Written by 10:11 pm Wilderness Navigation Masters

5) 10 Topographic Terms Needed in Outdoor Navigation

Imagine yourself hiking, and after an hour, to feel sure about your way you ask someone how to get to a certain mountain peak, and he replies to you with :

It’s easy, do you see this natural arch, behind it you will start seeing your mountain peak. To arrive at it, just take one of the spurs to get to the saddle, then follow up the rideline. 

If you have difficulties imagining what he did just said to you, this video is for you.

Hello, and welcome to this article, where I will define a majority of hiking terms used in the wilderness.

All that, to facilitate communication between you and the other outdoor enthusiasts on the internet, during planning, or just if you want to describe a place or a trail for another person.

First thing I will start with, what is a summit?

But before that, I want you to know that topographic terms may be different from a country to another, or just between two regions within the same country.

So if someone says canyon for a gorge, it’s not a big deal, especially that they are similar.

So what is a summit?

Summit :

A summit is the highest point of a hill or a mountain. A mountain summit or a mountain peak is the same thing.

These are some examples of a summit :

examples of a summit

examples of a summit

Here we have three summits.

examples of a summit

Ridges and ridgelines:

A ridge is a chain of high ground with the side dropping away in three directions and only high in one side. It’s common between two mountain tops.

Ridgeline is the top line of a ridge that is formed of points with the highest elevation.

You will understand it well when you see these examples:

So, the marked lines in this photo are the ridge

The same thing here.

For example, if we stand here … we will have sides dropping in three directions and higher only in one.

This is a good photo that illustrates that a ridge is a chain of high ground.


A spur is the lateral tongue of ground that juts out or sticks out from the side of a hill, a mountain, or a ridge to lower ground. Usually, it has steep sides.

Sometimes, spurs are what help hikers walk down from, or get up to a mountain top.

These are some examples of a spur :

So here, we have four spurs that stick out from a ridge.

This photo is self-explanatory … Gully is the bonus topographic term that we can learn from this photo. Which is the lower ground between two spurs.

Here we have multiple spurs that stick out from this ridge.

Here, we have clear spurs … and if you notice, there are some little houses on the lower ground.


A butte is an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top. I can see that you can’t imagine this definition before you see some photos. This is why I include photos after each definition.

A butte is not the surface, it’s not the sides, it’s all of what sticks out from the ground.

Ширяевы Игорь и Лариса – http://wild-hedgehogs.livejournal.com/

This is a butte that juts out from something like a ridge.

If you can’t see how knowing these topographic terms can help you in the wilderness navigation, just imagine yourself getting guided by someone or the opposite, it’s easy when you know that you can differentiate between ridges when one of them has a butte like this.

Let’s see the next topographic term.

Saddle :

The saddle is the low part, between two higher grounds. If you stand on a saddle, you will have two higher sides in two opposite directions, and two lower sides in the other two directions.

And if a ridgeline has a break in it, we call that break part a saddle too.

Now let’s go to the examples :

This is the saddle.

If you are familiar with the contour lines, even we didn’t get yet to the dedicated article about it, the contour lines of a saddle take the form of an hourglass as you see here.

Valley :

A valley is a low land area, usually created by erosion between two hills or mountains. A valley to be named a valley, he should be longer than it is wide.

There are some examples of valleys :

These photos are super clear, we have the mountains on both of the sides and the valley in-between.



Thalweg (or Talweg) is a German word meaning valley path. In geography, it’s the lowest line in a valley or watercourse.

And just for your information, in International laws, a Thalweg is what defines the boundaries between states.

This is an illustration of a thalweg :

As you see, the thalweg is the black line, because when you see it here, you know that it’s the lowest line in this watercourse.


Gorge and Canyon:

First, these two terms are geographic landforms that belong to a valley.

  • A Gorge is a deep and narrow valley between hills or mountains.
  • A canyon is a very deep, very narrow valley between very steep rocky sides.

Personally, when I see a canyon, I imagine immediately myself having breathing difficulties.

So, to differentiate between the two. When you see a canyon, but you don’t imagine yourself having breathing difficulties it’s probably a gorge.

Gorge examples :

Like you see, here we have just a deep, narrow valley.

The same thing here.

Like you see, in gorges, even it’s deep you don’t imagine yourself having breathing difficulties if you are at the lowest point.

Canyons examples :

This is a canyon … That’s a good photo to illustrate the breathing difficulties I was talking about.

The same thing here, you feel like if there is no enough oxygen for you.

A side note before I go to the next topographic term.

Sometimes, toponymy or place’s names, don’t reflect the correct topographic term. For example, the Grand Canyon is not a canyon, it’s a gorge.

The next topographic term is Natural arch.


Natural arch (or natural bridge) :

It’s very simple, a natural arch (or natural bridge) is a natural rock that has a hole underneath.

These are some examples:


Plateaus :

Plateaus are relatively flat land areas that have some positive elevation above the surrounding area, with steep slopes on one or more sides.

Examples :

Here we see multiple separated plateaus.

Here, it’s a little bit tricky to see that there is a steep side here.


Credit : study.com

That’s another clear photo of a plateau.

That’s all for the topographic terms, let’s see the quiz to test your knowledge.


Quiz #1

At what this arrow point on exactly?

  • A: a Ridgeline,
  • B: a thalweg
  • C: a  Saddle



For the first quiz, At what is the arrow point on exactly?

The correct answer is “C”, a saddle.

Why not the first answer, because a Ridgeline is not a point or part it’s a line like that. And thalweg is the lowest line on a valley.

Quiz #2

Is this a canyon or gorge :

  • A: canyon
  • B: gorge
  • C: both of the above

In quiz #2. Is this a canyon or gorge?

The correct answer is “B”, because it’s just a deep and narrow valley, and like we’ve seen before if you don’t feel the breath difficulties it’s probably a gorge. So it’s not the answer “A” a canyon,  or “C”, both of the above, it’s the answer “A”, a gorge.

Quiz #3

What is the name of the marked line :

  • A: Ridgeline,
  • B: thalweg
  • C: Saddle



This was a very easy quiz, What is the name of the marked line?

It’s ridgeline.

I’ve added this quiz here even it’s super easy, to just help you more to remember what is a ridgeline because you will see it often in the wilderness.

Quiz #4

Is this considered a natural arch or natural bridge?

  • A: Natural arch
  • B: Natural bridge
  • C: None of the above
  • D: Both of the above



For the last quiz, Is this considered as a natural arch or natural bridge?

The correct answer is “D”, both of them, because a natural bridge is the same as a natural arch, and it’s what we see in this photo.

One thing before I finish this video, I want you to be loose with these topographic terms, because they may mean different things even within the same country. If you see that someone try to describe you a gorge and he uses the term canyon, don’t correct them unless you see that he want to learn from you or he will accept your correction.

If you see that there is another topographic term that I did not include in this video, use the comments section below to let me know.

Thank you for watching and see you in the next video.

Updated on June 7, 2021 by Ben

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