How to Read a Topographic Map: The Complete Guide for Adventurers

Reading a topographic map can seem intimidating at first, but with the right knowledge and practice it doesn't have to be. 

A topographic map is an essential tool for any outdoor enthusiast - from hikers to campers, backpackers and landscape photographers. 

To help you get started understanding how to read a topographic map I’ve put together this comprehensive guide that covers everything from understanding contour lines, reading elevation symbols, identifying features on the maps and measuring distances using grid lines. We'll also show you where to find your own topographic maps as well as provide some helpful tips on orienting them correctly.

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What is a topographic map?

A topographic map of a national forest.

A topographic map (or topo map for short) is a type of map that shows the relief of the Earth's surface in two dimensions.  

This type of map is absolutely essential not just for trip planning, but also navigating in the field. 

A topo map map shows you the elevation changes on a landscape, allowing you to visualize the three-dimensional features of an area, including mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and other geographical features. 

As you will learn later in this article, these elevation changes are indicated by contour lines, which are imaginary lines on a map that connect points with the same elevation above sea level.

Topo maps also include symbols, which represent various types of geographic features found in nature such as forests, bodies of water and roads/trails. By learning these symbols you can quickly identify important landmarks while planning routes for hiking, backpacking or camping trips in unfamiliar areas.

In addition to showing symbols and contour lines, some maps may also include spot heights which indicate specific points where measurements have been taken such as mountain peaks or valley floors; this makes it easier to identify key landmarks along your route without having to guess based solely off of contours alone. 

All of this information will help you navigate efficiently and safely in the backcountry, helping to to avoid getting lost and potentially in a lot of trouble. 

If you were to ever get lost in while on a hike or other adventure, then being able to recognize key landmarks from a topo map could mean life or death depending on circumstances.

Understanding how to read elevation and steepness can help hikers plan their route by avoiding dangerous areas with steep slopes or high altitudes that may require additional gear such as crampons or ice axes. It can also help campers find flat spots for setting up tents and backpackers locate water sources near rivers or streams that have lower elevations than other parts of their journey.

Understanding contour lines

Topographic map contour lines.

A contour line is a line that connects points of equal elevation.

In other words, the elevation along a contour line does not change no matter where it is located on the terrain.

Contour lines are important because they provide a visual representation of:

  • the elevation changes on land
  • the type of physical features on the landscape (e.g. ridges, mountains, valleys, cliffs)
  • the shape of physical feature on a landscape (e.g. 
  • the steepness of terrain

Contour intervals

The difference in elevation between contour lines is called the contour interval. 

For each topo map, the elevation gain or loss from one contour line to next is always the same.

The contour intervals will vary depending on the map. For most maps it is 40 feet, but you will also find them at 50, 80, or 100 feet. 

For example, on a map with a contour interval of 40, every contour line is 40 vertical feet from the contour lines adjacent to it. 

You can find the contour interval in the map legend.

Index contour lines

Thicker, bolder contour lines that have the elevation marked on them are called index contour lines.

These lines are shown on the maps at every fifth contour line are like reference points that let you quickly and easily find a locations elevation.

How contour lines indicate steepness

The spacing between contour lines indicates how steeply a slope rises or falls. 

Closer spaced contours indicate steeper slopes while farther apart contours indicate gentler slopes. 

How contour lines indicate feature shapes

When you know how to read contour lines, they will help you pick out major features on the landscape.

  • Peak - concentric contour lines indicate a mountain or hill. The top of the peak is typically marked with the peak name and elevation. Sometimes it is marked with the symbol “X”.
  • Saddle - hourglass-like contour lines indicate a saddle, which is the “U” shaped ridge between two peaks.
  • Valley or drainage - indicated by “V” or “U” shaped contour lines that point (i.e the apex of the “V” or “U” is pointed uphill.
  • Ridge - indicated by “V” or “U” shaped contour lines that point downhill. 
  • Cliff - lines that are stacked on top of one another indicate a vertical cliff.
  • Depression - concentric circles with hash marks inside indicate a depression; this looks like a peak but in reverse. 

Topographic map symbols

The symbols on topographic maps represent different features of the landscape, such as rivers, roads, and bridges. 

