With today's access to apps that have GPS tracking along mapped routes, a large number of recreational outdoor athletes are unfamiliar with reading a good old paper topographic map. Having a topo map for any adventure, including day hikes in a local park, can be a huge asset.
Sure, they're old school. However, topo maps have one big advantage: They are waterproof and do not require batteries. Once you know how to use a topo map, your outdoor comfort and confidence will skyrocket.
As a bonus, you'll know the site much better and will remember details for years. Plus, you'll impress your friends and fellow hikers with your ability to answer all sorts of questions about where you are, what's ahead, and how to get there.
<img class = "wp-image-100203 size-full" title = "Read topo map" src = "https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how- to-read-a-topo-map.jpg "alt =" how to read a topo map” width=”1920″ height=”1280″ srcset=”https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map.jpg 1920w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-300×200.jpg 300w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-768×512.jpg 768w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-700×467.jpg 700w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-1200×800.jpg 1200w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-600×400.jpg 600w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-1240×827.jpg 1240w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-620×413.jpg 620w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-588×392.jpg 588w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-294×196.jpg 294w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-382×255.jpg 382w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-191×127.jpg 191w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-293×195.jpg 293w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-586×390.jpg 586w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-400×266.jpg 400w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-200×133.jpg 200w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-1220×813.jpg 1220w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-610×407.jpg 610w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-838×559.jpg 838w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/how-to-read-a-topo-map-150×100.jpg 150w” sizes=”(max-width: 1920px) 100vw, 1920px”/>Photo credit: Daniel Deemer
Reading a topographic map
The first question most people have is, "How many miles?"
There are two ways to determine this on a topographic map:
- Look up the distance shown on the map.
- Measure the distance using the scale in the map legend.
When the distances along the path are marked on your map, the numbers appear parallel to the dotted line of the path. This distance is the number of miles between the two markers on that section of the trail (usually between two intersections). Some maps also have numbered popular day hikes and a corresponding table with all of the trailhead names, distances, and descriptions.
If distances are not shown on your map, find the legend and go to the ruler with a thick black and white line and 0, ½, 1, and 2 miles. Measure a mile with something you have along the way, preferably flexible like a backpack strap, shoelace, or even a blade of grass, and mark a mile.
Put this against your lane, stacking distances to get your miles. Or use the opisometer (map meter) on your compass if the scales match.
The next question is always: "What is the difference in altitude?"
This is where the namesake of the topographic map comes into play. The contour lines are the distinguishing feature of these types of cards. These are the squiggly lines that run parallel to each other across the entire map.
The height of most of the striking lakes and peaks is marked. The number is the same color as the name of the lake or peak and is right next to the name. But if you need to know a height outside of the label:
- Find your legend in the same place you found the distance scale. You will see "Contour interval = XX feet".
- Find the closest printed number to the location you want to locate. This can be a peak, a lake, a ridge line or an intersection or a marked contour line.
- Count the contour lines between this label and the place whose height you want to know and do the math! Note: You may need to use your finger to follow a contour line from which the label is to the location you want to determine.
If the contour lines are incredibly close together, which makes it difficult to distinguish each line, then the slope is steep (i.e. a band of cliffs or the side of a peak). Now if they are further apart and you can easily see each line, the terrain will be flatter (i.e., a meadow or mesa).
If the path is parallel to contour lines, your path is flat. And when it crosses perpendicular to contour lines, your trail rises or falls.
