Understanding Topographic Maps for Successful Hunting: Contour Lines and More 2023

Understanding Topographic Maps for Successful Hunting: Contour Lines and More

Hunting involves much preparation, from packing essential gear to honing your survival skills. But, another aspect of preparation that novice hunters often overlook is the ability to read and interpret topographic maps. Accurate map-reading skills can help you understand the landscape, locate game, and easily navigate the hunting grounds.

This guide aims to enhance your understanding of topographic maps, showing you how to read them and how they can significantly improve your hunting experience.

What Is a Topographic Map?

What Is a Topographic Map?

Topographic maps, also known as topo maps, provide a detailed, accurate representation of natural and man-made features of the terrain. These maps indicate the contour lines of the land, vegetation, water bodies, and infrastructures. Unlike regular maps, topographic maps illustrate the three-dimensional aspects of the landscape on a two-dimensional surface by using contour lines.

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Measurement of Steepness of Slope on Topographic Maps

Measurement of Steepness of Slope on Topographic Maps

The steepness or gradient of a slope on a topographic map is determined by examining the distance between contour lines. When contour lines are close together, it indicates a steep slope. When they are spread out, it indicates a more gradual slope or flatter terrain. By understanding the gradient, you can plan your routes to avoid excessively steep climbs or precarious descents.

The direction in Which Stream is Flowing

The direction in Which Stream is Flowing

Topographic maps indicate the direction in which a stream or river flows by the rule of “V’s”. Contour lines will form a “V” or “U” shape that points towards the stream’s source, which is typically uphill. This means the closed end of the “V” or “U” points to higher ground, indicating that the water is flowing in the opposite direction, i.e., towards the open end.

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Spacing of Contours on Topo Maps

Spacing of Contours on Topo Maps

The spacing of contours on topographic maps tells you a lot about the landscape’s relief. Widespread contours indicate a flat or gentle slope, while contours close together signify a steep slope. Sometimes, when the slope is highly steep such as a cliff or a bluff, the contour lines may merge into one. These nuances in spacing allow you to visualize the terrain and plan your hunt accordingly.

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Concentric Circles on Topographic Maps

Concentric Circles on Topographic Maps

Concentric circles on a topographic map usually represent a hill or a depression. If the area is shaded or hachure (short lines pointing towards lower ground), it indicates a depression or a hole. If there’s no shading or hatching, it represents a hill. The point at the center of the circles, where there is no more elevation change, represents the peak of the hill or the bottom of the depression.

Features of Topo Maps for Deer Hunting

Topo maps can provide invaluable insights for deer hunting.

  • Ridges and Saddles: Deer often use the low points on ridges, known as saddles, as crossing points. An hourglass-shaped contour line on a ridge represents Saddles on topo maps.
  • Benches: Benches are flat areas on slopes that deer often use for resting. They can be spotted on a topo map as an area where contour lines widen out on a slope.
  • Funnel Areas: These are areas where different terrains meet and tend to funnel deer movement, like where a ridge narrows or where agricultural fields pinch a woodlot. These can be identified by looking at the transitions between different terrains on the topo map.

Reading Contour Lines

Reading Contour Lines

Contour lines are the heart and soul of a topographic map. They connect points of equal elevation, thereby depicting the shape and steepness of the terrain.

  • Contour Lines: These are the brown, squiggly lines you see on a topo map. Each line represents a specific elevation above sea level, with adjacent lines showing an elevation change.
  • Contour Intervals: The vertical distance between two contour lines is called the contour interval. Depending on the map’s scale, this could range from a few feet to several meters.
  • Index Contour Lines: Every fifth contour line is thicker, known as an index contour line. These lines are often labeled with their respective elevations.
  • Close Contour Lines: When contour lines are close together, they indicate a steep slope. Conversely, contour lines spaced farther apart indicate a more gradual slope.

Using Topo Maps for Hunting

Using Topo Maps for Hunting

As an essential tool for navigation and understanding terrain, topographic maps, also known as “topo maps”, hold an invaluable position in the arsenal of modern hunters. These maps, showcasing the three-dimensional aspects of the Earth’s surface in a two-dimensional format, are brimming with vital information including elevations, geographic features, vegetation areas, and water sources, to name just a few. They are the navigational keys to the natural world’s complex matrix.

Utilizing topo maps for hunting enhances one’s ability to navigate unmarked wilderness and augments the knowledge of an area before setting foot in it. The maps can reveal game corridors, potential sites for blinds or stands, water sources, or simply ideal spots for setting up a camp. It’s a craft combining both the ancient skills of tracking and the modern understanding of geography and cartography.

This detailed guide intends to assist hunting enthusiasts in comprehending the importance and effective utilization of topo maps in hunting, aiming to augment your hunting experiences and ultimately increase the likelihood of a successful hunt. By blending traditional hunting techniques with modern geographic tools, hunters can develop a deep understanding of their environment, predicting game movements, and making informed strategic decisions that would be impossible otherwise. Whether you’re a novice just stepping into the wilderness or an experienced hunter wishing to polish your skills further, this knowledge can prove transformative in your hunting journey.

Identifying Landscape Features

Topo maps can help you identify specific landscape features, including ridges, valleys, cliffs, and plateaus.

  • Ridges and Valleys: Ridges are represented by a series of U-shaped contour lines, with the U’s opening towards lower ground. Conversely, valleys are indicated by U-shaped contour lines that open towards higher ground.
  • Cliffs: These are shown by very close or overlapping contour lines.
  • Plateaus: Plateaus or flat areas are depicted as areas with minimal contour lines.

Locating Game

Locating Game

Animals tend to follow certain geographical patterns, and a topo map can help you predict these patterns.

  • Water Sources: Topo maps indicate water bodies such as rivers, streams, and lakes, which are common areas where animals gather, especially during dryer seasons.
  • Cover: Dense contour lines often indicate heavily wooded areas, which can serve as perfect hiding spots for game.
  • Food Sources: Areas with a mix of woods and open grassland (indicated by a transition between dense contour lines and sparse ones) can be promising hunting spots since they provide both cover and food sources for animals.

Navigating the Hunting Grounds

Navigating the Hunting Grounds

Topo maps can also help you plan your travel routes, helping you avoid treacherous terrains and conserve energy.

  • Choosing the Right Path: A path through a valley might be longer than going straight over a mountain, but it would be less strenuous and safer.
  • Locating Vantage Points: High grounds, like ridges, provide a great vantage point for spotting game.


Topographic maps can be a game-changer in your hunting experience, enabling you to navigate the hunting ground efficiently and locate game effectively. With a good topo map, a compass, and the knowledge to use them, you’re well-equipped to have a successful hunting expedition. Remember, a successful hunter doesn’t only rely on his shooting skills but also understands the environment in which he hunts.


How do I determine the distance on a topo map?

Each topographic map comes with a scale that shows the ratio between a certain distance on the map and the actual distance on the ground. For example, a common scale is 1:24,000, which means one inch on the map equals 24,000 inches (or approximately 0.38 miles) in the real world.

What does it mean when contour lines are touching on a topo map?

Touching or very closely spaced contour lines usually represent a vertical or near-vertical slope, such as a cliff or bluff. This indicates an area of extreme steepness.

How can I tell which way is north on a topo map?

Topographic maps are typically oriented with north at the top of the map. They will also have a compass rose or a declination diagram that indicates the directions of true north, magnetic north, and grid north.

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