How I Expanded My Skills with Topographical Maps

I recently expanded my skill set to include reading topographical maps. Oddly enough, I’ve never learned. But when I started planning hikes that have little to no information and no established trails, I resorted to these maps for help.

So what is a topographical map?

A topographical map is different from any other type of map because they show various elevations in an area. They do this by using contour lines to illustrate the elevations. Every few set of lines has an index number that notes what the elevation of that line is. These lines are key to reading the maps.

The contour interval, the distance between two contour lines, shows a variation in elevation. For example, if two contour lines are close together, they have a small interval and indicate that the area has a steep elevation. Those with a larger interval or lines that are farther away from each other, illustrate a more rolling landscape.

Contour lines that form a circle indicate that there is a hill or summit in that location. Gully’s can be identified by V-shaped lines pointing towards higher elevations. Cliffs are represented by super-concentrated lines and streams and rivers are shown with solid blue lines.

Knowing how to read topographical maps is extremely empowering. Not only does it help with preparation but it also helps reduce the risk of physical injury when on the hike and provides the information needed to select the safest passages through ever changing landscapes.

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