Most of us are used to reading road or street maps to get where we want to go.
As a result topographic maps are a bit unfamiliar. Even though we may be uncomfortable with them, topographic maps have many uses; hiking, navigating, even pilots use them for flying. Once you understand the symbols and what they mean, you’ll see that topographic maps are not as challenging as they appear.
The standard size of a topographic map is a 7.5-minute map; meaning 7.5 minutes latitude and 7.5 minutes longitude. The contour interval for this size map is 40 vertical feet.
The first step in learning how to read a topographic map is understanding what the different colors mean; Red indicates major roads, black is trails or smaller roads, blue is water (lakes, rivers, streams, etc.), green indicates vegetation, white and brown indicate dry areas, and white and blue indicate snowy or icy areas. It is important to remember what each of these colors means so that you will be prepared prior to arrival.
The next step to understanding topographic maps is reading contour lines, which show the change in elevation in relation to see level. Greater contour intervals, widely spaced lines, indicate a gradually increasing slope while smaller contour intervals, closely spaced lines, indicate a steeper slope. This can help you determine the size of a hill or mountain. These lines also represent cliffs, slopes, valleys, and ravines, mesas, summits, ridges, and passages.
It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the symbols on your map before you leave. Some of them are self-explanatory, like a river, but other symbols, like those for buildings and other similar structures, are a little harder to distinguish.
In the age of GPS and navigation devices it is easy to view such maps as obsolete; however, electronics fail and it’s always a good idea to have quality topographic maps on hand and know how to read them.