How to Use a Landform Map

How to Use a Landform MapTopographic or landform maps, which represent elevations and physical features of a given swath of the Earth, are immensely useful cartographic tools. Backpackers use them to plan cross-country treks, hunters and fishers to stalk remote drainages, developers to incorporate natural hazards into planning. These maps may be two- or three-dimensional.


Difficulty: Easy

Step 1
Look at the map's scale. This tells you the relationship between a unit of measurement on the map and one in the real world being depicted. For example, one of the more popular lines of U.S. Geological Survey topo maps are the 1:24,000-scale series, where 1 inch on the map equals 2,000 feet on the ground. Large-scale maps like those show more detail and are essential for outdoor recreation; smaller-scale maps could serve the purposes of regional planning, for example.
Step 2
Pay attention to the contour lines. These represent areas of uniform elevation, and are spaced according to the map's contour interval: lines that represent smaller intervals, like 50 feet, mean a more thorough representation of slope---but, in rugged landscapes of much relief, a small contour interval would result in a bewildering, not terribly useful density of lines. The closer together the lines are, the greater the change in elevation.
Step 3
Look for closed contours, which reveal high points or, if hatched on the inside, depressions. Many topographic maps give the name and/or elevation of notable peaks and ridges.
Step 4
Key into stream drainages. Major creeks are generally delineated by solid blue lines; ephemeral (or seasonal) streams may be shown stippled. Ravines, gorges, and canyons are typically revealed by contour-line clusters. Mature rivers often show up as broadly meandering lines shouldered by oxbow lakes (abandoned fluvial channels) in wide floodplains.
Step 5
Note colors. USGS topo maps typically use green to indicate vegetation cover, gray or red for human development, brown contour lines, blue streams, and red or black roadways and boundary lines.
Step 6
Use a sighting map compass in conjunction with a topo map to set bearings across pathless country.

Tips & Warnings

Be sure to use a topo map appropriate for your activity. For hiking, fishing (pictured top) and kayaking, you want a large-scale map so you have enough detail to effectively plan routes and locate landmarks.

Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

Don't Miss a Thing!

All our latest outdoor content delivered to your inbox once a week.



We promise to keep your email address safe and secure.