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Reading Topographic Maps

Updated: Jul 2, 2023




Using topographic maps for survival can provide valuable information about the terrain and help navigate through unfamiliar areas.


Here are ten key considerations for effectively utilizing topographic maps in a survival scenario:


1. Scale and Contour Interval: Understand the scale and contour interval of the map to gauge the level of detail and accuracy it provides. This information is crucial for estimating distances, elevation changes, and identifying prominent features.

  • More importantly, this relates to effort. How far can you go? Learn these under a variety of circumstances - travel with full gear, sufficient water, half water, and etc.


2. Landforms and Terrain Features: Study the topographic symbols and contour lines on the map to identify landforms such as hills, valleys, ridges, and depressions. This knowledge helps in planning routes, locating water sources, and avoiding obstacles.

  • If you live in mountainous areas, remember not to 'outline' against the horizon. Hills and valleys will provide potential predators and opportunistic scavengers with their next target - you.


3. Elevation and Slopes: Pay attention to contour lines to determine the elevation of specific areas and the steepness of slopes. Understanding the terrain's gradient is essential for assessing potential challenges, planning safe paths, and conserving energy during travel. It's important to recognize this when on the move.


4. Water Sources: Identify streams, rivers, lakes, or ponds on the map as they are crucial for survival. Knowing the location of water sources helps with navigation, hydration, and potentially finding food resources.

  • In urban areas, know where there are sources of water and mark them accordingly on your map. Don't neglect marking the water sources that aren't the obvious. Restaurant = silicock key. Golf course = water/pond. Swimming pools.


5. Vegetation and Land Cover: Observe symbols or color codes representing vegetation types and land cover on the map. This information aids in identifying potential resources, such as forests for shelter, edible plants, or open areas for signaling or setting up campsites.

  • Do you live near a forest preserve? Marsh? River? Scout out potential areas to spend the night that provide ample cover.


6. Man-made Structures and Infrastructure: Look for symbols indicating roads, bridges, buildings, power lines, or other man-made structures. These features can serve as landmarks, potential shelter or supply sources, or indicate proximity to human activity.

  • Where I live, it's estimated there are approximately 30,000 homeless living in the warrens and sub-city environments. Their gateway to these are storm drains and washes. I've marked these on our topo maps as potential areas to avoid.


7. Contour Patterns and Concentric Rings: Analyze contour patterns and concentric rings to identify possible areas of elevation changes, such as hills, valleys, or mountain ridges. This understanding helps in route planning and predicting terrain difficulties.

  • Is the elevation indicated a cliff or a gradual sloping upward? Don't waltz into a canyon that has no escape.


8. Map Orientation: Familiarize yourself with the map's orientation, usually indicated by a compass rose or north arrow. Ensure your understanding aligns with the actual direction you're facing to navigate accurately.


9. Magnetic Declination: Determine the magnetic declination, the angle difference between magnetic north and true north, as it affects compass readings. Adjusting for this declination ensures accurate navigation using both map and compass.


10. Map Protection and Navigation Tools: Keep your map protected from water damage by using a waterproof cover or sealable plastic bag. Additionally, carry essential navigation tools such as a compass, ruler, protractor, or GPS device to aid in accurate navigation and map interpretation.

  • You can take these to your local Kinko's or Office Depot Print Center and have them laminated.

  • If I run across a hiking map that has the tearproof, waterproof features, it's a must-buy for me.


By considering these key aspects of topographic maps, you can enhance your ability to navigate, locate resources, and make informed decisions in a survival situation. Regular practice and familiarity with map reading skills are essential for effective map usage in real-world scenarios.


MyTopo is a company that can customize a topographic map specific to your area and can be found by CLICKING ON THIS LINK.


Urban dwellers would also want to back their topographic maps with street maps and even public transportation maps. Where I used to live, Chicago had maps of subways. Many of these underground subways also have nuclear fallout shelters. If the grid goes down, make sure to bring flashlights and extra batteries.

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