Each type of feature has its own unique symbol which helps distinguish it from other types of terrain.

Symbols can be points (e.g. a peak or campsite), lines (e.g. trails or streams), or areas (lakes or vegetation).

Knowing what these symbols mean is essential for navigating in unfamiliar areas.

The following are the most common symbols, but is by far a complete list of all of the symbols used on topo maps.

I recommend that you memorize the symbols and colors described below so that you can more efficiently interpret a topographic map.

Check out this comprehensive list of symbols provided by the USGS to learn about all of the different types of symbols that you could potentially see on a topo map.

Rivers and streams

A creek on a topographic map.

Perennial rivers and streams are represented by solid blue lines. 

Blue dashed lines indicate intermittent rivers and streams (i.e. ones that may flow seasonally).

The direction of flow will move in the direction of higher to lower elevation.

Lakes and ponds

Lakes on a topographic map.

Perennial lakes and ponds are represented by solid blue circular or oval shapes.

Circles or ovals that contain dots or lines inside are intermittent lakes or ponds. 


A hiking trail on a topographic map.

Trails are indicated by dashed lines and can be printed in different colors depending on the type of trail it is.

For example, mountain bike trails are often a different color and hiking only trails. 


A trailhead on a topographic map.

Trails are indicated by a square with the letters "TH" inside.

This marks the official start of a trail used for hiking, biking or horseback riding. There will likely be a parking lot nearby.


Vegetation colors on a topographic map.

Woodlands are indicated by areas that are solid light green.

Shrublands are shown by small green circles.

Areas with no color have little vegetation (i.e. deserts or areas above treeline). 


Roads on a topographic map.

Roads are shown as either solid or dashed parallel lines with a color between the lines. The color of the road indicates the type of road (i.e. 4x4, paved, highway, etc.).

Paved roads are usually black or gray and highways are typically red.

Dirt roads and 4x4 roads usually aren’t colored and they are dashed rather than solid lines.


Mountain peak on a topographic map.

Spot elevations of mountain peaks and hilltops are typically marked with an “X” or a mountain symbol with the elevation (and sometimes the peak name) next to it.


Campground on a topographic map.

Campgrounds are indicated by a small tent symbol. There are usually designated campgrounds that may or may not require a permit.

Topographic map legend

If you are ever in doubt about what a symbol on the map means, check out the map’s legend.

A map legend shows you what all of the the map’s lines, symbols, and colors represent. 

You can find the legend in the corner or on the margin of a map.

Colors on a topographic map

Different colors mean different things on a topo map and can give you highly valuable information about the natural features and the landscape:

  • Blue indicates water (e.g. rivers, streams, and lakes).
  • Green indicates an area covered with vegetation (e.g. forests).
  • White areas outlined in blue and have blue lines or hash marks inside of them indicate glaciers or snowfields.
  • No color (i.e. the color of the map paper) means there is no vegetation or at least no tall vegetation.

Topographic map scales

Topo maps can be used to measure distances between two points on the map. 

To do this, topographic maps include a scale bar that allows you to accurately measure distances.

The scale typically appears as a ratio at the bottom of the map and is accompanied by a bar that shows different units of measurement such as kilometers, miles, feet, etc. 

The scale ratio shows how one unit of measurement on the map (e.g. 1 inch) is equivalent to that same measurement in reality. 

For example, if your map has a 1:24000 scale then it means that one inch on the map equals 24000 inches (or 2,000 feet) in real life. 

By using this ratio and measuring with a ruler or other measuring device you can calculate how far apart two points are on the map or how far away something is from your current location.

If you are measuring the distance of a trail, use a piece of string (e.g. a shoelace) to trace the twists and turns of the trail and get a more accurate measurement. 

It’s also important to note that different topographic maps can have different scales depending on what part of the world they cover, so make sure you check which scale applies when calculating distances. 

The smaller the topo map scale ratio (i.e. the larger the bottom number of the ratio), the less detail the map will contain. 

For example, a 1:63,360 represents a larger area and therefore shows less detail than a 1:24,000 map.

Orienting the map

A topographic map is oriented to true north, which is the direction of the North Pole. 

