Are you looking to broaden your outdoor navigation knowledge?

Basic hiking trail guides and simple map pamphlets work fine for light hiking, but not if you are intending to venture into the backcountry. If you really want to go off the grid and practice some legitimate outdoor navigation skills, you need the right tools. Topographic maps are the best type of map to use for that intense bushwhacking kind of adventure. While these maps are not typically on a hiker’s packing list, they certainly are useful to take along. For those considering practicing your outdoor survival abilities, you first need to know how to read a topographic map. This skill is incredibly useful, and could keep you on the right path and out of danger.

Here is some practical advice for how to read a topographic map.

Find a topographic map.

How to Read a Topographic Map

Before you navigate with your topographic map, you first need to procure one. Fortunately, it is not terribly difficult to locate these kinds of maps, as they are extremely helpful to outdoor gurus. On the downside, with today’s technology and travel resources readily advancing, topographic maps are decreasing in popularity. Because of this shift, less and less sporting goods stores sell these types of maps. If you are in the market for a topographic guide, look into local sources. Many public lands provide topographic maps for their surrounding area. If you have a specific region in mind, simply pay a visit to a ranger station or check out their local website.

Check the map legend and map scale.

The map legend is the key to understanding every aspect of it. Topographic maps are filled with numerous symbols, shapes, and colors. This easily gets confusing if you do not know what you are looking for. As you learn how to read a topographic map, refer to the map legend as your guide. Here you can understand the coloring and small details. Whether you are looking for the ranger station, campground, or a shelter, this is what you need to refer to. The legend also includes various boundary lines within the area you are mapping out. You can typically find the map legend in the bottom left corner of your map.

The map scale is the next thing you need to check once you get your topographic map. This feature gives insight as to how detailed the map is going to be. Map scales such as 1:24000 indicate that one inch is the equivalent to 24,000 real inches. The greater this number is the more land the map covers. However, keep in mind that if the topographic map is large, it likely includes less details.

Read the contour lines.

Topographic maps have the unique ability of allowing you to view a three-dimensional perspective of the surrounding terrain, straight from a piece of paper. Of course, when you know how to read a topographic map, you can then understand just how this works. Contour lines are an operative part in this process of three dimensional mapping. These lines are purposed to offer an idea of just how steep the landscape is. They also provide a visual of the shape of the surrounding elevation. As you look at the contour lines on your topographic map, you will see numbers. These numbers show the elevation of the rising landmark. The closer these lines are together, the faster the elevation is increasing. Also, the outline of the object on the map also reflects the general shape of the terrain.

Practice your skills in real life.

How to Read a Topographic Map

Of course, you will never truly know how to read a topographic map until you try it out for yourself. Make a plan to venture into the backcountry of a nearby public lands area and give yourself the opportunity to explore. Find somewhere with a variety in its terrain so you have the chance to map it out. Now that you know how to read a topographic map, you have the tools you need to succeed. Taking a topographic map outdoors is the ultimate way to refine your adventure skills.

Impress your hiking friends when you know how to read a topographic map.

Bring a few of your hiking buddies along and show them the ropes when it comes to reading a topographic map. If you want to work on your abilities, a helpful tip is to find a location with terrain you are already familiar with. Take a topographic map with you and practice navigating the surrounding area. This helps you grow more comfortable trusting the map and its features. Try out some other navigation tools while you are at it, such as a GPS watch or a compass. The more you know, the safer you are, and the better your outdoor experience will be.

Related Article: The Best GPS Watch For Hiking: Top Performers

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Faith is a writer and social media manager residing in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She is passionate about people and currently attends university in pursuit of a degree in Clinical Psychology and Counseling. A nomad by nature, Faith finds utmost joy in trekking around the globe and strongly advocates backpacking as the best way to explore anywhere. Being a bookworm and an avid coffee drinker, she is likely to be found sipping an Americano and mulling over a classic novel.

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