How to Read a Topographic Map

Hiking With a Topographic Map

Topographic maps are a valuable tool for hikers and campers. You can plan an entire trip with the help of a topographic map, and you'll greatly decrease your chances of any unpleasant surprises. Your map can tell you a lot — details about an area's elevation, the best way to ascend a peak or how to orient yourself using landmarks.

It's always best (and safer) to plan your hike in advance. Once you've selected the area in which you and your friends will be walking, get yourself a topographic map. There are lots available for recreation purposes — the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), for example, offers them online.


Trails appear on a topographic map as thin black lines. Roads will be thicker red or black lines. As you choose your route from Point A to Point B, keep a close eye on your map's contour lines. If the lines are far apart, any changes in elevation will be gradual. If they're close together, though, you'll have a steep hike ahead of you. You'll see the highest point or peak of your climb as a circle in the center of the lines — sort of like the rings on a tree.

­If a climb looks too steep for your adventure level, you can use the map to plan an easier route around any hills or mountains. As we stated earlier, if you follow the contour lines from the map, your elevation will remain relatively stable.

Once you've chosen the best route, take a look at the scale to find out the exact distance you'll be hiking. This way you'll know the amount of supplies you'll need in your backpack. Keep in mind you likely won't be hiking in a straight line, though. Experts advise using a string to mark your route on the map — including all the twists and turns — and then translating your string distance to the map's scale.

Your map will also show you where to locate water as well as how to stay within the timberline in case you end up needing shelter. Don't forget to note the symbols on the map to ensure you're not hiking into any private property or dangerous areas such as mine shafts or caves.

Re­lated HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Bowie, Soren. "Preparing for a Hike Using a Topographic Map." 2008. (Feb. 18, 2009)
  • National Resources Canada. "Topographic Maps - Tips and Hints." Sept. 28, 2018. (April 8, 2020)
  • Reed, Mary. "How to Read a Topo Map." Get Out! 2009. (April 8, 2020)
  • Riesterer, Jim. "Map Scales." Geospatial Training & Analysis Cooperative. April 7, 2008. (April 8, 2020)
  • U.S. Geological Survey. "Map Scales." Aug. 3, 2006. (April 8, 2020)
  • U.S. Geological Survey."Topographic Map Symbols." April 28, 2005. (April 8, 2020)
  • U.S. Geological Survey. "Topographic Mapping." Feb. 25, 2008. (Feb. 13, 2009)
  • U.S. Geological Survey. "USGS Maps Online Edition." April 13, 2005. (Feb. 13, 2009)