What Can You See in a Topographic Map?

Before you start exploring topographic maps, the first thing you should do is to understand what these maps are all about. Generally speaking, topographic maps are large-scale maps depicting both the manmade and physical features of a landscape. These maps are also uniquely characterized by the use of contour lines showing the land’s ground relief exhaustively. Most manmade features can also be seen in topographic maps including roads, railroads, towns, vegetation types, elevation, mountains, and rivers.

How Do You Use Topographic Maps?

While it is handy to know the features generally found on topographic maps, the actual skill that you would want to learn is how to understand what these maps show you. It is an invaluable skill that lets you on adventures into the unknown with just a paper map on hand and the confidence of finding your way through unfamiliar terrain in a safe way. 

Topographic map
Topographic map for navigating in the wilderness or places where there are no identifiable manmade features

Topographic maps have four primary features that you should master and be familiar with and these are contour lines, colors and shading, map scales, and general map features and details. 

Contour lines

Contour lines are what set topographic maps (see more at https://oldmapster.com/) apart from other maps. Understanding these contour lines and their functions is of extreme importance if you want to learn how to read topographic maps. These contour lines let you visualize the 3D world on 2D map then pinpoint particular landscape features like valleys, mountains, slopes, hills, spurs, and ridges. It is an important skill required every time you use a topographic map for navigating in the wilderness or places where there are no identifiable manmade features.

Video: Understanding contour lines with Steve Backshall and Ordnance Survey

These contour lines are lines on a map joining points of the same height above sea level that allows an easy and simple visual representation of steepness of slopes, height of mountains, and a general sense of a terrain. The contour lines’ shape is an essential piece of information that lets you pinpoint features on a map like valleys, passes, ridges, or peaks. Circular shapes that are smaller most like show you hills or peaks, while V-shapes probably show you a ridge or spur.  

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