How to read topographic maps

Reading Maps - How to Read Topographic Maps

"And how do I read this hiking map now?", my fellow wanderer muttered to himself, staring lost at the map he was turning and turning in front of him. We hadn't come very far on our hike in The Burren (Irish National Park). In fact, we had just got out of the car. His apparently inadequate map reading skills did not necessarily fill me with optimism about our hike. Especially not because we wanted to go cross-country a lot that day.

In the end, we didn't get lost that much. But this experience inspired me to write a little guide on how to read maps and use them for hikes.

Step 1 - Choose the right card

Step 2 - Understand the function of the card

Step 3 - Use the card properly


Step 1 - Choose the right card

There are many different types of cards. Make sure you are using the right card for the right purpose. For example, a map of attractions won't be of much use to you when you're in the remote areas of the West Highland Way.

Here you will find a selection of different cards and what they can be used for.

  • Topographic map
    • Knowing how to read maps is essential for hikers. The most important maps when hiking are topographic maps, which show detailed information about the respective terrain, roads, sights, different places and the distances between them.

  • Road maps
    • Road maps are great companions on a road trip. They are especially indispensable when you are traveling without a GPS. However, you will then probably also need a passenger who will show you the way with the help of the map.

  • City map for tourists
    • If you are going on a trip to a big city, it is extremely useful to be equipped with a tourist map. This map shows you the most important sights and interesting places within the city. They are often available free of charge at tourist information offices or in hotels and hostels.

  • Choose the right scale
    • 1:50,000 
      • The most suitable yardstick is always based on what you intend to do. We focus on topographic maps because they are where the scale is the most important. Hiking maps mostly use a scale of 1: 50,000. That means one centimeter on the map is actually 50,000 centimeters (or 500 meters).
      • Maps are provided with a grid, the so-called reference grid. Each box (or grid square) on the reference grid measures two centimeters. Each box on the map corresponds to one kilometer in reality. This division is very useful for estimating distances at a glance.
    • 1:25,000
      • More detailed maps use a scale of 1: 25,000 (1 centimeter = 250 meters). Each box actually represents 500 meters.
      • These more detailed maps also show trees, rocks, and other components of the landscape.

Step 2 - Understand the function of the card

Understanding the various elements of a card and their function is important in improving your card reading skills. Listed are explanations of the basic components of a card.

  • Legend
    • The legend shows and explains all the different elements and markings on a map.
  • title
    • The title of a map refers to the area that the map depicts.
  • Reference grid
    • Maps are divided into a reference grid of boxes. The first two digits (or three, depending on the accuracy) denote the value on the x-axis and the last two (or again three) digits denote the y-value. Each reference point begins with the letter assigned to the card.
  • The north arrow
    • This arrow shows where north is - it's always at the top of the map.
  • scale
    • The scale indicates the proportions in relation to reality, either 1: 25,000 or 1: 50,000.

Step 3 - Use the card correctly

1. Orient the map to the north

To orient the map north, lay the compass flat on the map and rotate until the compass needle points north. Very easily.

2. Find your position on the map

Relating your surroundings to the map is the most important thing in trying to determine your position on the map. At the beginning of a hike, you often don't know what the exact grid square (the box on the grid) corresponds to your location. It is therefore a good idea to start your hike in an easily identifiable location.

If you drove through a town or village on your way to the starting point of a hike, look for it on the map and try to retrace your way from there.

Reference points can be mountains, rivers, walls, foothills, roads, etc. If you can clearly see three elements in your environment and find them on the map, you can be sure that you have determined your position.

3. Read contour lines

The contour lines are the black lines that undulate across the map.

Each contour line on a 1: 50,000 scale map represents a rise of ten meters above sea level. Every fifth line is printed a little thicker and makes it easier to distinguish the contour lines from one another and to count them, e.g. if you want to determine your ascent and have an overview of many lines at once.

The closer the lines are to each other, the steeper the slope. So you can use contour lines to plan your route so that it runs along shallower slopes, thus saving you unnecessary exertion.

4. Identify characteristics in your environment

  • Foothills
    • A mountain foothill is a landscape element that is characterized by the fact that it slopes downwards on three sides and rises on one side. On a map it looks like this:

    • The contour lines point away from the summit and thus indicate a mountain range.
  • notch
    • A notch is a type of depression on the side of a mountain. You can recognize them by the fact that the contour lines run in the opposite direction to the natural slope of the mountain. In the figure above you can find examples of this landscape element.
  • Mountain saddle
    • You can recognize a mountain saddle by the fact that it slopes down on two sides and rises up on two sides.

  • summit
    • The summit is the highest point on a mountain. You can recognize it on the map by the fact that it consists of a ring of contour lines, as in the example above.

5. Use your thumb for help

It is a useful trick to memorize your last known location on the map. So you can follow your path in case you get lost on the way. It's easy to do by placing your thumb on your current location, wearing the map on the side of your body and then simply forgetting it.

The next time you look at the map, your thumb will still be where you were last. This will give you an idea of ​​how you ran and where you are now.