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How to Read a Topographic Map

Whenever you go hiking it’s important to bring a map with you.  Ideally, this will be a topographic map, which is the kind with the squiggly lines on it. Called contour lines, they can tell you whether you’ll be hiking uphill, downhill, or over flat land.

Learning how to read contour lines is an important skill to learn if you want to become a better day hiker or backpacker. For example, when planning a hike, you can trace the path you plan to take and see whether it has hills or cliffs which might be dangerous and too difficult for the people you’re hiking with climb.  You can do this before you even walk out the door and plan an alternative hike if you want to hike an easier trail.

Contour lines are also important for staying found, during your hike.  If you can match the landforms around you to their corresponding contours lines on a map, you can always keep track of where you are, even without a compass or GPS. While knowing how to use a compass and GPS are important skills, they build on knowing how to read the contour lines on a topographic map.

When reading a topographic map,there are a couple of things you should remember about the contour lines. (Watch the video – it’s quite good.)

  1. Every point of the same contour line has the same elevation.
  2. One side of a contour line is uphill and one is downhill.
  3. Contour lines close to form a circle (or run off the side of the map). The area inside the circle is almost always higher than the contour line.
  4. Contour lines are drawn close together on steep ground and farther apart on flat ground.
  5. Contour lines form a V patterns when they cross a river or stream valley. The tip of the V always points uphill and the other direction that looks like a  “frown, points down.” I use that phrase to help me remember this.

Practice Makes Perfect

The next time you go for a hike, try to buy a topographic map for the region you’ll be hiking it. If you can’t find a map, try buying a Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer for the state you live in, if you’re in the United States. These books have topographic maps for every inch of a state, and are good for hiking as well as rural road navigation. I keep one for each state in New England in my car.

Locate the area that you’ll be hiking in on your map or Gazetteer and find the trail that you plan to follow. As you hike, take out the map every five or ten minutes and try to match the landforms around you to the contour intervals on the map (this will be easier to do if you hike in a hilly area or along a stream or river).

If you can get in the habit of checking your map every time the elevation or landforms around you change, it becomes very easy to keep track of your location on a hike, regardless of where you are.  Staying found like this and always knowing where you are can be done even if you don’t know how to use a compass yet, and it’s an important navigation skill to master for any hiker.

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  1. Staying found needs a good topo map. In the ADK's it is rare to be able to see more than a couple hundred feet in any direction, often much less. Trails twist and turn around blow downs and other obstacles. Maps are old, from the latter 60's, and do not keep up with current changes. (Couple of examples the Cranberry Lake 50 and Bug Lake to Brown Tract Outlet Trail is not on them.) Less well used trails start looking like game trails. Some trails are marked following streams. Streams move or have beaver dams. Down bursts can make some sections impassible, necessitating off trail travel. Clouds often cover the sun or it is obscured by the trees & hills. The topo map will not tell you these things, but it’s a start.

  2. nice article. many of us had to learn this through years of trial and error experience

    not all areas inside a circle are "higher". bodies of water, for instance.

  3. oh, also. i use mappingsupport.com to map in mytopo where i'll be hiking. i then print these at full zoom on the back of junkmail, place one page at a time into a ziplock bag (the one that is just big enough to put an 8.5×11" sheet of paper into).

    recently i bought a sony ereader 350 that is 5.4 oz (155g), i convert the maps to pdf and place them in there instead. now i have full suite of maps, all the books i can ever read, 2 weeks of battery life, and i can use a lighter, non-mapping gps.

    as marco said, many interesting trails are missing from the usgs quads. local clubs typically have gps tracks you can overlay using other online resources and then print or print to pdf…

  4. I don't believe that's correct. Any circle inside another circle is going to be higher. It doesn't matter if the features is rock, water, or paper.

  5. Phil, you climb mountains. Circles are usually higher when you look. I do more paddling. ErOck is correct. A circle inside another (or more than one) is the deepest depression, or, the highest peak. Since we are still using the older 1960's based USGS maps, they do not include underwater features such as found on military eqipment (think submarine,) just the water level when the survey was done. This was often off by a foot or two, depending on the season.Kara Pond (named for my daughter) is one such. It is not on the map but is now spread over about 3/4 acre due to beaver activity on another larger pond about 100yd away. How would you place the topo lines for contours? The water is usually marked in blue, but not always. A sink hole (cave in due to underground limestone erosion) is another, perhaps clearer, example. Often 100yd around and 30 or more yards deep.

  6. Here's an example that has circles going both higher and lower. http://www.mappingsupport.com/p/gmap4.php?ll=42.9
    It's Crater Lake in Oregon. As you go from outermost to innermost, the terrain rises until you hit the ridgeline surrounding the crater, then the elevation drops as you descend into the crater.

    Most bodies of water will have rings that go lower, picture the topo lines on a bowl or plate. Otherwise the water will run out of that feature.

  7. earlylite: here is an example from your neck of the woods:

    while you are right most of the time, and it's usually obvious when there is water, it's not always obvious if the water was gone long ago.

  8. Right you are. That's what I like about the web. Every post gets edited by the readers. I learned something today. Moose treats for you all (that's a good thing.)

  9. In the late '70s, my brother and I found some topo maps that showed contour lines cutting across lakes. We decided those were places we could do some real water skiing.

  10. why does everything i read turn into a fight?

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