A Guide To Checking The Bloody Map! (Topographic Map Reading)

Every once in a while we give you something useful. ManCamping.ca is handy and handsome! This article on topographic map reading is for certain individuals out there…you know who you are.

It’s almost spring and some of us are starting to plan our camping, canoeing,  and hiking trips!  This is our second favorite season. – Man Season. Time to break out the Maps and see where we will go this year.  Looking at maps make men gather just the same way a car does when the hood is up. Many men have no idea what they are looking at, but they are attracted like a moth to a flame.  We can’t help ourselves. The following is our guide for those topographic map – challenged men, who don’t know what they are looking at.

(See our post on Map Porn and Trip Planning)

“The portage is just up ahead on the left. It looks like its an easy 1200m, relatively flat, fast hike. We can easily do this before dark!” Famous words we have all heard before. Next thing you know you have been at it for 3 hours, you are portaging in the dark, you lose the trail, you’re cursing the navigator and someone is surely going to be duct taped to a tree for being so ridiculously wrong! Maybe you should learn how to read a map, jerk. Map reading in the car is usually forbidden with most men, but in the wilderness it is essential. Reading a topographical map is really quite easy once someone shows you how.  If your unsure if you have a topo map – it’s the one with a bunch of squiggly lines on it – they are called contour lines.  Got it? Ok, lets continue.

Topo maps are made for geologists, construction and development use and host of other reasons, but they are perfect for us paddlers, and adventures as well. They will show you everything from roads to railwyas, water ways, vegetation, portages and tons more. The main idea behind these maps is that they can show you the lay of the land in a 3d view (elevation, slopes,  obstacles, etc). This way you can plan your route or at least know what you are heading towards.

First Things, First -The Scale

The scale is always printed on the map, outside its borders, and will tell you how much area is represented on the map. It reads something like this- 1:25,000. What that means, is that 1 inch on the map is equal to 25,000 inches in reality. Pay attention here: The scale will visually show you a measurable length that is equal to a length in real life. Example: 1inch = 1km (Roughly – Check your map for exact lengths) Now you can figure out the distance between point A and point B.  Hint: Look at the route that is planned. did you plan on paddling  80km in one day? It’s not gonna happen no matter how manly you are.

Topographical Map Scale

Topographical Map Scale

Contour Lines

Now that you know how far you are going in length. It’s time to talk about height. Say hello to co­ntour li­nes. Contour lines are what makes a topo map, a topo map.  They are (Squiggly) lines drawn on the map, connecting points of equal elevation. Meaning if you walked along a line,  the elevation would remain the same.  if you were traveling from one line to another, you would be heading up or down in elevation. Still with us? We’ll give you a second to go and scan that info again…. enough time? Perfect, on we go. Contour lines show elevation and the shape of the terrain. The closer lines are together, the faster the elevation changes. The further apart they are, the more gentle the slope. The elevation in between each line on the map is usually 10 feet, but this can vary from map to map. Check the scale of the map for the info.

Contour Lines On A Topographical Map

Contour Lines On A Topographical Map

Here is our most important thing we have learned about topographical maps, which most websites don’t tell you about. It might seem like common sense, but common sense is so scarce these days, it is more like a super power. If the contour lines face away from you, its a downward slope and of course, if they face you that means you’re going uphill. Use this knowledge to plan out which portages are down hill so you can carry the heavy gear, leaving the uphill portages with heavy gear for your mates, you crafty bastard.

Lines, Lines And More Lines!

There are many more types of lines on the map as well. Dotted lines and solid lines, and lines in different colors that all represent something different. (Power Lines, Trails, Railways, Roads, Boundaries, Coast Lines, etc) Check the legend if you are unsure.

There is a lot more to reading these maps, but for most adventurers, this is all you really need to know. There is longitude and latitude, and a host of others pieces to these maps, which we don’t get into here. This is guide after all, not a instruction book.  What do you want for free?

Hope this helps.

Trackbacks & Pings

Got somethin' to say?