Follow the Lines

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

tell a lot about the lay of the land by the relation of those lines to one another. For example, if your two lines are close together, it would indicate a severe slope, since it only took a short space for a 20-foot change in elevation to occur. Lines farther apart would indicate a gentler gradient. Lines that jog in sharply would indicate a cut or draw. Lines that jut out indicate a point.

Topographic maps contain both index lines and intermediate lines. Index lines are darker and are periodically labeled with numbers showing the elevation at that line. Intermediate lines are lighter and often unlabeled. You can tell the elevation by counting the number of increments between index lines. The four lines between the 800- and 900-foot index lines, for example, would represent 820-, 840-, 860- and 880-foot elevations.

It takes a little practice to learn to use a topo map. You can simply study it over and over until you can visualize what every mark means, but the quickest way to become sharp with a topo map is to obtain one for an area familiar to you.

Compare a topo map that includes the family farm or your traditional hunting area to what you know about the area and what you can see. Look for ridges, brushy draws and steep rock walls. See if the map actually shows the easiest point to cross a creek. If you don't have such a home area, use the map on some open land where topographical features are easy to see. Spread the map out, look for far-off hills or peaks. See how a valley shows up on a map.

Traveling with topo maps

One thing a topo map can tell travelers is that a straight line is not necessarily the shortest or the easiest to travel distance between two points. When going from Point A to Point B, for example, skirting a deep valley is usually much easier on the heart, legs and emotions than is plunging down one side and scrambling up the other. And if you can avoid a stretch of boot-sucking marshland, you will arrive at your destination in much better shape and spirits.

When using maps to plot a course, you'll be well-served by an orienteering compass. You've probably heard of orienteering. It's a timed, cross-country competition, where participants follow a course, using a map and a compass. Orienteers are a pretty hardy

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