Reading Topographic Maps


Outdoor adventures are exciting and invigorating! One of the most enjoyable things in life really. Spending a lot of time outdoors requires you to have some sense of direction. Now, there are some who are born with an innate sense of direction. For those who were not quite that lucky, it is a skill that can be developed with lots of training and practice.

If you are not terribly well-versed in the outdoors or direction, one way to improve your skills is by studying a topographical map. A topographical map gives you a 2-dimensional view of our 3-dimensional world, which is different compared to a standard flat map. Trail maps or other flat maps simply outline roads and trails and ignore the different details of the landscape. Learning how to read a topographical can help you a great deal when it comes to preparing for a day or weekend out in nature.

There are some minor differences between map makers and the electronic versions that are readily available today. Most tend to use the same basic rules to define various aspects of the landscape. Fortunately, most follow in the footsteps of the United States Geological Survey standards. Below is a list of colors used on the maps and what they mean.

  • Black-Black lines signify man made things like roads, utility lines, railroads, quarries, buildings and other structures.

  • Red– This can outline township boundaries and/or interstates.

  • Blue– Streams, rivers, lakes and other water features.

  • Green– Signifies vegetation, forested areas, but it is typically not used for open fields.

  • White– Open fields or sparsely vegetated areas. Rocky or desert areas may be in white as well.

  • Brown– Signifies different elevations. Dark brown lines are index lines.

This should help you get an idea of what you are looking at when you study your topographical map.

Craig Caudill likes to know where he is at and where he is going when he is in the woods. He vlogs for Dan’s Depot, at Dan’s you can find 550 paracord  and many other useful items. He is also the chief instructor at his Nature Reliance School.

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