True north is different from magnetic north, which is determined by the earth’s magnetic field and is the direction that a compass will point you 

True north and magnetic north are not always in alignment due to changes in the Earth’s magnetic field over time. Magnetic north can be found by using a compass and orienting it with respect to true north on your map.

It is also important to know that magnetic north moves locations from year to year, and this can significantly affect how 

To orient your map correctly, you will need two tools: a protractor or angle finder and a compass. The protractor or angle finder helps you measure angles between points on the map while the compass helps you determine where true north lies relative to those points. Start by finding two easily identifiable features on your map that have known coordinates (latitude/longitude). Then use your protractor or angle finder to measure the angle between these two points as well as their distance from each other in kilometers or miles.

Next, take out your compass and align it so that its needle is pointing towards true north (the direction of the North Pole). Once aligned, place one end of your compass at one point on your map and rotate it until its needle matches up with what was measured using the protractor or angle finder earlier; this should now give you an accurate orientation of where true north lies relative to those two points on your topographic map.

Finally, draw lines connecting all four corners of your topographic maps with arrows indicating which way they are pointing towards – this will help ensure that all features depicted accurately reflect their actual location when looking at them from above. You may also want to mark off specific gridlines if needed for further accuracy when navigating through terrain later down-the-line too.

Once completed, double check everything again before heading out into nature - make sure all angles match up correctly with what was measured earlier and that there aren't any discrepancies between different parts of the same feature shown across multiple pages if applicable. 

Topographic map grid lines

Grid lines are another important feature found on topographic maps which help orient adventurers when navigating through unfamiliar terrain. They consist of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines of a specific coordinate system which form squares across the entire area covered by a map.

The two main coordinate systems you will come across when using topo maps are latitude and longitude (lat/long) and the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinate system.

Knowing your coordinates is important because it allow you to communicate your precise location to search and rescue teams if you find yourself in an emergency situation in the backcountry. 

If you have a GPS device, you can also use the coordinates from your GPS to determine where you are on the topographic map.

Latitude and Longitude

Latitude is measured in degrees (°) north or south from the equator, while longitude is measured in degrees (°) east or west from the prime meridian.

One degree can be divided into 60 minutes (') and each minute can be divided into 60 seconds (").

If a map uses latitude and longitude grid lines, you will typically see coordinates on the margins of the map. 

These are numbers that are shown as degrees (i.e. you will see the degree symbol)

Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM)

The UTM system divides the Earth into 60 equally sized zones. Each zone stretches vertically from the North to the South pole and is 6-degrees of longitude in wide.

Your coordinates when using UTM system are described by the intersection of easting (north-south) and northing (east-west) grid lines, similar to how the intersection of latitude and longitude lines are used to express an exact location. 

Like latitude and longitude lines, you can also find UTM eastings and northings on a topo map on the margins of the map.

Where can you find topographic maps

There are two types of topo maps that are available today:

  • Paper
  • Digital

Paper topographic maps can be purchased from outdoor gear retailers, online map vendors, and the USGS (United States Geological Survey) which produces standard 7 ½ minute quadrangle sheets covering most areas of the United States

Nattional Geographic offers a great selection of paper maps (which are water and tear resistant) for most of the wilderness areas and national parks in the US.

Digital topographic maps are available from a variety of sources online including Gaia GPS and CalTopo. Both offer high-resolution satellite imagery with overlays of USGS topographical data that can be printed out at home or downloaded to your mobile device for use in the field. These digital versions are often more up-to-date than paper copies since they include recent changes in terrain features such as new roads or trails that may not have been included on older paper versions.

Which type of topo map is best?

You should always have a paper map on you when out hiking, backpacking, or on any type of adventure in the backcountry. 

This is because digital maps - whether on a GPS device or your cell phone - can fail if your battery dies or the device malfunctions.

Digital maps are therefore a great supplement to paper maps, but they should not be the only type of map you have on you when out in the field. 

Final thoughts

Topographic maps provide detailed information about the landscape and terrain that is essential for successful navigation in unfamiliar areas. 

From finding trails to scouting out potential campsites, understanding how to interpret a topographic map will help ensure your next outdoor adventure is successful. 

Whether you are planning a backpacking trip or just want to explore nature with your camera, understanding how to read a topographic map will help you become a more confident adventurer who knows how to stay safe in the backcountry.