Whenever you’re heading out on a hike, a hunt, or a trip into the wilderness – especially in remote or unfamiliar areas – carrying a map and a compass is a must. Even if the area is known to you, or you plan on staying on marked trails, you should still always carry a map and compass.
Every year thousands of hikers and outdoorsman are lost in the wilderness in areas they thought they were familiar with.
How to Use Topographic Maps & a Compass
Topographic maps are created from aerial photography and satellite imaging; they describe the shape of the land, allowing you to see three-dimensional landscapes on a two-dimensional map. The maps define natural and manmade features like hills, valleys, vegetation, waterways, trails, bridges and roads.
To be able to use these types of maps out in the wilderness, you need to learn how to read a topographic map. When reading a topographic map, you need to visualize a 3-dimensional view of what the symbols and contour lines on the map are showing.
The following image below illustrates how a topographic map conveys three-dimensional information.
Using the maps contour lines can tell you a lot about the terrain, including steepness, ruggedness, and ground cover. The most important thing to remember when reading a TOPO Map is that CLOSE contour lines indicate VERY STEEP SLOPES, while FARTHER SPACED contour lines indicate a more LEVEL terrain. For example, in the image above, the white area on the top of the hill would be relatively flat. You can tell this on the map from the lack of contour lines around this location.
Topographic Maps Show Much more than just Contours
The great thing about Topographic maps is the large amount of useful information they provide. Besides showing you things like elevation and steepness of slopes, they also include symbols that represent things like roads and trails, railroads, buildings, streams and waterways, water tanks, campgrounds and vegetation.
During an emergency situation these topographic maps can literally become your lifeline, showing you exactly where to find food, water and your way out of trouble.
Topographic Map Symbols
The following is a list of the most current USGS Topographic Map Symbols. You can download our printable version here: