On Top of the World: How To Read a Topographic Map

Compass on Topographic Map.

Key Points

  • This article explores what a topographic map is and where it originated.

  • Learn how to read a topographic map.

  • Many additional resources can accompany topo maps.

Anyone planning to hike or explore unfamiliar terrain or landscapes with varying elevations should consider making a topographic map part of their supplies. Topographic maps focus on the landscape, while chorographical or planimetric maps just focus on distances and directions. USGS defines a topographic map as a map using "elevation contour lines to show the shape of the Earth's surface."

Topographic maps come in a variety of options that focus on particular features. The first step in determining which map is best for you is to research which type of map benefits your adventure best. Some of these focus on natural features, while others include artificial features.

During a period when people depended upon maps to get around, successful traveling relied on the collective recording of features of the land. Since recording the landscape for traveling became common, many map makers adopted the habit.

Any map with some level of contour representing the features of the land is classified as a topographic map.

Where Do Topographic Maps Come From?

In the world of 2023, topographical surveys determine the creation of topographic maps, as people set out with the specific intention of making a record of the features of the land in a particular area. However, when topographic maps began, they merely consisted of the recollections of those who traveled through areas and recorded what they saw.

While it's hard to pinpoint a specific date on when exactly topo maps began, the first instance of a completed topographic map covering an entire country was in 1789. Its name is the Carte géométrique de la France. Completing this grand-scale map inspired a trend of topographical maps that increased in the span of land they covered, leading to the worldwide topographic maps of the present.

Topographic maps increased in popularity when the military used them as a means of navigating a variety of different landscapes. They helped them understand their enemies' tactics and hiding places, allowing them to plan ambushes and attacks. Without topographical maps, militaries would be walking into battle blindly.

Of course, the role of topographic maps evolved when hiking became popular as a recreational activity in the 19th century, and that has carried over to 2023. Though, in this instance, while the maps are no longer helping their readers plan ambushes, they continue to help keep people alive by preventing them from getting lost or unprepared for dangerous terrain.

Outdoor lovers, architects, miners, and those studying the Earth's geography are among the many people that use topo maps.

A couple walks along a train reviewing map

What Makes Up a Topo Map?

Again, the specific need for a topo map determines the necessary type, which determines how to use it. A topographic map examining the natural landscape is appropriate for hiking, camping, and other outdoor recreational activities. With 21st-century technology, there is no shortage of ways to access digital maps, though many people still prefer paper maps.

Even deciding whether you use a digital or physical map requires consideration. For instance, technology cannot always be reliable, and devices could lose power or service and not work effectively. On the other hand, digital-device maps are more user-friendly than traditional paper maps because they have more features to assist readers in understanding the map's content.

Nonetheless, understanding how to read a topographic map without the assistance of a digital device is a beneficial ability, regardless of which version of the map you prefer. This is because it allows you to use and understand the map, even when technology fails you.

The next step in understanding how to use a topographic map is knowing what makes up a topo map. In other words, to read the map, you must first understand the different parts of it that you use to read it.

Check out the following features:

  • The map's name: This indicates the location and features it demonstrates.

  • The year the map was initially published: This reflects whether it still offers valid and relevant information.

  • The year of revision (if applicable): This again points to how reliable the information on the map is. The more recent the map or its revision date, the more accurate the information is.

  • The specific location: This information represents where you are in a more extensive area. It usually looks like a dot or triangle within a larger land area.

  • The quadrangle map: For comparison, this helps you understand the latitude and longitude within that particular area.

  • The scale (there are three types: verbal, fractional, and bar): This scale examines the distance between areas on the map and how that relates to the distance between those areas across actual land.

  • The contour interval: This measurement examines the distance between layers in elevation, helping the reader understand the heights of particular parts of the land.

  • The magnetic declination: This knowledge is crucial in determining the proper directions to where you are (true north, magnetic north, etc.). This symbol on the map allows you to adjust your compass to align with these proper direction points.

  • Latitude and longitude: Knowing this is an essential part of any map that helps you understand your exact coordinates.

  • The map's key or legend: This is a list of symbols in varying shapes and colors that help the reader better understand the exact meanings and benchmarks of the entire map.

  • Boundary lines: show where different areas, usually property lines, begin and end.

