Written by 4:17 am Wilderness Navigation Masters

9) How to read a topographic map

Even we’ve already seen a little bit about how to read a map in one of the previous articles, in this one, we will dig a little bit much deeper into that.

Hello and welcome to this article of the online course Wilderness Navigation Masters, where we will learn how to read a topographic map.

You will learn:

  • What are reliable clues and unreliable clues?
  • And what mistakes to avoid when you are reading a topographic map.


Things to do:

The first thing you have to do to be a master of map reading is to get as many clues as possible.

For example, if you use a building that you’ve seen in your topographic map to orient yourself. It will be better to use a road that is parallel. Like that, even if the building did not exist anymore you still have this road, that you can use as a clue.

We will see examples of reliable and unreliable clues.

For your information:

Like I’ve already said in previous videos, a topographic map is a representation of a place just in a specific date mentioned in it. So, when you get it after a year, two, or more, what you see on it may differ from the real world.

For example, when a map represents a vegetation space like that : 

The green shape in the middle may be different, it can be turned to be a circle or maybe disappear due to a fire.

So, let’s say that your hike consist of going from the right of the photo to the left, and your plan say that after a certain time you will found this vegetation place.

Because this vegetation zone can be different from what is represented on the map, it’s wiser to add another one or two clues to this less accurate clue, like a road, buildings, distance (like, I will walk for 1000 feet to arrive), travel time (like, I will walk for around 15 or 30 minutes).

Mistakes to avoid:

  • Mistake #1: Focusing just on what you will use

Another mistake that you should avoid doing when you read a map, is to just focus on what you will follow on your hike and avoid the other map features.

This is a massive mistake because when you just focus on what you will follow during your outdoor activity, you will have fewer chances to know that you are not where you think you are.

For example, if you plan to walk in a valley  … don’t ignore the surroundings.

Because, when you expect a left turn in your valley, but you didn’t found it, and you know that there is another valley near the one you are on, it’s easier for you to think that you are in the other valley, and like that, you can correct yourself.

But if during your planning you ignored your surroundings, you will be lost, or you will take too much time and effort to know your mistake.

So, read your map on a macro level.


  • Mistake #2: following your intuition

Another way to get lost easily is to follow your intuition, which is incorrect most of the time.

For that, instead of saying to yourself or to someone else that you think you are in this place, explain yourself using clues.

When you do that, you or the other person can correct or develop what you’ve just said, and this way you increase your chance of succeeding in getting where you want to go.


Reliable and unreliable clues:

Reliable clues are everything that it’s hard to be changed or removed after the topographic map-date.

For example, a series of mountains, a mountain, a valley, ridges, distance from a place to another place, etc are reliable clues, because it’s hard to changes with time.

A manmade map feature like a church, a well, an overhead power line, etc is less reliable.

I think you get my idea.



That’s all for this article if you have some advice about reading the topographic map, don’t forget to let us know in the comments section below.

Thank you and see you in the next lesson.

Updated on June 7, 2021 by Ben

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