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Hiking Maps and Why You Need Them

Some tips to reading topo maps, and finding a good hiking map to take hiking.

While often overlooked, navigation is one of the Ten Essentials for a reason. Taking the necessary time to look at a map before heading out on trail can help you assess and plan for what is ahead, and it can potentially save your life. Understanding the basic elements of a map can empower you to stay found, and know what's around you as you navigate safely from point A to point B while on trail. 


The most commonly used trail maps are topographic maps, often referred to as topo maps. These maps show detailed information about a region's geographical features. Topo maps can point out places of interest and provide hikers with insights on what to expect. 

Studying these maps, allows hikers and backpackers to spatially orientate themselves to the surrounding environments, making it possible for them to navigate their way through different types of terrain.

Understanding how to use topographic features such as contour lines, scale and symbology is crucial to navigating while on trail.


Contour Lines

It is important to make the distinction between reference maps and navigational topographic maps. Reference maps are useful for preparation but not always the best resource for navigation.

Contour lines and detailed symbology are what separate topographic maps from reference maps. A contour by definition is a line drawn on a map that joins points of equal height above sea level.

  • These lines allow the map reader to visualize hills, slopes, and mountains in three-dimension.
  • The closer these lines are together, the steeper the slope.
  • Typically every 5th line on a topographic map is bolder than the others, these are called Index Lines, and they indicate elevation values to the map reader.
  • To understand the change in elevation between individual lines, take a look at the legend.
  • Most map legends use a contour interval of 40ft or 80ft, meaning elevation separation between each line is either 40ft or 80ft.

Scanned topographic map image showing contour lines and bolded index lines. 



A common map scale according to USGS is 1:24,000. The first value "1", represents your unit of measurement, which is 1 inch in the U.S. The second value "24,000" indicates your ground distance, every 1 inch on a map is equivalent to 24,000 inches in the real-world application, which amounts to 2,000 ft. It is important to keep in mind that a map with a smaller scale will show a smaller area but in more detail. On the other hand, a map with a larger scale like 1:69500 will show a larger area of the same region in far less detail.

Scale bar with contour interval measurements.



Symbology refers to how all the features and details within a map are represented and labeled. Maps use what is called vector data to classify information into points, lines, and polygons. To put this into perspective, a campsite is often symbolized with a point, rivers and trails are symbolized by lines, and parcels of land are symbolized by polygons. These features are identified in the legend by various lines, colors, and symbols.

Map legend displaying features and details. 

“Using these complex skills of traditional navigation can bring a deep sense of satisfaction. More importantly, finding your way in the backcountry with a map, altimeter and compass requires a situational awareness that only comes from keen observation and visceral feel for the landscape.” -  Steve McClure

Some may think print maps are a thing of the past when compared to modern GPS technology, but it's always recommended to have a printed map and a compass. You never know when your GPS could run out of battery or even break. The great thing about print maps is they don't make you reliant on battery life and they won't break, especially if you are using a Green Trails Map. The best practice is to double up with print and digital.

Practice Makes Perfect

Before heading out on the trail, use a map to practice familiarizing yourself with the terrain. Here are three things to practice doing:

    • Practice using contour lines - This will help you determine the different trail sections and whether you will be scrambling up a mountain ridge or jaunting through a dense forest. It's also rewarding to look back at a long day of hiking to calculate your total elevation gain. 
    • Understanding scale better - Using your compass edge or piece of string, you can calculate how far away your campsite is from the start of the trailhead.
    • Identify reference points - Using the map legend to identify campsites, ranger stations, and lookouts, will allow you to orientate yourself more easily while on the trail. It could save you time and a headache along the way.

Hiker practices using a topographic map and compass. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman

While On Trail...

Campsites, river crossings, and trail junctions are all good places to locate yourself on the map, as they are typically well-marketed. During this time it is important to ask yourself questions like:

  • Where is the nearest ranger station? 
  • Is there a river I have to cross ahead?
  • How far is the next water source?
  • How many miles to my next campsite?
  • When is sundown?

Having a basic understanding of how to read a map will allow you to answer these questions and more, helping you on your way to being a smarter hiker.

Image of a backpacker crossing a stream. Photo by Scott Franz

GOOD sourceS for print maps of Washington

  • Green Trails maps is probably the best resource for Western Washington. You can buy waterproof, lightweight maps online, at most ranger stations, local maps stores or REI stores. Read our review of the latest series of Green Trails maps. 
  • Ranger stations are also great for choosing between maps of a local area if you have someplace specific in mind. And they will carry the USFS maps for areas that Green Trails don't cover.
  • The National Geographic Trails Illustrated map series are good for getting the lay of the land and research, but may not be as detailed as you'd like for route-finding in the backcountry.
  • The Washington State Department of Transportation has also put together a list of hiking and walking trail map resources.
  • Our friends at the Pacific Crest Trail Association has some good resource maps of Washington. 

Digital & Interactive Maps of Washington

  • USGS  is known as the leader in topographic maps. They maintain the most accurate and up-to-date geological maps and 3-D geologic frameworks. 
  • The U.S. Forest Service recently released an interactive visitors map that allows you to view Forest Service roads, trails, recreation sites, wilderness areas, and much more.
  • Open Street Map often has the most up-to-date information on trails and roads worldwide. 
  • CalTopo is a powerful trip planning tool that offers high-quality maps. These are USGS and USFS topos.
  • GaiaGPS is an iOS and Android application that allows you to download and use interactive maps while being deep in the forest (WTA members get a discount).
  • The Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office has put together this awesome interactive map highlighting all the trails across the state of Washington.
  • Washington State Department of Natural Resources has a selection of mobile-friendly maps available, too.

Hiker using Gaia GPS app. Photo by Erika Haugen-Goodman