How to Read a Topographical Map Like a Pro in 2 Basic Steps

Nowadays, most hikers/explorers use some version of a GPS device to navigate their outdoor adventures. Typically their phone, watch, or if they are a little hardcore, a handheld satellite communicator like a Garmin GPSMAP 66i (which is a beast by the way).

Find out why in this review of The 5 best GPS Devices of 2024.

Who can blame them? Isn’t it easier to let a digital helper assist you on your journeys than doing it the “old school” way? Most of the time the answer is yes, but venturing into unknown lands can be potentially life-threatening. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to bet my life on something that needs batteries.

How to read a topographical map

For that reason, I always try to bring along a topographical map and compass with me when I’m out exploring this beautiful planet, especially in unfamiliar places. Not only is it kind of fun to test myself, but it’s also a well of information at a glance. Even a 4 or 5-inch smartphone can seem stifling if you want a broad eagle-eye view of the overall area.

They provide so much info; Popular trails, campgrounds, scenic viewpoints, ranger stations, and much much more. Once you learn how to read a good topo map you won’t need anything else. You’ll have full confidence to leave your electronic assets at home.

Ready to start? Great! Let’s dive into the fundamentals of reading a topographical map. In this guide, I’ll explain what all of the grid lines, icons, and markings mean, give examples of each, explain how the distant scales work, and even give you a few recommendations on where to get the best maps and information. Stick around, you might learn something!

1. Understanding Contour Lines

Simple trail maps only give basic info and might be useful enough to plan a simple hike, but are nowhere near good enough for actual navigation. To do so, you’ll need something that helps you visualize three-dimensional terrain. Guess what that is! Yep, a topo map. On one you’ll find these little squiggly lines littered throughout. They are called contour lines and they form the backbone of all topographical maps.

Topographical Map

Each line represents changes in elevation from one to another as well as the shape of the terrain around it and they never intersect. For instance, loops with smaller loops within indicate a mountain or hill, with the smallest and innermost loop representing the peak.

If there are two sets of loops with a space between that means there’s a lower point or “saddle” between the two higher elevations.

Sometimes you’ll see loops with tick marks along them. This indicates a point of lower elevation or a “depression”. Sometimes they even come with individually labeled contour lines.

Contour lines that are very close to one another indicate a sharp rise or drop, in elevation, depending on your viewpoint. Contour lines that are spread widely apart represent gentler slopes.

To better help you out, most topographical maps showcase an index line that lists the exact elevation. These are spaced every fifth contour line and are generally thicker and more pronounced.

The intervals between contour lines also have a spacial value as well. There’s a reason they aren’t uniformly spread out. The area between the lines indicate elevation gain. As you can see in the above example, that equates to 50 ft each. All maps have their unique intervals so you’ll need to look in the legend of your map to find the exact spacing.

There are many different types of contour lines you’ll run into, but they mean the same thing. The closer they are to each other, the steeper it is and the farther they are from one another, the flatter it is. Pretty simple right? Once you get the hang of it, it’ll be like second nature. You won’t even need to think about it!

2. Recognizing Key Features

Fortunately, most maps follow a similar color theme. Blue usually denotes water, green for vegetation, and light colors or even white indicate sparse or open landscapes. Reds/orange for roads, black for manmade structures, and so on. This isn’t always the case, but is true for the most part. The best way to be sure is to take a look at the legend.

In it, you’ll see a variety of symbols and markings that represent natural and man-made features such as trails, roads, private lands, and buildings.

They can get extremely intricate so always take a peak before you purchase. There might be a difference in price between a pair of similarly scaled maps, but one could have an extraordinary amount of added detail you probably aren’t looking for like where the churches, cemeteries, canals, and mines are. Something to think about!

Map Scales

One specific item of note in the legend is the scale of the map you’re looking at. If you look closely at the legend above, you’ll see it labeled “Approximate Scale 1:40,000”. This means each inch on the map represents 40,000 inches in the real world. If a scale had 1:50,000, each inch is 50,000 inches, and so on. The larger the scale, the lower the amount of detail.

You can also see a representative scale with the black and white bars. 1 inch = .63 miles and 1 centimeter = .4 kilometers. This comes in handy if you want to use a string or the side of your compass to gauge distances.

Grid Lines and Coordinates

Every topo map will also come covered in a giant grid-like cross-section, usually black or blue. This is called the UTM grid or the Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system. The distance between the lines is always 1,000 meters or 1 kilometer.

These grid lines have names; Eastings and Northings. The vertical grid lines (Eastings) determine your East-West position and the horizontal grid lines (Northings) determine your North-South position.

You see the entire world is broken up into zones and rows. 60 longitudinal zones span from the North Pole down to the South and 20 latitudinal zones or “rows” divide the planet from East to West. If it seems like a lot, it kind of is, but the great thing is you don’t need to memorize any of this. Every topo map is labeled with which zone of the world it covers, zone 11S in the above example’s case.

