Written by 4:28 am Wilderness Navigation Masters

3) Recognizing topographic map features

If you get dizzy immediately after you see a topographic map because you don’t know what these lines and different colors and symbols mean, it’s ok, no one comes to this life already knowing how to read a topographic map.

Hello and welcome to this video of the online course Wilderness Navigation Masters, where I will show you how to recognize the topographic map features.

When I say “how to recognize the topographic map features”, I simply mean how to recognize that this is a lake, this is a mountain, this is a trail, etc

Map-features categories

If we want to classify the map features into different categories, we will have 4 main categories :

  • Manmade: including buildings, roads, trails, boundaries, etc
  • Hydrographic: like lakes, rivers, oceans, streams, coastal areas, swamps, etc
  • Landforms: canyons, valleys, hills, ridges, gullies, etc
  • Vegetation: including national parks, forest canopy, farmland, etc


Map-features colors

These are the main 4 feature categories that a topo map has. There is another classification that we can run which is, using colors:

  • Black: which is used for manmade features like buildings, trails, and boundaries. It is also used to label named landmarks, like peaks.

  • Brown: it’s the color used for contour lines.

  • Blue: I think it’s easy for this color, I’ll give you one second to think, yes it’s for hydrographic (or water-related) features.

  • Red: This color is for important roads and land boundaries like townships, national parks, section lines, etc

  • Green: it’s obvious too that the green color represent anything related to vegetation like trees, forest, etc

Now that we know the main 4 map features categories and the different colors and what everything represents, let’s go to see that, directly on a map.

One thing before I do that, I want to just clarify that the map features are not always represented following the map scale.

For example, a water stream in a topo map will not use the map scale, because if they use it, we will have a too much thin blue line that will need a magnifying glass to see it, which is not convenient, especially during an outdoor activity.

Same thing with symbols. For example, it’s hard for map makers to represent a well in a map, respecting the map scale, because it will be a little dot on the map and people can neglect it.

For that, they use a symbol that is a little bit bigger than the well, and the center of this symbol is where the well is located.

Yes, I know that this may be common sense, but I have to say it.

Now let’s start recognizing the topographic map features directly on a map.

Map-feautres: hydrography 

Here, I regrouped any symbols related to hydrography in the USGS map legend.

Like we see here, all the kinds of streams (Perennial, intermittent or disappearing) are represented just by a line and all the rivers are represented like this.

These are all the symbols to represent the glaciers and permanent snowfields.

For the man-made hydrography features, we have covered reservoirs here, boat access here.

The last thing in the hydrography is the coastal features.

I see that this part of the map legend is self-explanatory.


Let’s see this hydrography representation in this topographic map excerpt.

Here we have a thick blue line, that represents a major creek (or a water stream), and another one here, as side creeks.

Before I move to another map excerpt, I want you to know that topographic maps do not distinguish between drinkable water and undrinkable water like saltwater.

But this is not a big deal, because most of the time, the coastal water bodies are likely to be salt-water and undrinkable, and an inland water body like a creek for example is drinkable.


(40.2071, -106.9480)


Here on this map, we have these weird blue symbols. Just from the color we know distinguish that it’s something related to water. If we go back to the USGS map legend we know that this symbol represents a swamp.

In the same area, we have some dashed blue lines, before I see the legend, I was thinking that this is for the very small creek, but it was representing Indefinite or unsurveyed water lines. So watch out, because it’s indefinite information.

Here, as you see, it’s a creek that goes into an intermittent lake or pond.

Let’s see these two map excerpts of the same spot, with the exact same scale.

Like I’ve said before, in topo maps, the tiny features don’t follow the map scale. Like here, if you see this river and this creek, you think that you can see both of them from a satellite photo, which is not true because you can’t figure it out here.

I think it’s enough for hydrography map features. Let’s recognize the green or vegetation features.

Map-feautres: vegetation

For vegetation areas, there is not too much to say about it because it’s super clear and simple too.

The woodland like a forest is represented by little dark green color.

Shrublands are represented by these unorganized green circles and orchards are represented by organized or lined green circles.

Vineyards are similar to the orchard, the only difference is the size of the circles.

And here is the symbol which represents the mangrove, or small trees that grow in or brackish water.

After we’ve read this map legend part related to vegetation, we really know that here and here it’s woodland. And it’s true after we convert this topo map excerpt to satellite view.

Another topographic/satellite map excerpt comparison.

Here at the right, this green zone corresponds exactly at the same place in the satellite view, except what at the left, here, we see a woodland zone that should be exactly like what we’ve just seen, but in the satellite view, we see man-made features like building and roads.

From that, we know that this topographic map is older than the satellite view.

That’s enough for now, let’s see the manmade features.

Map-features: man-made

When I say man-made features, I’m talking about everything made by man like roads, buildings, railways, tunnels, etc. even trails are considered a man-made feature.

This is the man-made topo map symbols part.

As you see, we have a primary highway and a secondary highway.

The different types of roads, like the paved, gravel, dirt, and 4WD roads.

Highway or road tunnel

Here, we have the railroads, like single and multiple tracks. Railroad underpass and overpass.

And here we have buildings. The little ones like houses are represented by this little black square and the big buildings like malls, factories etc are represented by bigger black symbols.

This is a good topographic/satellite map excerpt comparaison, where we can easily see the highway, which is this …. And the little houses represented by the little black squares, which are here.

Here we have a road … which is this road in this satellite view.

In this topographic map excerpt, we have a red thick line that usually represents highways, but in this case, because it has dashes in each border of the line, I know that it’s a highway under construction.

Here we have a power transmission line, represented by a black line with some dots in it.

Here we can see that there is a secondary highway, that should be here in the satellite view …. We have another road, which is this. And this unimproved road, which goes here.

Now let’s start with the first quiz to test what you did just see in this video.



Quiz & exercises

Quiz #


The correct answer is the answer B, because the green color represent a woodland area.

In the first photo, both sides of the road are green but it’s not considered a woodland area.

In the third photo, we have some woodland zones like here and here, but they are separated.

And in the second photo, we have dense trees.

Quiz #

Which one of the photos below correspond to this topo map excerpt?


The correct answer is maybe because even we are at a high altitude place, the trail is in a woodland area, and it depends on the density of the trees and stuff like that.

Quiz #

Which one of these topographic map excerpts corresponds to this satellite view?


The correct answer is answer B because the green color represents a woodland area.

In the first photo, both sides of the road are green but it’s not considered a woodland area.

In the third photo, we have some woodland zones like here and here, but they are separated.

And in the second photo, we have dense trees.

Quiz #


In the first exercise, I want you to download the USGS map legend, from the link below the video and read it.

Quiz #

Then in exercise 2, I want you to open the webtool called topoview (link below) and search for a place that you are familiar with and see the topographic view.


In the last exercise, I want you to open the webtool called mytopo, preferably from the link below the video to go directly to the page of the online maps, and search any area that you want, and switch between the topo map and satellite view to be familiar with reading a topographic map.

(Here I want you to know that you may see some differences between the satellite and the topographic view, especially in man-made features like houses, because the topographic map used here is a little bit older than the satellite view)

That’s all for this video, like always, don’t forget to interact with us in the comments section letting us know what you did learn from this video.

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

Updated on June 7, 2021 by Ben

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