How to Read Topo Maps

Nov 9, 2021 | Offline Maps | 3 comments

Hunters today are super fortunate to have the tools to accurately navigate and know what lies ahead using electronic mapping tools. Satellite imagery is one of the greatest modern tools a hunter can use. Seeing the landscape you hunt, with real imagery, can be key to understanding the terrain and vegetation wildlife utilize. But for the western hunter, the most important (and most under utilized) BaseMap is not satellite imagery, it is the topographical map, aka, the topo layer.

Why Are Topo Maps Valuable?

Firstly, we need to define topographic. Topographic is another word form of topography, which is the graphic delineation in detail of natural and man-made features of a place or region, especially in a way to show their relative positions and elevations. Really it boils down to the meaning of a graphic representation of the land’s “shape”. No other map type (including 3D imagery) can tell you exactly what a landscape looks like better than a topo map if you know how to read it. Topo maps show you this info in a two-dimensional map which gives you a three dimensional perspective.
Whitetail Food Plot Step 1
Photo Credit: Muley Freak
The key to reading topo maps is based on the contour lines laid out across the map. If you learn to read a topo map, nothing will surprise you when hunting. Peaks, saddles, drainages and other features define the landscape of the western hunter. Understanding these features and how they are represented on a map is key to navigating your landscape and finding areas that will help you fill your tag. It might just be the key to a successful, and safely executed, hunt.

Keys to Reading Topo Maps

Intro to Contour Lines

Whitetail Food Plot Step 1

The squiggly contour lines you see on the topo map represent changes in elevation across distance. Lines close together represent a steep inclination over a small distance, while lines further apart mean the elevation change is spread out gradually, making a slope less steep. More space between the lines, for example, indicates flat ground.

When judging elevation gains, always look for an index line which will appear darker than the other lines. The index line will also have an elevation associated with it on the map. You can easily figure out elevation changes by comparing two index lines and determine the elevation change by how close the subsequent lines are in between.

Some of the best hunting features like glassing points and knobs can be found by recognizing them on a topographic map. Below we will highlight some important hunting features and how to identify them by their topographic contour lines on your BaseMap Pro App.

Whitetail Food Plot Step 4
These are some of the easiest to identify features on a topographic map. Drainages, coulees, gulleys, or other similar features will be V, or U shaped on your map. V shaped features will be steeper than U shaped, and both will point uphill. These features are always prime locations for glassing up bucks, bulls, bears and any other game you have a tag for.
Whitetail Food Plot Step 4
Ridges are an important feature for determining the route of your hunt, great glassing areas and prime feeding and bedding terrain for certain species. You cannot hunt in the mountains without navigating and utilizing these features in one way or another. Ridges are similar to draws and drainages, except the U and V shaped features will be pointing downhill.
Whitetail Food Plot Step 4
Cliffs can be a love/hate relationship when hunting. They can create amazing glassing points, but also lead to dead end and dangerous routes when trying to come off a mountain. For these reasons it’s very important to know how to define them on your topo map. You can spot cliffs anywhere you see topo lines about as close together as they can get. This references an extreme change in elevation in a very small amount of distance.
Whitetail Food Plot Step 4
Knobs are an all time great place to set up a spotting scope for looking down into valleys and onto opposing ridges. These high points can be found by looking for topo lines forming a circle, with a smaller circle inside of it and a smaller one inside of that one. The circles show a climbing elevation change on all sides, progressively leading to a high point.
Whitetail Food Plot Step 4
Saddles are defined as an area between two high points, like knobs and peaks. Look for the circles within circles of the above described knobs, then look for another one directly parallel to it. The shape will look a bit like a figure eight, or hourglass. The space between the two points will be a low spot game animals will often use to travel between drainages and valleys.
Whitetail Food Plot Step 4
Bowls are some of our all-time favorite spots for finding big-game animals. High elevation bowls offer security and nutritious feed. They are a particularly great place to look for early season mule deer and elk. Chart your course to a bowl by looking for contour lines that form a large semicircle with an obvious high point and descending elevation.

Hybrid Topo: High-Res Satellite Imagery + Topo

While planning for your hunt, or even while out navigating your hunting unit, don’t forget to utilize the Hybrid Topo layer. The hybrid layer is like having a piece of cake and eating it too, and we all like that. The hybrid layer projects the topo layer over a high-res aerial photo so you get the best of everything. Just using the topo layer alone will likely get you the information you need to properly and safely navigate the terrain, but, why not see exactly what the terrain looks like? You may just decide to take a different path if you see that a draw, bowl, or ridge is too thick and brushy. By combining high-res satellite imagery and topo layers, you get the full spectrum of landscape features, enabling you to make the smartest and most efficient decision about terrain navigation.
Whitetail Food Plot Step 1

Not a secret, but still a weapon

We’re not here to say reading a topo map is the secret weapon to a successful hunt. We are here to say it is a very useful, often under used, weapon to a successful hunt. It’s a tool in the hunters toolbox. It’s a tool, once mastered, that will give you confidence reading landscapes and going into areas you are unfamiliar with. After studying your hunt with topo maps, don’t forget to turn on BaseMap’s 3D Maps for a next level detailed view of the landscape, giving you an even greater understanding of the land you are about to travel.

Try BaseMap Free

Popular Articles


  1. Does Basemap have a muledeer migration map or layer?

  2. Yes we do! Tap on layers -> Species -> Mule Deer -> Mule Deer Summer Range or Winter Range, etc…

  3. This is a great app. Trying to figure out how to use it

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Get 20% Off

Your First Year of Pro


sign up for exclusive updates, feature
announcements, and vip discounts

Pin It on Pinterest