How To Read a Topographic Map for Hunting: Contour Lines, Cliffs, & More

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Satellite imagery is one of the most important tools a hunter can use. It provides crucial insight when scouting for quality habitat, timber cover, glassing opportunities, and more. Combine that satellite imagery with topography in the form of the Hybrid Basemap, though, and hunters have an exceptional tool for understanding terrain and how to move through it.

Topographic maps give this hunting GPS app a three-dimensional view of a landscape. By illustrating elevation changes, hunters are able to locate peaks, valleys, saddles, and slopes—all critical terrain features for locating game. While reading a topo map may not be quite as easy as looking at satellite imagery, we’ve put together a tutorial to help bring you up to speed. By combining your newfound knowledge with unique features like hill-shading that make our Topo Basemap even more useful, you’ll be prepared when you hit the woods.

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How To Use Contour Lines

The cornerstone for all topo maps is the contour line. The vicinity of contour lines to one another indicates the elevation lost or gained on any slope aspect. Contour lines close together represent a steep increase or decrease in elevation, while lines further apart represent a gentle slope. Spaces with no lines indicate flat ground.

The lines work by connecting points on your map that represent the same elevation. Every fifth line in the sequence is a thicker line referred to as an index line, and somewhere along that line is the exact elevation. To determine the elevation change in each contour line simply take the difference in elevation between two index lines, then divide by the number of intervals between the index lines.

Find Shapes for More Info

Contour lines will form shapes that define terrain features. Knowing these features and how they are typically depicted by contour lines is the key to extracting the most information from a topo map.

Some of the major features and their shapes are:

A gif showing what a cliff looks like on a topographic map.

Cliffs – Marked by extremely close contour lines, indicating a sudden drop or rise in elevation

A gif showing what a gulley looks like on a topographic map.

Valleys, Ravines, and Gullies – Contour lines in a U-shaped pattern will indicate rounded gullies, and V-shaped lines will indicate sharp valleys and gullies. Both the U and V shapes will point uphill toward higher elevations.

A gif showing what a ridge looks like on a topographic map.

Ridges and Spurs – Contour lines will form a pattern of Vs and Us pointing downhill.

A gif showing what a peak looks like on a topographic map.

Peaks and Summits – Large circles with smaller and smaller circles within them. Peaks will be represented by the smallest inner ring or circle.

A gif showing what a bowl looks like on a topographic map.

Bowls – Contour lines will form a semicircle that rises from a low point.

A gif showing what a saddle looks like on a topographic map.

Saddles – Contour lines will form an hourglass shape with rising contour lines on each side.

Christian Fichtel

Raised in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, Christian Fichtel now resides in rural Montana. He is a father, writer, hunter, and fly fisherman.