How to Read a Topographical Map


How to Read a Topographical Map

This is a theoretical tabletop exercise where we take a boat to a certain location on a river, beach the boat, then hike to a pond.

We are going to forgo a lot of the standard navigation terms in hopes someone with no topo map and compass experience can understand the directions.

Before the boat is ever put in the water, a topo map will be used to find the bearing between where the boat will be landed, and the inland pond. Why not take the boat to the pond? Because the pond is not accessible from the river.

The topo map we are using is Pace Hill Quadrangle. This is just north of Jasper, Texas along the Angelina and Neches Rivers.

Using TOPO map to find bearing

Let’s take this step by step.

  1.  Lay the topo map on a flat surface, such as a table.
  2. Make sure there is no iron near the map and compass. Does the table have a metal frame? Is the table held together by bolts, screws or nails?
  3. Set the map compass to north.
  4. Align the compass with a grid line on the map.
  5. Make sure there is no iron items near the compass. Even a wrist watch can throw the compass off.
  6. Rotate the map and compass until the top of the map points north.

TOPO map aligned north

Now that the map is oriented to the north, find the location on the map where the boat will be tied up. Then find where you want to hike to.

Place the edge of the map compass where the boat will be tied up, and then align it to where you want to go.

Rotate the glass of the compass, the part with the degrees, until north aligns with the pointer.

On the map compass there should be a line in the middle with an arrow on it. That line should be aligned with a degree on the compass.

Finding bearing with TOP map and map compass

Congratulations, you just found the bearing between the boat and the pond. Bearing from the boat to the pond is 300 degrees.

According to the map legend, it is about 5/8 of a mile from the boat to the pond. That distance is a rough estimate. Say a little over 1/2 mile, but less than 3/4.

Some people get bearing and heading confused. It’s okay, I get confused sometimes to.

Bearing – The direction you want to do.

Heading – The direction you are going.

Remember the old saying, “Are you heading in the right direction?”

Stay tuned to AllOutdoor as we continue our series on navigating with a topo map and compass.

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