How To Read A Topographic Map For Survival

By Just In Case Jack | Last Updated: March 30, 2021

How To Read A Topographic MapIf you’re serious about survival and preparedness, you must learn how to read a topographic map.

These maps include a treasure trove of valuable information.

Topo maps are essential in planning remote routes and handy to have in the heat of the battle.

But they are worthless if you don’t know what the lines and symbols mean.

So today, I’m going to teach you how to read a topographic map and which topographic maps are the best.

That way, you can start using them to your survival advantage.

Here’s a brief outline of what we’ll be covering today:

**Note: If you want our top map recommendations, feel free to SKIP AHEAD HERE.

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How To Read A Topo MapWhat Is A Topographical Map?

Topographic is the adjective form of the noun topography, which refers to the land’s surface features. Topographic maps are sometimes called topo maps for short.

Topographical maps are our three-dimensional terrain represented in 2-dimensional form.

So a topo map indicates unique features of the land’s surface, such as:

  • mountains
  • hills
  • and valleys

This is typically done with wavy lines representing the land’s elevation.

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Why You Should Invest In Topographic Maps 

Topographic maps are frequently used by hikers to navigate and plan their routes.

But they’re used more than just for recreation. For example, they are often used by architects, biologists, paleontologists, hunting outfitters, and many other professionals.

Essentially they are relied upon by anyone who needs to know important information about a particular landscape.

They are also an ideal tool for making survival and bug out escape plans.

They help create multiple escape routes out of a city by avoiding dangerous terrain (such as steep ravines or cliffs) but also show you the best routes to stay hidden.

But topographic maps are NOT intuitive to read or understand the first time you see one.

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How To Read A Topographic Map

To understand how to read a topographic map, you must first learn the main features of such a map:

  • Contour Lines
  • Colors
  • Shading

You must learn to decipher these three factors to understand the information presented.

Again, the primary goal of topo maps is to represent the shape of the earth in 2 dimensions. But it also includes extra info such as streets, trails, vegetation, and water sources (lakes, streams, swamps, etc.).

Plus, a few other features related to navigation and travel through any terrain.

So let’s break down each factor in more detail and with visual examples.

Topographical Map Contour Lines

The key to understanding contour lines is to realize they don’t exist in nature. Contour lines are NOT paths or trails. They are a symbolic line that represents a constant elevation above sea level.

So if a contour line reads at 600 feet above sea level, everywhere that line goes is 600 feet above sea level.

For example, if you walked this “imaginary/symbolic” path, you would not walk uphill or downhill. Theoretically, your hike would remain at a constant flat elevation. A nice leisurely flat stroll.

But again, these lines are not real trails or roads. They represent constant elevation, no more, no less.

Now, there are different types of contour lines.

Index Lines

There are lines that are darker in color and are known as indexed contour lines. These typically include an elevation number associated with them.

For most topographical maps, every 5th contour line is an index.

Intermediate Lines

Between index contour lines, you have intermediate contour lines. These lines serve the same function as index contour lines. Except they don’t include an elevation number.

Not providing the elevation number with intermediate contour lines is done for purposes of organization and clarity.

Because the more lines a topo map has, the easier it is to visualize elevation changes. But the map would quickly become a cluttered mess if every contour line included a number. Making it hard, if not impossible, to read.

So intermediate contour lines fill in the gaps between the index contour lines. These extra contour lines provide a better visual representation of a terrain’s elevation without unnecessary clutter.

Supplementary Lines

Finally, there is a third variety of contour lines called supplementary contour lines. These lines are only used on maps or in very flat regions with very few elevation changes.

These dashed lines represent an elevation that’s halfway between two intermediate contour lines.

Without supplementary contour lines, there would be no contour lines in flat areas. However, if there’s some elevation change, the supplementary contour lines will show that.

Just remember this, the closer the contour lines are to each other, the more rapid the change in elevation.

When contour lines are far apart, the terrain is flat – think leisurely stroll. But, if the lines are packed and stacked right next to each other, you’re looking at a cliff. If they are moderately spaced, but you’ll cross several in a mile long hike, it’s not a cliff, but it’s still going to take some work to hike.

Here’s an example of using topographic contour lines:

Topographic Contour Lines

Topographic Map Colors

The colors on most topographic maps tell you something about the terrain.