Person reviews map on hood of car

How Do You Use a Topo Map?

To use a topo map, you must first locate and familiarize yourself with the elements of a topographic map.

Once you have done that, you should focus on understanding the measurements of the map. First, look at land distance and then look at elevation distance. You get these measurements from index lines. It helps if you work to understand how these measurements translate from paper or screen to actual land. After that, you should focus on how to read the visuals that represent these measurements on the map.

The contour interval lines vary in the amount of space between them, representing how steep or relaxed the slope of a land feature is. To understand the distance between two lines, you should identify a pair of dark lines that have a measurement next to them, then count the number of fainter colored lines in between them. This gives you an idea of how the measurements work and allows you to apply them to other parts of the map without numbers.

These lines can come in several shapes that reflect different details. For instance, far-apart contour lines represent flat land, contour lines close together show steep land, contour lines that bend reflect a ridge or valley, and lines that loop are representative of a summit or some kind of depression in the land, such as a bowl-shape. Blue lines on the map reflect bodies of water, like streams. When searching for paths, dashed lines usually indicate a trail and double black lines commonly represent roads.

Some digital versions of topographic maps, like many presently used by state and national parks, more deliberately explain the landscape without the reader knowing how to read a topo map to use it. They generally give more frequent numbers to reflect miles and elevation and sometimes feature 3D-like qualities that help users examine drastic elevation changes from one area to another.

Digital and paper topographic maps each have their own pluses and minuses. Still, for individuals new to using topographical maps, it may be a good idea to use both digital and paper topographic maps to assist you in learning how to navigate.

Things to Consider Examining on Your Topo Map

Even when navigating water, digital and paper versions of topographic maps can offer different helpful features. Like with land elevation, the distance between lines on a map measures the depth of water. Water levels don't change on a paper map, while on a digital map, you can easily consider varying water levels due to drought or flooding.

Campsites are another helpful feature listed on topographic maps, especially those specific to state and national parks. Including this detail on topographic maps helps you locate these sites in the parks and their elevation and relation to specific land features. This can be important to consider when expecting weather before a camping trip or planning what camping equipment will be appropriate for that landscape.

A couple reviews a map to learn where they are

There are inevitable factors like floods, high winds, or avalanches that can significantly impact a trip's success; these elements of a topographic map are essential to consider before setting out on your journey so that you can adequately prepare. After all, it is better to be over-prepared than under-prepared for camping.

Knowing how to read a topo map essentially comes down to knowing what information you seek. To see the distance your route covers, look at the space between the starting and ending points, then factor in how elevation changes affect that (climbing mountains, getting across water, etc). If you want a challenging hike, you may consider taking the steeper route, and thus you would follow a path that crosses mountains with contour lines that are close together.

If you are trying to explore a new area and are looking for an easy or quick way, you would follow a route with contour lines that are further apart, indicating flat land. The topographic map also allows you to recognize areas that may be dangerous and that you should avoid, like abandoned mines.

Additional Uses for Topo Maps

There are many other additional uses for topo maps besides just understanding geography.

Another situation to consider examining on a topographic map, especially if you plan on adventuring during weather changes, is the watershed. Whether you plan on hiking through a mountain valley or camping in a bowl-shaped area, knowing how water or snow tend to exit these areas is essential in planning a safe trip.

With a topographic map, you can examine the space between two mountains or hills (known as a saddle) by noting how many lines exist between the mountains and how close they are. This allows you to consider how likely that area is to experience flooding. Further, you can locate where areas of water are and know to avoid those areas if you are expecting storms or head for those areas if you plan to camp near a body of water.

Foraging or identifying different plants in the wild is an underrated outdoor activity that topographic maps can assist with. Of course, to achieve this, the person foraging must already have a working knowledge of the types of plants in the area they are in or a field guide to the plant species in that area. When looking for specific plants, you must first know what climates the plants usually grow in. You can then apply that information to the map.

For instance, if you are looking for ferns, you may want to look in rocky areas near water and to find this kind of area on the map, you would look for areas with blue lines indicating water, likely near mountains. You would probably head for a forested area on the map to find mosses. Looking for yarrow, you would search for areas on the map with higher elevations using the index lines. These same rules can apply to wildlife enthusiasts looking for particular environments to spot animals or birds.

