Reading Topo Maps: Topographical Map Skills

Practicing a map of a familiar area helps you identify landmarks related to the counter lines on your map. Topographical maps give you the power to visualize the three-dimensional view of terrain, and they more information compared to trail maps, and they provide us realistic view of the actual landscape.

Reading topographical maps requires knowledge about reading contour lines, reading index lines, knowing the interval between the counter lines.

The understanding evaluation including steep and, identifying the direction of the river and streams flow and of the map. The first thing you might want to see on any top map is the details of Legend, let’s see How to read and understand a legend.

Understanding Map Legend:

Understanding Map Legend

Map Legend

You can find a lot of essential details at the bottom of the top map it lists the significant details like map scale, contour intervals, index line intervals, map reading clues and magnetic declination for using a compass. Let's see what does each element indicates.

Map Scale:

Large scale maps give you more information than small scale maps. Let's say for an example a map scale of 1:20,000 means that one inch on the map is equivalent to 20,000 inches on the ground.

scale of map

Map Scale:

So, depends on the scale ratio 1: 20,000 maps are considered to be large and 1:1,20,000 scale is deemed to be small. So, it's good to have an understanding of map scale. With a large-scale map,it’s possible to see more details compared to small scale maps.

Reading Contour lines

Reading counter lines
  • Contour lines are also called isolines shows the equal elevation on a map at defined intervals. Counter lines can tell you whether you are hiking an uphill, downhill, or over flat territory.
  • Closer lines indicate a Steeper Slope so when the contour lines are very close together that indicates a Steep.
  • Distant contour lines show a gentle slope lines will be spread much a part.
  • Elevations are heights between contour lines.
  • The peak is the Highest point of the mountain; the peak is a complete circle within the center with the highest elevation.

Contour interval

Change in height between one contour line to another is called contour interval, and it is always same on the map.

Color illustration on Topographic Maps

Brown: To Indicate Contour Lines.

Green: Shows the sparse or denser vegetation.

Blue: You might have guessed it already, it indicates water, lakes, swamps, and rivers. In areas where snow and ice are usually present year-round, glaciers shown in blue.

Black: Represents actual hiking trails.

Red Indicates roads and boundaries.

How to Identify North

In Most of the maps North is always up but it may not be same case so take a compass rose and identify where the North is.

Start Reading Maps

See all other features that topo maps then you can start identifying hills (Circles inside the circles indicates the hill). Cliffs (Denser contour lines), Slopes (sparse contour lines), Depressions (shown by hatch marks), River and Streams (usually show in Blue) and which direction they are flowing (Usually V share - Flowing down).

Reading Maps and learning about it

reading maps

Checkout article on orienting map and Compass for navigation.

Where to Download Topo Maps?

The U.S. Geological Survey provides an unmatched series of next generation quadrangle topographic maps covering an entire American landscape. All of the topo maps can be freely available on USGS website.

These topographic maps include very subtle layers that are not available on traditional topographic maps such as aerial photo and shaded relief images.

In the market there are many smartphone apps for the accurate services Checkout our article on best Smartphone GPS Apps for hiking, if you are interested in carrying out handheld GPS devices then read our tips for choosing a good GPS handheld device.

Dedicated Paper Maps

These maps may have a more detailed information and come with more additional features such as detailed landscape, very high detail maps, may have precise coordinate grids, might include Key points, and last but not least some of them are water resistant.

road atlas
road atlas

In Brief

So, having an understanding of a topographic map out is invaluable. I hope this article has provided you enough information to read topo maps, and I assume that you could identify terrain details, steep and slope of mountain or hill by just looking at the contour lines.

I always carry topo map of the trails and a compass along with me and there no other match to these. Share your comments and thoughts whether this helped you or not your suggestions and feedback are welcome.

Now we know how to use a topographical map next, read an article about how to use a compass which makes our outdoor adventure awesome

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