIS 3.4 installed and running, what do you do next? In this post I will show you where to get your GIS (geographic information system) data, and how to open them in QGIS.

1. Download GIS files. We’ll start off easy—we need to download GIS shapefiles from Natural Earth. If shapefile is a foreign word for you, don’t panic! A shapefile is basically a geospatial vector data format that GIS software can read. A shapefile is made up of atleast three different files and you will notice it when you unzip your downloads; .shp, .dbf and .shx. This post from GIS Lounge explains it well.

Natural Earth website screenshot
You can download all the cultural files in one go (link on top of the page) or you can start with these layers:
Admin 0- Countries
Admin 0- Boundary Lines
Admin 0 – Breakaway, Disputed Areas
Admin 1 – States, Provinces

Optional layers from the Physical Vectors page:

After unzipping the files, I placed them in one folder for easy access.

2. Drag and drop all the .shp layers to QGIS. I will start with two layers, so it won’t be two overwhelming. Here I have the countries shapefile, and the disputed areas shapefile. You can see your layers on the Layers Panel on the left side of the screen.

The next step is to learn how to style the layers (unless you want to keep your map purple—or whatever color QGIS picked for you)  and to familiarize yourself with the Layer Properties window, or the Layer Styling column. We can explore that in the next post.