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Topographic Maps and Route Visualization

Caltopo.com provides a lot of different maps to choose from in addition to the US Geological Survey Map shown here.
Caltopo.com provides a lot of different maps to choose from in addition to the US Geological Survey Map shown here.

Some people can read a topographic map and visualize what the landscape should look like based on the shape of the contours lines shown. It’s a real skill to do it well, and while I’m pretty good at it,  I can miss details unless I really concentrate.

I compensate through careful trip planning using a variety of information sources, including the use of different electronic mapping tools to help me visualize my routes. While these tools are great for planning, you can also use them to practice map-to-terrain visualization in order to sharpen your map reading skills. Let me show you what I mean.

I’ll use Caltopo.com, a free online navigation tool, that I highly recommend you check out. You can print out maps using it and bring them on your trips (see also: Intro to Caltopo.com).

Here’s a link to the map that I’ve used for all of my examples below. http://caltopo.com/m/340C

Different Views of the Same Route

The map shown at the top of this post was drawn using a standard USGS (US Geological Survey) Topographic Map. One of the great features with Caltopo is that you can quickly replot the same route using different maps and views or layers, which emphasize different aspects of the terrain you’ll be hiking.

Caltopo can enhance a topo with slope shading, which I find useful for identifying areas like cliffs, that I need to detour around.
Caltopo can enhance a topo with slope shading, which I find useful for identifying areas like cliffs, that I need to detour around.

Using the same map, I can apply a map layer over the original called Fixed Slope Shape, which uses darker colors to emphasize steep slopes. It’s the same map as before, but the colored shading forces my eyes to recognize the implications of close contour lines. The dark areas shown above are very steep ledges, probably mixed with cliffs.

The same route displayed using a different map called Google Terrain
The same route displayed using a different map called Google Terrain

I can change the view again by switching to a different map of the same area called Google Terrain, which provides an enhanced 3-D representation of the route that makes it easier to see the depth of the valley that the route passes through. Looking at this representation, you see that the northwest end of the route drops steeply from a ridge to the valley below.

Google Satellite displays visible land features which you may be able to see from the ground.
Google Satellite displays visible land features which you may be able to see from the ground.

The Google Satellite layer provides a view of the route as seen from outer space. Some features like the cliffs, shown above, are visible from within the valley and can provide a good clue about where you are if you can see them while you are hiking.

Caltopo can also display historic maps, which can be handy if you want to look for routes that are passable but no longer maintained
Caltopo can also display historic maps, which can be handy if you want to look for routes that are passable but no longer maintained

You can even switch to a historic map of an area, which can clue you into old trails or rail road lines that are no longer maintained. This can be really helpful for cross-country wilderness travel. For example, on the 1915-1945 map above, there’s a trail shown on the map which has since been abandoned, but might still be passable with less effort than a full-on, cross-country bushwhack.

I hope these Caltopo.com examples illustrate some of the techniques you can use to better visualize hiking trails and routes on topographic maps. Reading topographic maps and gleaning all of the information they contain takes a lot of practice if you want to become an expert navigator. These different tools and views of the same route provide a powerful way to learn what’s important to see when you look at a map, but must be followed up with lots of hiking to make it stick in your mind.

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8 comments

  1. Thank you for this resource.

  2. You know me Prof. I write it all down so I don’t forget it!

  3. Nice tool. I have been using All Trails but I like some of the features this has. That shaded elevation is almost like looking at a 3D model of the terain and is really nice.

  4. How well does shaded terrain work in the Everglades?

  5. Caltopo also has a feature where you can visualize the visible peaks from any point. Kind of neat if you’re bushwacking to a particular pass.

  6. Thanks for sharing this resource. I use Google Maps and Avenza PDF Maps and heard of CalTopo but thought it was for California only!

  7. Caltopo is absolutely the best resource currently available for trip planning and map printing.
    Once you learn how to use it, which only takes a few minutes, there’s no reason that you ever need to buy a map in a store ever again.

    Having said that, the developer recently started a subscription service, and if you use the service, it’s a good idea to subscribe so it continues to be available.

    (It’s called Cal Topo because the developer, Matt Jacobs, originally designed it for use by his search and rescue team in California.)

    There are some good tutorial videos on YouTube of how to use this. Just go to YouTube and do a search for .

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