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  • Writer's pictureEcho Adventure Cooperative Members

How To Read A Hiking Map

Our two favorite maps, and probably the most popular hiking maps in general, are National Geographic Maps and Tom Harrison Maps. The Trails Illustrated Map Series from National Geographic are usually double sided and seem to hold up better in all conditions. However, you may have to depend on colloquial brands or internet print outs, so we'll try to be as general as possible!

Map Legend

First, examine the map legend.

Start by familiarizing yourself with the legend or key specific to the hiking map. The legend provides explanations for the symbols, colors, and markings used on the map. It helps you understand what each symbol represents, such as trails, landmarks, contour lines, or points of interest.

Trails: Hiking trails are usually depicted as dashed or solid lines of different widths. They may be color-coded to indicate different trail difficulties or designated uses (e.g., hiking, biking, horseback riding).

  1. Roads: Roads, including paved roads, gravel roads, or dirt tracks, are often displayed as solid or dashed lines of varying widths. They can be labeled with different symbols or colors to indicate their classification or importance.

  2. Water features: Bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes, streams, and ponds, are commonly represented by blue lines or shapes. The width of the lines may indicate the size or significance of the water feature.

  3. Bridges and crossings: Symbols depicting bridges, fordable areas, or other types of crossings help indicate where you can cross rivers or other obstacles along the trail.

  4. Campgrounds and shelters: These symbols denote designated areas for camping or shelters along the trail. They may be represented by tents, triangles, or other icons.

  5. Points of interest: Landmarks or points of interest, such as viewpoints, summits, caves, waterfalls, or historical sites, are often marked with specific symbols or labels to draw attention to their significance.

  6. Contour lines: These lines indicate changes in elevation and help you understand the shape of the terrain. They may be represented by solid or dashed lines, with different intervals for elevation changes.

  7. Vegetation and land cover: Different types of vegetation and land cover, such as forests, grasslands, marshes, or cultivated areas, may be indicated using different colors, patterns, or symbols.

  8. Boundaries and land ownership: Maps may include boundaries of national parks, wildlife reserves, private lands, or other protected areas. These boundaries are typically represented by distinct lines or shaded areas.

  9. Safety and emergency information: Symbols indicating first aid stations, emergency shelters, emergency contact points, or potential hazards like steep slopes or cliffs can be included to ensure hiker safety.


Next you should become familiar with the scale. Look for the scale bar on the map, which shows the relationship between distances on the map and actual distances on the ground. This helps you estimate how far you will be traveling on the trails.

Some hiking maps provide distance markers or time estimates for different sections of the trails. Use all of this information to plan your itinerary and gauge the time required to complete specific portions of the hike. Pro tip: Carve the equivalent of 1 mile on your spoon so you can review your map and route during mealtime!

Identify the trail network

Locate your hiking trails on the map and identify intersections and places you could get turned around . Trails are typically marked with specific symbols, such as dashed or solid lines of varying widths. Pay attention to any trail markers, colors, or labels that indicate trail names or difficulties.

Note the trailhead and access points. Identify the starting point or trailhead of your hike on the map. It's essential to know where you are entering the trail system and any access points and/or emergency bail out points along the way.

Analyze the contour lines and topo features

Contour lines on a hiking map represent changes in elevation. Study the contour lines to understand the terrain's shape, steepness, and elevation gain or loss. Lines that are closely spaced indicate steep slopes, while widely spaced lines indicate flatter areas. You can determine the difference between a plain and a body of water by the colors identified in your legend. The lines will be interrupted occasionally with numbers. These numbers indicate the elevation in either feet or meters. Pro tip: Careful not to get confused by peak names and other feature names like Deep Canyon, Easy Mountain, Shallows Swamp, etc. These will always be the names of the features and not descriptions. Maps will not give a description of the terrain so make sure to review the topo and contour lines.

Lastly, consider topographic features. Take note of prominent topographic features, such as mountains, rivers, lakes, or other natural landmarks. They can serve as reference points for navigation and orientation during your hike and help you determine the difficulty of the trail you have chosen.

Plan your route

Determine the route you want to take by following the trail lines and using the information provided on the map. Take note of intersections, junctions, and any potential alternative routes or loops you might encounter.

Look for points of interest. Hiking maps often highlight points of interest, such as scenic viewpoints, waterfalls, campsites, or historical sites. These are typically marked with symbols or labels that can enrich your hiking experience.

Pay attention to distance and time estimates. Some hiking maps provide distance markers or time estimates for different sections of the trails. Use this information to plan your itinerary and gauge the time required to complete specific portions of the hike.

When deciding on a route, make sure to choose an easier Plan B route just in case the terrain is more strenuous than planned or you fall ill on your adventure.

Careful using additional information

Some hiking maps provide supplementary information like camping restrictions, trail conditions, water sources, or emergency contact numbers. Make sure to review and verify this information before you plan and prepare for your hike. Hiking conditions, seasonal closures, rules and regulations, wildlife interactions etc can change quickly, so always double check this information.

Determine your mileage

When reviewing maps with our guests the most common question we get is, "How many miles should I hike?" This question is incredibly hard for an outsider to answer and used to bring the conversation to a halt. Now we have decided on the following recommendations:

Beginner hikers

For individuals who are relatively new to hiking or have limited fitness levels, a reasonable distance for a day hike could be around 5 to 8 miles (8 to 13 kilometers). This distance allows for breaks, rest stops, and a leisurely pace. Remember that you will be carrying extra weight for overnight trips, and you will have to wake up and do it again. So always have a plan B if you are new to hiking and backpacking!

Intermediate hikers

Hikers with some experience and moderate fitness levels can often cover a distance of approximately 8 to 12 miles (13 to 19 kilometers) in a day. This range may include moderate elevation changes and slightly challenging terrain.

Advanced hikers

Experienced hikers who are physically fit and accustomed to challenging trails can cover distances of 12 -15 mile (19 kilometers) or more in a day. Such hikers may be comfortable tackling longer hikes or more difficult terrain with significant elevation changes.

No matter what you choose, remember to listen to you body - always. Take breaks, turn around or change to your Plan B hike if you're not feeling your hike! Pro tip: share both your primary plan and your Plan B hike before you go, you know, just incase!

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