How To Read Topographical Maps Correctly

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Practicing a map of a familiar area helps you identify landmarks related to the counter lines on your map.

Topographical maps give you the power to visualize the three-dimensional view of terrain, and they more information compared to trail maps, and they provide us with a realistic view of the actual landscape.

Reading topographical maps requires knowledge about reading contour lines, reading index lines, knowing the interval between the counter lines.

The understanding evaluation including steep and, identifying the direction of the river and streams flow and the map.

The first thing you might want to see on any top map is the details of Legend, let’s see How to read and understand a legend.

Understanding Map Legend:

You can find a lot of essential details at the bottom of the top map it lists the significant details like map scale, contour intervals, index line intervals, map reading clues and magnetic declination for using a compass. Let's see what does each element indicates.

1. Map Scale

Large scale maps give you more information than small scale maps. Let's say for an example a map scale of 1:20,000 means that one inch on the map is equivalent to 20,000 inches on the ground.

So, it depends on the scale ratio 1: 20,000 maps are considered to be large and 1:1,20,000 scale is deemed to be small.


So, it's good to have an understanding of map scale. With a large-scale map, it’s possible to see more details compared to small scale maps.

Map legend

2. Reading Contour lines

  • Contour lines are also called isolines shows the equal elevation on a map at defined intervals. Counter lines can tell you whether you are hiking an uphill, downhill, or over flat territory.
  • Closer lines indicate a Steeper Slope so when the contour lines are very close together that indicates a Steep.
  • Distant contour lines show a gentle slope lines will be spread much a part.
  • Elevations are heights between contour lines.
  • The peak is the Highest point of the mountain; the peak is a complete circle within the center with the highest elevation.

3. Contour interval

Change in height between one contour line to another is called contour interval, and it is always same on the map.

4. Color illustration on Topographic Maps

Brown: To Indicate Contour Lines.

Green: Shows the sparse or denser vegetation.

Blue: You might have guessed it already, it indicates water, lakes, swamps, and rivers. In areas where snow and ice are usually present year-round, glaciers shown in blue.

Black: Represents actual hiking trails.

Red Indicates roads and boundaries.

5. How to Identify North

In Most of the maps North is always up but it may not be same case so take a compass rose and identify where the North is.

6. Orienting Compass and Map

You might wonder, why would I ever need a compass when I got the smartphone, GPS handheld with me.


Well, your phone or GPS could run of out juice, and the clouds and weather conditions may stop your devices using satellite services.


I agree that it’s a lot of fun having navigational devices and smartphone but knowing how to use a map and compass keeps you stay in the path without getting lost. 

Before we even see how to use a compass, it is crucial to plan your route, your choice of terrain, hiking skills, and athletic conditions will all affect your plan. Plan your trip ahead to avoid any unnecessary risk, and let us start learning how to use a compass.

  • 1
    Basics Compass consists of the direction of travel arrow on the top of the scale, and you always need to follow that direction of travel arrow on hiking.
  • 2
    Compass comes with a freely rotating bezel, and on the outer rim of the bezel, you can see N (North) and cardinal points (E, S, W) and the degrees ranging from 0-360.
  • 3
    Inside the compass, you can see a bit of shed shaped object called the Shed.
  • 4
    And Lastly, you can see a floating needle that will always point to the magnetic north. and underneath that, there will be a base plate. So that's all the essential parts you need to know.

Topographical maps give you the power to visualize the three-dimensional view of terrain.


On most of the topographic maps, North is always up, if not check underneath the map for the direction.


The orientation of the map is one of the necessary skill, so let's talk about that. 

As I said, North is always up on most of the maps, and there will be lines going up and down, and they represent North and South, and the lines crossing left and right represent the east and west directions.

Orienting Compass with Map

  • Take the compass keep the arrow on the bezel in line with the compass scale arrow.
  • Place the edge of Compass in line with the lines (called meridian lines) on the map pointing to North and South directions.
  • Rotate the map until the North need (red), bezel arrow and compass scale arrow are equally aligned.

Once you orient your map correctly, then you should be able to identify the terrain with the help of peaks, cliffs, and other key objects.


You got to be ready to change the directions so placing your thumb on current position will help you identify the last position.

Very Concise video From MRCAParks

You need to take a bearing before going into the woods so that you can always come back If you couldn't determine location by using terrain objects.

7. Start Reading Maps

See all other features that topographical maps then you can start identifying hills (Circles inside the circles indicates the mountain).


Cliffs (Denser contour lines), Slopes (sparse contour lines), Depressions (shown by hatch marks), River and Streams (usually show in Blue) and which direction they are flowing (Usually V share - Flowing down).

8. Where to Download Topographical Maps?

The U.S. Geological Survey provides an unmatched series of next generation quadrangle topographic maps covering an entire American landscape. All of the topographical are freely available on USGS website.

These topographic maps include very subtle layers that are not available on traditional topographic maps such as aerial photo and shaded relief images.

9. Dedicated Paper Maps

These topographical maps may have a more detailed information and come with more additional features such as detailed landscape, very high detail maps, may have precise coordinate grids, might include Key points, and last but not least some of them are water resistant.

In Brief

So, having an understanding of a topographic map out is invaluable. I hope this article has provided you enough information to read topographical maps, and I assume that you could identify terrain details, steep and slope of mountain or hill by just looking at the contour lines.

I always carry topographical map of the trails and a compass along with me and there no other match to these.

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