Topographical Map Making

Topographical Map MakingHiking in a new area? Can't get hold of a topographical map? Making your own will be challenging for the first few steps and then it will all come together. You will be amazed at how taking a little time to do it right can give you a reasonably accurate map. A topographic map gives a 3-D representation of the land in a two-dimensional format. Topo maps, as the prints are called, are created by the U.S. Department of Interior US Geologic Survey (USGS).


Difficulty: Moderately Challenging


Things You’ll Need:
  • Several blank pieces of paper
  • • Roll of tracing paper if no aerial photo is desired on the map
  • • A soft lead pencil (No. 1 or 2) with a sharp point
  • • Red, blue, green and brown pencils with sharp points
  • • 6-inch or 12-inch ruler
  • • Computer with Google Earth installed
  • • Color printer (black and white is OK)
  • • Masking tape
  • • Magnifying glass (optional)
Step 1
Open Google Earth and go to the area to be mapped. Using the "Menu>Tools>Options" enter the number "3" in the "Elevation Exaggeration" box.
Step 2
Using the "Measurement" tool, measure a "Path" marking at least 1/4 mile, 1/2 mile and 1 mile. Some hand-drawn maps may include 1/8 mile (640 feet) or even smaller segments. Try to keep the angle of the measurement as close to 90 degrees as possible.
Step 3
Using the "Path" tool, create a path with the same points as the measured path. Using the "Placemark" tool, put a marker on the distance divisions. Clear the measurement path.
Step 4
Zoom in or out so that the "Eye Altitude" on the lower right-hand corner of the Google Earth screen is close to 16,000 feet. Using a 6-inch or 12-inch ruler, measure the 1/4-mile segment on the monitor screen so that 2 inches is close to 1/4 mile. Your "Eye Altitude" may vary based on screen size and resolution. Using the "Menu>File>Save Image" commands, save the image to your computer as a JPG. Printing out the map or any portion of it at the size saved will result in a map with a measurable scale of about 1 inch equal to 640 feet.
Step 5
A. If the map is to be a pure topographic map--no aerial photo--secure the aerial photo to a flat surface using masking tape and then tape tracing paper over the aerial photo. If the topo map is to be drawn on the aerial photo, skip this step.

B. Tape the aerial photo to a flat surface, if it is not already secured with the masking tape. The next set of directions assumes that the aerial photo is the base for the map, however the same instructions apply to the drawing on tracing paper.

Drawing the base map

Step 1
Using the ruler, draw a dark line around the area to be hiked to create a frame for the map. Then using two of the colored pencils draw the scale. Essentially this is the path "drawn" on screen. Label each segment. The scale will help measure distance no matter what size the later printed. The scale enlarges or reduces in proportion to the enlargement or reduction of the image.
Step 2
Draw or trace the visible water courses. Normally an intermittent stream is shown with a dotted blue line and a perennial stream or river is shown with a solid blue line. Trails tend to be grey or green dotted lines. Roads can be red, white or black. For a simple topo map, keeping the roads in red, trails in green and streams in blue will save time.
Step 3
After water courses are shown, add in the roads, and finally add the trails.
Step 4
Label all the base features, including mountain peaks and other landmark features.

Drawing the contours

Step 1
Looking carefully at the colors on the aerial photo and the "exaggeration" to make the height stand out, notice there are changes in shadow, color and vegetation following specific patterns. Use a pencil to trace these distinctions to form the contour lines. Contours are the lines indicating major changes in elevation. On a professional topo map, the contours distinctly define a specific elevation. When drawing a personal topo map, the accuracy is not to show the elevation, but to show where there are visible changes in elevation.
Step 2
Draw as many different contour lines you like. The focus is to show the steepness. The steepest portions of the route are defined by where the shadows and changes in terrain are closest together.
Step 3
Draw in the trail so that it parallels the contours as much as possible. Avoid moving perpendicular to steep areas (close together contours), as this will mean a climb rather than a hike.

Tips & Warnings

• Print out several copies of the map. If the map is bigger than letter size paper, print it as a poster so that the map is broken into separate sheets.
• With the quality of today's printers, it really is best to draw the topo map on one of the aerial photos, this will help with on-the-ground landmarks when hiking or backpacking.
• Draw the contours using a soft pencil first, then it's easy to erase errors.
• No personally drawn map replaces the real necessity for a good map of an area or research before hiking.
• Remember to carry plenty of water, a first aid kit, compass, flashlight and extra batteries when hiking.
• Always hike with a partner and ensure someone knows where you're hiking, when you left and when you should be expected to return.


Article Written By Eric Jay Toll

Eric Jay Toll has been writing since 1970, influenced by his active lifestyle. An outdoorsman, businessman, planner and travel writer, Toll's work appears in travel guides for the Navajo Nation, "TIME" and "Planning" magazines and on various websites. He studied broadcast marketing and management at Southern Illinois University.

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