1. CORE KNOWLEDGE Identify Terrain Features
Constantly check your map position as you hike. When you find a good vantage point, match key landmarks.
Circular contours usually indicate high points. They may encompass many miles (ranges) or small areas (summits). Also, look for an “X”
or precise elevation marking prominent peaks. Use features like secondary summits, passes, or water features to confirm
>> Ridges and Valleys
U- and V-shaped lines indicate ridges, valleys, or drainages (V’s indicate sharper relief and U’s mean mellower terrain). In valleys, streams
may run through the contour lines’ curves, which point uphill. Along ridges, the tips of the Vs point downhill;
streams (if present) may run to the side.
Contour lines represent elevation change, so the closer they are, the steeper the terrain. Tightly packed lines indicate cliffs; examine them
carefully when planning off-trail travel, as they often cut across consistent aspects or elevations. Beware: Short-but-impassable walls can fall between
WARNING! Avoid Common Mistakes
Remedy navigation traps caused by inexperience and overconfidence.
>> Beginner: Over- or underestimating a map’s scale can lead you to misinterpret terrain. Fix: Practice using maps of different scales in familiar territory (try 7.5- and 15-minute USGS quads). Guess the time it’ll take to travel between
junctions or landmarks, and note your travel time. If your estimate is within a few minutes, your skills are getting sharp.
>> Intermediate: Bending the map. That’s what happens when what you expect to see causes you to misread terrain features. Fix: Identify five distinct landforms in your field of vision before referring to your map. Match all five to your topo before proceeding.
>> Advanced: Lackadaisical map checking. Fix: Scan landmarks in front of, around, and behind you. Match them to your topo every 15 to 20 minutes. Keep your map
in an easy-access pocket (or in your hand) to remind yourself to check it regularly.
TIP: Follow Your Progress
Use your map to create a mental highlight reel of your route, and note the time you expect to hit key landmarks like rivers and passes. If you’re off-pace,
stop, determine your location, and adjust your day’s plan accordingly.