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. https://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.
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.
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.
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.
You can even switch to a historic map of an area, which can clue you into old trails or rail road lines that are no longer maintained.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.