Take your map reading skills to a whole new level by learning how to read the USGS topo map, but first, get the map here.
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In this article:
- What Is the USGS Topographic Map?
- Tips on How to Read a Topographic Map
- How to Get Free Printable National Geographic Topo Maps Online
Get Your Own USGS Topo Maps for Camping and Survival
What Is the USGS Topographic Map?
Launched in 2009, the US Topo Quadrangles project provides free online quadrangle topographic maps for anyone living in the continental United States. Produced by the National Geospatial Program, these USGS topo maps are modeled after the standard 7.5 minutes, 1:24,000 base maps which went into circulation shortly after World War II.
This map allowed users to not only get directions but also be advised of whether they’re going uphill, downhill, or over flat land. These maps are useful for hiking, camping, and rural road navigation.
Each 7.5-minute quadrangle map covers an area of 49 to 70 square miles, which is a big area for a map which can fit on a small sheet of paper. If you’re not familiar with topographic maps, you might get a little confused the first time you look at one.
It’s filled with squiggly lines (called contour lines), but they can easily be deciphered once you know what you’re looking at. Here are a few of the things you need to learn about using USGS Topo Maps.
Tips on How to Read a Topographic Map
- Contour lines, which always connect to form a circle, have the same elevation all throughout. If you were to walk a contour line, your elevation would stay the same.
- Most contour lines will have the elevation number.
- One side of a contour line is uphill and the other is downhill.
- The area inside the contour line is almost always higher in elevation than the line itself.
- The smaller the circle the contour lines make, the higher the elevation. If a contour line creates a tiny circle with no more contour lines inside of it, it’s more than likely a peak of a mountain/ridge/hill/etc.
- Contour lines form a V pattern when they cross water such as a river or stream. The tip of the V points uphill while the other side points down.
- Contour lines on opposite sides of a valley or ridge always occur in pairs.
- Contour lines do not touch or cross each other.
You can follow the detailed guide in the featured video below. Now you’re a topo map expert, it’s time get to your hands on ’em!
How to Get Free Printable National Geographic Topo Maps Online
National Geographic has an easy-to-use interface which allows you to find a topographic map of your desired area in seconds with the help of an interactive map. From there you can download it and print and you’re ready to go.
1. Select a Topo Map
Simply zoom in to your area and click on one of the red markers, which will bring up the topo map of the area.
2. Download Map
The PDF will come with 5 pages: 1 with the entire area and 4 with the map cut into quarters. Below you can see a portion of the Taylor Canyon map from the Los Padres National Forest in California.
Open the PDF and hit print. You’ll get 5 pages in total, as mentioned before. Keep your printed maps somewhere safe.
Watch the video below from wvannorden for a beginner course into topographic maps and contour lines:
Now you know there’s a better way for you to find your way out in the wilderness. With a topographic map, you can better identify your location, your destination, and the terrain on your way to your destination or back to where you came from.
Have you used a USGS topo map while out camping? Tell us all about your experience in the comments section below!
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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on December 8, 2016, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.