How to Read Topographic Maps

How to Read Topographic Maps
Sometimes using topographic maps is far superior to standard maps. These maps do not show you the locations of towns and other points of interest, they show you the topography of the landscape. What that means is that these maps show you what the elevation is for a given area, allowing you to identify easily hills, mountains, plains and other land forms. Although these maps can seem confusing at first glance, they are actually quite easy to read once you know how.


Difficulty: Easy

Step 1
Read the title of the map. The title of the topographic map will always be in the upper right hand corner of the map. This title will tell you the state, county and specific location within the county that the map represents.
Step 2
Note the secondary titles. You will see small diagonal titles in each of the corners. They also appear half way between each corner, making a total of eight secondary titles on each map. These titles represent the name of the topographical map that fits the area adjacent to the map you are viewing. This is important to know because you may sometimes have to refer to multiple maps to see the entire area.
Step 3
Look at the center of the bottom border of the map to locate the map scale. The scale represents how much distance (feet, miles, kilometers) is represented by a space on the map. Knowing the scale is important in gauging how far one point on the map is from another. You will also see a "Contour Interval" below the scale. Make note of this number for measuring the contour (Step 5).
Step 4
Understand the coordinates on the map. A topographic map will usually have a series of numbers listed at equal intervals around the border of the map. Many times they will have corresponding grid lines on the map. These numbers represent the latitude and longitude and allow you to identify the map location's place on Earth. Many maps also have a smaller set of bold numbers. These numbers are the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM), which is another positioning matrix. The UTM is normally used only by the military and scientific researchers.
Step 5
Recognize the contour lines. The most distinctive feature of topographic maps is that they show contour lines to identify changes in elevation of the land. To understand these lines, you must first know the contour interval number, identified in the map scale during Step 3. This number represents how much elevation change there is between contour lines. For example, if the contour interval is 10, then there will be a 10-foot change in elevation between each line. Steep, mountainous areas will have contour lines closer together, while fields and plains will show them much farther apart. Some of these lines will be bold and have a number on them, representing the elevation (above sea level) at that point on the map.
Step 6
Identify towns and points of interest on the map. Towns are typically easiest to spot, because they normally have text reading the name of the town. For other points of interest, such as mines, airports, churches and water tanks, refer to the legend (or key) on the bottom of the map. This shows you what each symbol represents so that you will know what you are looking at on the map.

Tips & Warnings

You can also use a topographic map to determine the magnetic declination of an area by looking for the declination reading on the lower left-hand corner. This tells you how many degrees separate true North from magnetic North in the area, allowing you to compensate accordingly when using a compass to navigate.

Article Written By Wirnani Garner

Wirnani was born in the Philippines, where she had constant access to a rural jungle environment. In addition to exploring the island jungles, Wirnani spent much of her youth interacting with local wildlife, swimming in the Philippine Sea and rafting on the Davao River. She also routinely went on backpacking trips along the trails of Mount Apo, the highest peak of the Philippine Islands. Wirnani currently lives near the Ozark Mountains of Northern Arkansas. The location provides an abundance of hiking, swimming, canoeing, kayaking and fishing opportunities. When she's not spending time outdoors, Wirnani enjoys studying biology and human health sciences.

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