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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.

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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One comment

  1. This is really helpful for my geography revision, thanks.

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