11th May 2020

A Guide to Understanding a Topographic Map

Tagged: adventure, camping, camping tips, gear, hiking, how to, outdoor tips, outdoors, safety

It’s a lot easier to read terrain from a topographic map than you might think, and you don’t need heavy math or science knowledge to understand it. It’s a lot more about artistically visualizing the terrain by understanding contour lines, colors, and shading and how they fit together to visualize the land. Topographic maps represent the shape of the Earth’s surface accurately and show streets, trails, vegetation, streams and anything else that might affect how you can navigate through the terrain. 

hiking and camping gear


1) Contour Lines

Contour lines are imaginary lines that are on a map to represent parts of the Earth that are at equal elevation. The parts or segments are shown as elevation (showing the distance above or below sea level) and reliefs (the shape of the terrain). These lines aren’t all identical, and every fifth contour line is heavier and is known as an indexed contour line which is numbered to show the elevation. The lighter contour lines that are seen between indexed line are intermediate contour lines and do not have the elevation listed. When the terrain is mostly flat, there are usually supplementary contour lines which are dashed and show half an elevation between the contour lines around it; these are placed when there is little change in elevation.

What’s important to know about contour lines is that the closer they’re spaced together, the most drastic the change in elevation. As explained by Kenneth Plum, a writer at Case Study Writer and Paper Fellows, “if you’re looking for a nice walk, you don’t want to cross too many contour lines, or you can shadow one or two lines on the map. If you’re looking for rock climbing, though, look for contour lines that are so close to each other that they seem to be one single line.” 


2) Colors

There are also key colors on a topographic map that give you important indications of the terrain and environment you’re heading into. Brown is used for most of the contour lines, so for the relief and elevation features. Green is used to show vegetation like woods, whereas blue will show water features such as lakes, rivers, swamps, and drainage. At higher elevations, mountains may have snow year-round, or there is a glacier. In these instances, the contour lines will be drawn in blue. This is important to know because you might need crampons, an ice axe, and you should be experienced for that kind of trek. 

Black is used to show objects that are man-made like trails, and red is man-made features like roads, political boundaries, and more. Some older maps may also use purple for new changes or updates, but this practice is discontinued on newer maps. 


3) Shading

Although there could be color similarities between features, it doesn’t mean they’re equivalent and while it may be easy to remember topographic map colors, shading is a bit more complicated since there are so many variations. We recommend that you keep the USGS Topographic Map Symbols reference with your map. For example, something listed as a wooded marsh or swamp could be home to a number of creatures that you need to be prepared to navigate around or avoid altogether. 


4) Joining the Dots

To orient your topographic map, rotate it so that north on the map is the same as north in the world. This is important because you can know exactly what terrain lies in front of you. “If your compass is broken, you need to be able to reorient yourself without the compass, which is called terrain association,” says Dana Mig, a travel blogger at BigAssignments and Custom Dissertation Service. This is much easier to do in a place where there are a lot of reference points, like in a hilly area. You can see what has vegetation and where there are hills or elevation changes, and associate that with what you see around you. Hills are easy to spot because you will see single concentric circles and you can see how high they are. Water features are also good ones to spot and find your way to. 

When you know what to look for, reading a topographic map is quite straightforward. All you need to do is envision the area and think artistically instead of scientifically. Plus, if you study them from the relaxation of a Crazy Creek Camp Chair, soon you’ll be able to spot lots of terrain features like cliffs, depressions, ridges, and more.

Camping with a Crazy Creek outdoor table

Aimee Laurence, a traveller and hiker, loves sharing her tips for travel with her readers at Law Assignment Writing Service and Do My Assignments. She has hiked many mountains in different continents and enjoys igniting that love for hiking in others. Also, Aimee tutors at Review of Essayroo.


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