How to Read a Topographic Map

How to Read a Topographic Map
United States Geological Survey topographic maps contain information about the terrain and land features of a particular area. Understanding how to interpret a topographical map can provide important information for hikers, hunters or anyone who needs information about a certain portion of land. It is important to spend some time learning about how the maps are made and studying the legend.


Difficulty: Moderately Easy

Step 1
Unfold the map on a flat surface. Topographic maps are oriented with north facing up and south facing down. The magnetic declination symbol, located at the bottom of the map, shows the difference between true north and magnetic north for that map. Magnetic north is the direction that a magnetic compass will indicate.
Step 2
Find your position by reading the latitude and longitude numbers that border the map. Calculate the distance on the map by referring to the map's scale. The most popular topographical map size is 1:24,000. This means that every inch on the map equals 24,000 inches on the ground.
Step 3
Determine the elevation of an area on your map by observing the contour lines. Contour lines display points of equal elevation. A particular contour line will follow the same elevation for it's entire length. Consult the legend for the amount of elevation for each contour line. Terrain incline or decline can be determined by the proximity of adjacent lines. The closer the lines are together, the steeper the incline will be.
Step 4
Refer to the legend for information about the topographic map's colors and symbols. Different colors identify types of land cover. Green and blue colored areas on the map denote forest and water, respectively. Solid red lines indicate primary roads. Read through the legend several times till you are familiar with all of the symbols.

Article Written By Daniel Ray

Daniel Ray has been writing for over 15 years. He has been published in "Florida Sportsman" magazine. He holds an FAA airframe and powerplant license and FCC radiotelephone license, and is also a licensed private pilot. He attended the University of South Florida.

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