Find a Trail

Topographic Maps

When heading into the outdoors, it’s important to have an up-to-date map that shows the important landmarks of the area. When you’re in a city, you might want a street map or a subway map -- maps that show highway exits and subway stops. For outdoor activities, a topographic (topo) map is key. Topo maps are maps that show natural and human-made features, and have contour lines that show relief (changes in elevation). This is important because contour lines help you know where ridges, hills, and valleys are. If you are in a canyon, a topo map will show how steep the walls are, where exits are, and where water is usually found.

One of the first things you want to know about a topo map is what scale it is drawn in. The United States Geological Survey makes useful 7.5-minute quadrangle maps that are in 1:24,000 scale (there are 60 minutes in each degree of longitude and latitude). These maps show a lot of detail and are standard for backpacking trips. You can also find tear-proof maps at outdoor stores that are often drawn at a larger scale, meaning that there is less detail on the map. These maps can be useful for overviews of an area like a national park, but they are usually not detailed enough for navigating in the backcountry.

While it is important to always carry a map with you when out on the trail, a map is not useful if you do not know how to use it. It’s a good idea to learn map-reading skills in a class, with a local hiking group, or from a knowledgeable friend. You can read about maps, but for most folks, hands-on map learning is what will work best. You’ll need to learn how to use a compass, too, so that you can accurately orient your map.