<img class = "wp-image-100207 size-full" title = "topo-map" src = "https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map. jpg "alt =" topo map” width=”1600″ height=”1200″ srcset=”https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map.jpg 1600w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-300×225.jpg 300w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-768×576.jpg 768w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-700×525.jpg 700w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-1200×900.jpg 1200w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-600×450.jpg 600w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-1240×930.jpg 1240w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-620×465.jpg 620w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-588×441.jpg 588w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-294×221.jpg 294w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-382×287.jpg 382w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-191×143.jpg 191w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-120×90.jpg 120w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-240×180.jpg 240w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-217×162.jpg 217w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-446×334.jpg 446w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-223×167.jpg 223w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-1220×915.jpg 1220w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-610×458.jpg 610w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-838×629.jpg 838w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-133×100.jpg 133w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-267×200.jpg 267w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-1376×1032.jpg 1376w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-1044×783.jpg 1044w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-632×474.jpg 632w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/topo-map-536×402.jpg 536w” sizes=”(max-width: 1600px) 100vw, 1600px”/>Photo credit: Daniel Deemer
Trails cross other trails, roads, streams, lakes and saddles. These junctions often mark the end of a distance marked on your map, a fork in the road to watch out for, or a water crossing. A water crossing can mean a source of drinking water or a hazard or impassability in rainy seasons like winter and spring.
It's a good idea to stop at every intersection to check your map and ask "Where are we?" To answer. An intersection means options, choices, and easy navigation as long as you pay attention to it.
This brings me to my favorite and I think the most important part of topo maps: outstanding geographic features! This means lakes, rivers, streams, peaks, ridges, saddles, valleys, meadows and cliffs. Most of the different features are marked on the map.
Another frequently asked question is "which peak is this?" Continuously matching each prominent feature you see along the way with its location on the map from the start of your hike, using the techniques above, will provide you with the clues needed to solve the puzzle.
<img class = "wp-image-100208 size-full" title = "Geography map" src = "https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map. jpg "alt =" map geography” width=”1600″ height=”1067″ srcset=”https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map.jpg 1600w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-300×200.jpg 300w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-768×512.jpg 768w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-700×467.jpg 700w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-1200×800.jpg 1200w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-600×400.jpg 600w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-1240×827.jpg 1240w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-620×413.jpg 620w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-588×392.jpg 588w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-294×196.jpg 294w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-382×255.jpg 382w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-191×127.jpg 191w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-293×195.jpg 293w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-586×390.jpg 586w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-400×266.jpg 400w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-200×133.jpg 200w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-1220×814.jpg 1220w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-610×407.jpg 610w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-838×559.jpg 838w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/geography-map-150×100.jpg 150w” sizes=”(max-width: 1600px) 100vw, 1600px”/>Photo credit: Daniel Deemer
Back off and look at your entire map. This will help you identify the boundary lines for wilderness, national forests, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, indigenous reserves, ski areas, and campfire or camping restriction areas. Wherever you are planning a day hike, camp or backpack, you need to know which of these limits you are within and which regulations apply.
Frequently asked questions like "Can I bring my dog?" or "Do we need a permit to camp here?" You can answer this question by determining what limits you are within and then checking the area's website or ranger station for details of the regulations. Sometimes you are within many boundaries at the same time and so you need to familiarize yourself with each area.
The best way to learn how to read a topo map is to observe the topographical features in the forest and translate what you see in person into what you see on the map. Whether you're doing homework before an adventure or teaching yourself the magic tools on the topo map, this guide is a great place to start.
<img class = "wp-image-100209 size-full" title = "Reading card" src = "https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map.jpg" alt = "read card” width=”1600″ height=”1067″ srcset=”https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map.jpg 1600w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-300×200.jpg 300w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-768×512.jpg 768w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-700×467.jpg 700w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-1200×800.jpg 1200w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-600×400.jpg 600w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-1240×827.jpg 1240w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-620×413.jpg 620w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-588×392.jpg 588w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-294×196.jpg 294w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-382×255.jpg 382w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-191×127.jpg 191w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-293×195.jpg 293w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-586×390.jpg 586w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-400×266.jpg 400w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-200×133.jpg 200w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-1220×814.jpg 1220w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-610×407.jpg 610w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-838×559.jpg 838w, https://s3.amazonaws.com/images.gearjunkie.com/uploads/2020/09/reading-map-150×100.jpg 150w” sizes=”(max-width: 1600px) 100vw, 1600px”/>Photo credit: Daniel Deemer
Like everything else, the more you practice, the better skills and knowledge you will get. Have fun and enjoy the sensation of dizzying excitement that you will enjoy every time you pick up a topographic map!