How to Read a Topographical Map


How to read a Topographical Map

A topographical map is by far the best for purposes such as hiking, backpacking, hunting, mushroom picking, and a variety of other outdoor activities. The big advantage to using a topo map is that it gives you a three dimensional sense of the area. A topographic map shows you the elevation gain over a given area along with an overhead view of natural and manmade features. A topo map demonstrates the changes in elevation by using a series of small lines. Each line demonstrates a degree of elevation. On the topo maps I use each line represents 80 feet. So every time you move from one line to the other, you have traveled 80 feet in elevation.

Having a 3 dimensional view of your area makes it easier to find  your location, landmarks, and understand how difficult the terrain is. For example, on a map that doesn’t give elevation the distance between two points might seem easy to travel when in reality the distance between the two points may consist of rugged terrain and steep mountains.

On a topographical map the closer the elevation lines are, the more elevation gain there is. The further apart the lines are the flatter the area. If the lines make a V shape, this often means that there is either a stream or river running through the middle of the V.

Every topographical map (or any map worth a damn) should have a “key.” The key tells you what the symbols on the map represent. A good map should also tell you the degrees in which to find true north. A compass will tell you “magnetic north” which is different than “true north.” Most maps are oriented to true north. The difference between the two is called “magnetic declination.” The map should list the degree difference between true north and magnetic north. Another important feature of a topographical map is the scale. The scale should be represented as “1 inch is equal to a set distance such as a mile.” My green trail maps are on a scale of 1 inch being equal to .9 miles.

On the topographical map below the space between the lines is 80 feet 



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