Map Reading 101

In order to keep yourselves and those you are hiking with safe, it is important to know where you are. Not only should you always carry a map with you, you need to know how to read it! The information on this page is designed to help you gain a basic understanding of what hiking maps look like and how to read them. If you have any questions on any of the information, please feel free to contact us!

The Basics

There are many different types of maps that you might encounter in your day to day life. For many of us, the most common map we will see is some sort of road map. It might be a physical version or it could be on a computer, phone or GPS. Typically these maps will show things like roads, town names, perhaps bodies of water, and state or country borders. Almost always, maps will depict the land they are covering from an aerial perspective – as if someone was looking down at the earth from the sky.

Road Map

A typical road map showing New Hampshire and parts of the surrounding states.

Map Collection

A variety of maps including some hiking maps and a road map.

The Legend

Nearly all maps that you will look at will have some sort of legend or key on them. The legend is an important feature because it will help you know how to read and interpret the map. Inside of the legend you will find copies of all of the icons used on the map and definitions for what they all mean. For instance in the legend below you see that the icon of the house stands for either a hut, lodge or cabin and that the trails on the map are drawn with red lines. The legend also shows us that the different colors of land in this map are owned and managed by different people. Below the icons in this legend you will see two scale bars (the black and white lines with numbers above them). Having a sense of the scale of a map is important when planning. Knowing how far a distance is can mean the difference between reaching your destination successfully or running out of gas or energy along the way. The scale bar on the map shows you how big the distances are. Since the map is a simply a smaller version of what exists in real life, the distances are simply scaled down. For instance you might see on a map that 1 inch = 1 mile. This means that if a road on a map measured 1 inch, in the real road if you were to travel it, it would be 1 mile.  Sometimes on a map you will find mileage written next to trail segments, which makes planning even easier! Be aware of some maps that are labeled “not to scale”. On these maps, the distances between things are not accurate or even related and they can’t be used for careful planning.

Map Legend

In the legend you might also see information like when the map was made, which can be important because sometimes roads, names, and other features change over time. Lastly, especially on hiking maps, you will sometimes find a compass rose and information on the contour lines. Read on to learn about these important navigational tools.

Contour Lines

Contour lines are most commonly found on hiking maps or other maps where it is important to know the shape of the land. Contour lines, which typically look like squiggly brown lines drawn all over the map, depict the elevation, or the height above see level. If you are planning a hike, you most likely want to know how high you are going to climb, whether it will be steep or flat, and whether there will be lots of ups and downs. Contour lines can tell us all of this information.

Contour lines are the brown lines covering much of this image.

Contour lines are the brown lines covering much of this image.

Each contour line represents a specific elevation and follows the land that stays at that elevation. Some contour lines have a number written in them which tells you this elevation. For instance, in the picture below the arrows point to the number “2000”, which means that the line labeled 2000 follows the land that is 2000 feet above sea level. Practice tracing all of the land that is at 2000 ft.

Contour lines - elevation

In the legend you will find information about the “contour interval”, which tells you the elevation change in between each line. Notice that on this map there is a bold contour line every 500 feet. Can you figure out how far apart each of the small lines are (aka the contour interval)?

Click on the image for the answer!

Click on the image for the answer!

By knowing the contour interval and being able to determine the elevation, you can figure out how much elevation you will gain or lose on your hike. For example, looking at the map below, if you were to hike from Imp Campsite to the summit of North Carter Mtn, how much elevation would you gain?

Contour lines - elevation change

Click on the picture for the answer!

The other important thing that contour lines can tell you is whether the terrain (or the ground that you will be traveling over) is steep or flat. When contour lines are very close together, it means that the elevation is changing quickly, which tells us that the terrain will be steep. On the other hand, if the contour lines are very far apart, there is little elevation change, which means that the terrain is flat. Using the picture below, try to identify which areas are steep and which are flat.

Click on the picture for the answer!

Click on the picture for the answer!



Compass Rose

The compass rose is located in the map legend and is circled in red in the image below.

Compass Rose

The compass rose shows us which direction is True North and which direction is Magnetic North. This can be useful when orienting a map, which means lining the map up to how things appear in real life. To use the compass rose to orient a map, you will also need a compass. (Note: it is possible to orient a map without a compass simply by lining up features on a map with how they appear in real life.)

Compasses work using magnets which are attracted to the magnetic poles of the Earth. Therefore, when orienting a map, it is important to use the magnetic north line. Be sure that the map is flat on the ground. Then, line your compass needle up with North and rotate the map until magnetic north is directly under the north arrow. Be aware that strong magnets in the area such as belt buckles or even screws in a table can effect the compass, so be sure to use an area clear of such items. Also note that because Magnetic North changes over time, it is important to have a current map.

Oriented Map


For questions on map reading, don’t hesitate to Contact Us or join us for one of our activities!