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How to read a topographical map

A topographical map of Lake Sylvia Recreation Area is shown

There is nothing like a good map! Maps show you the way to go. They tell you what to expect. And, if you know how to read them correctly, tell you where you are. Most people can get a general understanding of the terrain by looking at a topographical map. But if you know how to read a topographical map correctly, it can help you plan your trip better, save time while you hike, and help you stay found.

So how do you read a topographical map correctly?

The word topographical is used to describe a map that shows you the natural and artificial features of an area, like a mountain, stream, road, campground, etc.

Pinnacle Mountain is shown from below
Pinnacle Mountain

Notice the tight, close contour lines as they radiate to the peak of Pinnacle Mountain? These indicate the terrain is steep. Also, notice how they get wide and in the valley.

A topographical map of Pinnacle Mountain is shown

The Legend

The first thing you want to do is familiarize yourself with the legend on the map. On the legend, it will tell what each symbol represents on topographical map. For example, a square with a triangle inside generally means there is an established campground. Or square with “P” inside generally means a parking lot or trailhead.

The legend will also help you differentiate between the markings for a trail, road, or boundary, which can be confused if not understood.

The legend is shown on a topographical map

It will also tell you what the different colored shading means. For example, darker green shaded areas show you where vegetation is dense and lighter shaded or white areas can mean places that are sparse vegetation. Swamps or wetlands are also generally blue with small blue vertical lines. And streams are blue lines. Solid blue areas can be lakes, ponds, etc.


The second part you want to familiarize yourself with so you know how read a topographical map, is the scale. Each map will tell you it’s representation of the actual dimensions to what is represented on the map. For example, I have a map of Mount Rainier National Park. One side is map of the entire park, the other side is a more detailed map of the peak. While the scale on the side showing the entire park is 1:55,000, the side that is more detailed has a scale of 1:27,500. These numbers show that one inch on the map represents 55,000 inches in real life or 27,500 inches, depending on which side you read.

Looking for a map of your favorite park? Check these out.

But that is a big number to add up in your head. And because of this, the scale also tells you how to measure inches to miles. So my map of Mount Rainer tells me 1 inch on the map measures 0.43 miles in real life. And on the side of the entire park it is 1 inch on the map to 0.87 miles. For those who use the metric system, it also gives centimeters to kilometers.

The scale will also tell you the number of feet in elevation above sea level each contour line represents. This will tell you how many feet in elevation the terrain changes between each contour line.

What are contour lines?

Contours lines are the main feature that sets topographical maps apart from other maps. The contour lines help the reader visualize the terrain. Each contour line represents a set number in elevation change. And that number can be found with your scale. On my Mount Rainer map, each contour line shows 100 feet of elevation change.

Every fifth contour line is thicker and will have the elevation number on it. These are called index lines. So you only have to worry about counting up to five.

So how can contour lines show you how to read a topographical map?

Contour lines can show you how steep the terrain is, where the valleys are and where the peaks area.

A map of Lake Sylvia Recreation Area is shown

The closer the contour lines are together, the steeper the terrain. The further apart the contour lines are the more gradual the slope. Each contour line is present everywhere along that elevation line. So at the base of a mountain, it will make a wide circle, and closer toward the peak the circle gets smaller. They also go in and out of the drainages along the slope and help you visualize the curves of the mountain.

What if it isn’t a mountain or peak, but a butte or mesa?

Of course, buttes or mesa (flat-topped mountains) are not going to have a point or small circle at the tip. This is where knowing your terrain and paying attention to the index line numbers come in handy. If the numbers on the index lines are increasing as they go toward a larger circle, then you are looking at a butte or mesa.

A topographical map of an erroded plateau

Compare the map above with the picture below. Notice how the contour lines are far apart on the top and create a circle around top of the mountain. Below is the image of the mountain.

A pictures of a mountain plateau

If they narrow down down to a circle they cold be a sink hole. If the index line numbers decrease and move out as the go to a large circle, then they moving down toward a valley.

The peak will also have an “X” with name or elevation number on it.

Practice makes perfect

The best way to learn to how to read a topographical map is to study one thoroughly, familiarize yourself with it, and then take to the trails!

See if the trail is what you envisioned while reading the map. Was the trail steeper than you expected? Was the valley as narrow as you thought? Also, take notice of the mountains around you and compare them to the contour lines on your map.

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How to read a topographical map so you know what to expect on a hiking trip and are able to locate yourself in the wilderness.

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