If you want a detailed breakdown of the entire world’s grid system, check out this interactive map.

What’s awesome about this system is it’s extremely accurate and very easy to learn. It’s like an expanded version of the classic children’s game “Battleship”. The numbers tell you everything!

Each grid pinpoint on a topographical map is accurate to 1 meter squared on the Earth. Let’s use an example with the coordinates of 342359 E, 3765239 N.

The first 3 numbers of the first set (342359 E) will tell you which Eastings vertical grid line to start at, in this case, 342. The first 4 numbers of the second set (3765239 N) will tell you which horizontal Northings grid line to cross-match at, in this case, 3765.

Congrats, you found the correct box. Let’s narrow down the search. Since each grid box represents 1000 meters squared, The remaining numbers (342359 E, 3765239 N) of each set represent the individual meters on the ground within the grid box that was just located.

An easy way to go about it is to imagine the grid box is subdivided into rows and columns from 0-9, just like “Battleship”, except with only numbers. Just like finding your grid box using Eastings and Northings, start at the bottom left for the remaining coordinates.

For further precision, each of these smaller sections is divided into 10s as well. I didn’t include those finer tick marks in the above example, but I trust in you and your imagination!

For the 3 in 359, estimate the third tick mark over and away from 0. After you’ve found that, the remaining 59 is the 59th place between 3 and 4. Unless you’re burying gold, these types of exact coordinates aren’t a huge deal and you can usually just eyeball it.

Now do the same for the 239 in the second half of the Northings coordinates and line them up. Boom, you have your location!

Where to Find Topographical Maps

There are so many places to find maps, it’s impossible to list them all. But where do you find the best types? That boils down to how much detail you’re looking for and where you’ll be doing your exploring. Below are the best spots depending on your needs.

Best Maps for the U.S.A.

The United States Geological Survey or the USGS for short is the best online free resource for finding maps for anywhere in the states. They allow for customization, features wanted, a variety of map scales, and so on, all for free (for digital downloads). If you want to get a physical copy, they’re pretty cheap as most of their maps range from $10-15 dollars. Not too shabby!

Best Maps Worldwide

If you’ll be traveling internationally and need a reputable and reliable resource, I would go with National Geographic Maps. They too allow for customization and digital downloads, but they’re a bit more expensive. On the flip side, their maps are a lot prettier and easier to follow. You can’t go wrong if you choose one of these.

Outdoor/Online Retailers

You can of course go to your local adventure shop and browse what they have to offer or go to their online stores and look through their catalog. The problem I find with this option is their variety. They’ll definitely have all of the popular spots, but if you’re really going off-book somewhere deep in the woods, you might not find what you’re looking for in these places. 95% of the time you should be ok though.

Best shops

  1. REI
  2. Amazon
  3. Basspro
  4. Cabela’s

Practice Makes Perfect

To get good at using and referencing a topographical map, you’ll need to put your eyes on one. If you don’t feel like purchasing a tangible copy, check out a couple of different versions online and get acquainted with what they look like.

Visualize the shapes of the contour lines and how they would manifest in reality. Take notice of how certain elevations change from index line to index line. Familiarize yourself with the scale of the map and what the distances are between locations.

Practice finding certain pinpoints using the UTM grid system. Find a place on a map and see how long it takes you to jot down what the full position is. On the opposite end of the spectrum, pick a random coordinate location and see how long it takes you to find it on the map. Make a game of it!

Becoming proficient at reading these types of maps requires just a bit of getting used to, but not much. Once you get a feel of the map’s symbols, contours, and features, it’ll become second nature. I highly recommend you know what you’re doing before venturing out into the wilderness, where there are enough challenges as it is.

Practice on safe and local trails, then gradually challenge yourself with more complex locations. You’ll be part survivalist before you know it!

Navigate with Confidence

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of how a topographical map works, you can go out and explore with confidence! Use the map to identify prominent landmarks, plan your route, and anticipate elevation changes and obstacles along the way.

Regularly cross-reference the map with your surroundings to maintain situational awareness and stay on course. It’ll be like riding a bike, once you get the hang of it, you’ll never forget it.

Final Thoughts

That’ll about do it. I hope you enjoyed my article on how to read a Topographical map and learned some new and valuable skills that you may rely on in the future. These types of maps surely are indispensable tools for outdoor navigation and have been so for many many years. Until they come out with something different, these maps are here to stay.

So go out and grab one or pull up a digital copy now. Better yet, take one with you on your next outing and challenge yourself with an easy navigational problem. Put your smartphone or other GPS device away, pick some waypoints, grab a compass, and go forth! You never know, it might save your butt one day! Happy trails, and happy hiking!

Author

  • James Ryan

    A seasoned hiker and adventurer who loves to travel and experience new things. An extrovert and creative at heart, James is most definitely a "People Person". He started this blog in the hopes of making somebody's day just a bit brighter!

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