In general, brown is used for the color of the contour lines. Green represents vegetation areas such as woods or forest areas. Blue denotes water and features (lakes, rivers, streams, swamps, oceans, etc.).

One exception to note is at high elevations; some contour lines may be drawn in blue. These blue lines represent locations with year-round snowcapped areas or glaciers. Assume these areas require special gear to transverse, such as pickaxes, crampons, etc.

Finally, the color black is used to denote man-made objects, including trails. Red represents man-made features such as roads and boundaries. Purple is used to note updates or changes to the map from a previous rendition.

Here’s an example using topographic colors:

Topographic Colors

Topographic Shading

Topo maps use lots of subtle shading changes to denote slightly different terrain. For example, there are several varieties of swampland, each different.

  • Marsh or swamp
  • Submerged marsh or swamp
  • Wooded marsh or swamp
  • Submerged wooded marsh or swamp
  • Land subject to inundation

The main thing is to keep USGS Topographical Map Symbols handy for quick reference. That’s easier than trying to memorize each slightly different shading variation.

Topographic Shading

Putting It All Together

Now it’s time to put this new knowledge to practice.

Let’s take a look at 2 examples that have a lot going on.

This first one is in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. As you can see in this example: 1) index contours, 2) intermediate contours, 3) flatter areas, 4) sheer cliffs, 5) water, 6) vegetation (forest), 7) glacier, 8) hiking trail.

Topographic Map Reading Example 1

This second example is from the swamplands of Texas. Notice how much flatter this area of the US is, especially compared to the Rocky Mountains.

As you can see in this example: 1) a pipeline, 2) railroad tracks, 3) a gravel pit, 4) a highway, 5) electrical lines, 6) a swamp, 7) a small pond, 8) a stream.

Topographic Map Reading Example 2

Now that you understand how to read a topographic map, it’s time to get your hands on some maps to practice your new survival skill.

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Best Topographic Maps On The Market Today

First off, I want to say, “I love my topographic maps.”

I’ve found myself pouring over them for hours, looking at all the trails and ravines, overlooks, and cliff edges.

It’s fascinating to me.

And over the years, I’ve invested in what I consider THE BEST Topo maps – The Trails Illustrated Series.

National Geographic Trails Illustrated Topo Maps

National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map Series

Trails Illustrated Topo maps are both waterproof and tear-resistant. They look and feel like quality and can take a beating from the elements.

They are a must-own if you’re a serious hiker, backpacker, mountain climber, or mountain biker.

Here’s the list of Trails Illustrated Topo Maps I own:

I own several that cover the area surrounding where I live, and I also buy one anytime I’m about to visit a national park.

They are the “gold standard” of topographic maps; if you can find one for your local area, get it!

Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer State Topographic Maps

Now, if you can’t find Trails Illustrated for your local area, your next best option is Delorme Atlas & Gazetteer State Topographic Maps.

These maps are broken down by state, and each page is a sub-section of part of the state. This feature means the map covers A LOT of areas but also allows for enough detail to be helpful.

Plus, these maps offer simple elevation lines and shading in order to give you decent topographic information.

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How To Print Topo Maps Online

If you can’t find a Trails Illustrated Topo Map, then I recommend you try to print topographical map sections for your local area.

Then venture out and begin associating your actual terrain to your topographical map. Practicing this will help you better understand what the map is trying to tell you.

The good news is nowadays, getting your hands on topographic map data is both easy and free.

You can find an excellent source of free topo maps here.

Once there, this is what you’ll see:

Topographic MappingSupport 1

Now use the Zoom In / Zoom Out buttons and click/drag to scroll around.

Topographic MappingSupport 5

Once you have the data you want on the screen, you can either use a “print screen” button on your computer or any screen capture app to print off what you see.

Final Thoughts

Topo maps are perfect for survival and preparedness planning. They are essential if you’re planning a bug-out route and also necessary for planning get-home routes.

Heck, they are perfect for any future outdoor adventure.

Using a topo map will make your next hike, backpack, or hunt that much better. Topographical maps help you steer clear of terrain that would put you in a bad situation.

Learning how to read a topographic map can save lives.

“Just In Case” Jack

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