A woman looks at a topographic map

Where to Find the Right Topographic Map

Several options exist for selecting the most appropriate topographic map for your intentions. This begins by deciding whether you prefer to use a paper or digital map, which inevitably affects how you read the map. 

Suppose you plan to use a topographic map for the first time and hope to build your ability to read them as a new skill. In that case, beginning with a paper topographic map is better to ensure you accurately know how to use one.

Digital topo maps host several additional features versus their traditional predecessors, which can sometimes confuse readers new to topographic maps. For instance, zooming in on a region using a digital topographic map adjusts the scales and lines to examine an area closer. This is an excellent feature for people experienced with using topographic maps to navigate because it allows them a more precise level of information to build off what they already know and is handier when it comes to impromptu trips or traveling. However, this feature may easily become a crutch for those new to topo map reading.

With that in mind, there are multiple sources for finding both paper and digital topo maps. To find a good selection of physical maps, you should first consider where you are exploring. 

If you plan on exploring an area near you, most state and national parks have a variety of maps you can purchase that focus on the specific landmarks in that area. Sometimes tourism centers in states where outdoor recreational activities are popular also have topographic maps available. However, if you are planning on obtaining a paper topo map, it is best to contact the parks offices in that area in advance to ensure that they have topo maps available or simply purchase one online.

A topographic map

Finding virtual topographic maps is much easier and more accessible in the modern world. There are a number of websites where you can obtain these. USGS is one of the most prominent examples of getting topographic maps that cover the U.S. (The U.S. Geological Survey). Many people that rely on topo maps to explore the country find what they are looking for on this site because it sets the standard for topographic maps that cover the United States. 

Google Terrain, National Geographic, and websites for certain parks also have reliable topographic maps focusing on the areas you plan to explore. For example, the government website created for the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico has a topographical map of the locations listed on their site under Maps.

Additional Tools for Topo Maps

Along with determining what type of topographic map you need for your planned adventure and deciding whether to use a paper map or a digital one, you should also consider what additional tools you should take. 

Once more, one of the golden rules of exploring the outdoors — whether hiking, camping, foraging, or other activities — is to be completely prepared. It is much better to bring supplies you end up not using than to leave them behind and get stuck in a predicament where you need them. 

This includes all the essentials for the activity you plan to do, like camping equipment, hiking gear, binoculars, and water. Still, it also includes tools that can make relying on your map easier and more accurate.

Here are a few more tools to consider bringing on your next trip to the great outdoors:

  • Regular map of the area: This can make reading names in the area more accessible, can assist in double-checking your understanding of where you are, and is sometimes easier to obtain updated versions of.

  • Coordinate scale: This is a tool meant to accompany the scale on your map. It helps you to measure the scale of unique geographic areas that may be more difficult to understand by merely looking at them on a map.

Topographic map of underwater sea floor elevation

  • A protractor: This generally goes along with the coordinate scale and helps you mark and plot the specific route you intend to take.

  • GPS: Especially when using a digital topographic map, a GPS can function like a basic map to double-check your understanding of where you are and what direction you should be heading in. However, because a GPS depends on signal, carefully consider if this tool is a reliable resource in the area you are exploring.

  • Compass: This is an important tool for any map because, though the directions are on the map, knowing how they apply to your specific location requires examining the polar pull, which you can read on the compass. 

  • Magnifying glass: Obviously, a map does not do you much good if you cannot read it. This tool is more relevant to certain people than for certain activities or places. This is a good addition to your trip for people with poor eyesight because the details and lettering on paper maps can be quite small. While hiking with glasses is not always ideal, this alternative offers a way to see that it is a bit more durable, and you can use it only when needed. 

  • Something to carry supplies in: While this may seem like an obvious addition, being sure that you bring the proper means of carrying your supplies is extremely important to what you plan to do and can be easily overlooked. If you plan on a long hike or camping, something in the way of a backpack that you can carry on your back is a better option for longer trips. A cross-body bag that allows quick access may be the best option for birding or viewing wildlife. A waterproof bag is a must for adventures involving being on the water.

Now Go Forth and Explore!

With this information and these resources, you have everything you need to begin adventuring with a little more independence. In a world where people depend upon technology for direction, reading a topo map enables you to be more in tune with the world and more prepared to navigate it. The outside world is waiting!

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