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Map Basics and Identifying Terrain Features

A map is a representation of a portion of land drawn to scale that use labels, symbols, and colors to identify key features on the ground. You will see many maps in the military but the map that is commonly used in land nav is a topographic map. A topographic map is a map that portrays land and its terrain features using contour lines. Contour lines are lines that represent terrain and its vertical and horizontal positions.

Figure 3-1 is a topographic map reduced to show margin information. The numbers with a circle around them is marginal information that is relevant for the map user.

The circled numbers correspond to the following marginal information:

To simplify the lesson, we have expanded on the terms that are most relevant for basic navigation.

  1. Sheet Name

  2. Sheet Number

  3. Series Name

  4. Scale- Found in the upper left margin after the series name and in the center of the lower margin. The scale of a map is a representative fraction which is a ratio of map distance to ground distance. The most common scale of land navigation maps is 1:50,o00. The unit of measure for this scale can be anything: centimeters, inches, meters, feet, etc. For example, if you measure 1 cm of distance on the map, that will be representative of approximately 50,000 cm on the ground.

  5. Series Number

  6. Edition Number

  7. Index to Boundaries

  8. Adjoining Sheet Diagram

  9. Elevation Guide

  10. Declination Diagram- Found in the lower margin of large-scale maps (land nav maps are large-scale) and indicates the relationship of true north, grid north, and magnetic north. There is usually a note indicating how to convert from a grid azimuth to a magnetic azimuth and from a magnetic azimuth to a grid azimuth next to the diagram. Note: Magnetic azimuths, those read when using a compass, can differ slightly from grid azimuths, those read when measuring with a protractor on a map, due to earths magnetic fields; therefore, a conversion (addition or subtraction of a defined angle) must be done before applying a compass azimuth to the map or a map azimuth to the compass.

  11. Bar Scales- Found in the center of the lower margin. They are rulers used to convert map distance to ground distance. Maps have three or more bar scales, each in a different unit of measure. Care should be exercised when using the scales, especially in the selection of the unit of measure that is needed.

  12. Contour Interval Note- Found in the center of the lower margin normally below the bar scales. It states the vertical distance between adjacent contour lines of the map. When supplementary contours are used, the interval is indicated. In recent edition maps, the contour interval is given in meters instead of feet.

  13. Spheroid Note

  14. Grid Note

  15. Projection Note

  16. Vertical Datum Note

  17. Horizontal Datum Note

  18. Control Note

  19. Preparation Note

  20. Printing Note

  21. Grid Reference Box

  22. Unit Imprint and Symbol

  23. Legend- The legend is located in the lower left margin. It illustrates and identifies the topographic symbols used to depict some of the more prominent features on the map. The symbols are not always the same on every map. Always refer to the legend to avoid errors when reading a map.

  24. Special notes

  25. User’s note

  26. Stock number identification

  27. Conversion graph


To help identify map features, topographic maps are usually printed in color. The following colors indicate the the following:

Black- Man-made features such as buildings, roads, surveyed spot elevations, and all labels.

Red-Brown- Used in contour lines that show terrain and elevation

Blue- Water features such as lakes, swamps, rivers, and drainage.

Green- Identifies vegetation with military significance such as woods, orchards, and vineyards.

Brown- Used in contour lines that show terrain and elevation on older edition maps.

Red- Classifies cultural features such as populated areas, main roads, and boundaries on older maps.

Other- Occasionally, other colors may be used to show special information. As a rule, these are indicated in the marginal information.

Grid squares- Grid squares divide the map by lines of measurement running north to south and east to west that intersect at 90 degrees. Each grid square typically represents 1000 m (1 km) of distance on large-scale maps.

Grid Coordinate Scales

Grid Coordinate Scales are found on military protractors. This tool divides grid squares accurately and is the primary tool for plotting grid coordinates. (See Figure 4-16.)

The grid coordinate scales divide the grid squares for more accurate measurements. We have drawn a circle and arrow to the grid coordinate scale typically used for land navigation (1:50,000 large-scale maps)

Contour Lines

Contour lines represent elevation or the vertical distance above or below sea level. There are 3 types of contour lines: Index, Intermediate, and Supplementary

Index- Starting at zero elevation or mean sea level, every fifth contour line is a heavier line. These are known as index contour lines. Normally, each index contour line is numbered at some point. This number is the elevation of that line.

Intermediate- The contour lines falling between the index contour lines are called intermediate contour lines. These lines are finer and do not have their elevations listed. There are normally four intermediate contour lines between index contour lines.

Supplementary- These contour lines resemble dashes. When drawn, they show changes in elevation of at least one-half the contour interval. Supplementary lines are normally found where there is very little change in elevation, such as on fairly level terrain.

Contour Intervals- Contour intervals are given in the marginal information.

Procedure for finding elevation on a map:

  • Determine the contour interval and unit of measure (usually meters)

  • Find the numbered index contour line being determined for elevation

  • Determine if the elevation is going higher or lower (reference index numbers to see if they are increasing or decreasing in the direction being measured)

Contour Elevation Example:

In Figure 9-2, point (a) is between the index contour lines. The lower index contour line is numbered 500 (meaning 500 m above mean sea level). The upper index number is 600 m indicating that each intermediate contour line is increasing the elevation by 20m as indicated by the contour interval note. With this information we can determine that point (a) is 540 m. With this information we can also determine that point (b) is 580 m.

Elevation on Hilltops

In this example, you may ask: What about point (c)? For the approximate elevation at hilltops, the contour interval is split by half and added to the last contour line. In this example half of the contour interval of 20 m would be 10 m. And the last contour line represents 600 m of elevation before the hilltop is reached. Therefore, the elevation at the hilltop would be 610 m.


There are different types of slopes when navigating terrain, understanding the height and degree of a slope can be useful when determining routes (such as where to navigate and what to avoid). Types of slopes: Uniform (Gentle or Steep), Concave, and Convex

Contour lines showing a uniform, gentle slope are evenly spaced and wide apart. (See Figure 9-5.)

Contour lines showing a uniform, steep slope on a map are evenly spaced but closer together. The closer the contour lines, the steeper the slope. (See Figure 9-6.)

Contour lines showing a concave slope on a map are closely spaced at the top of the terrain feature and widely spaced at the bottom. (See Figure 9-7.)

Contour lines showing a convex slope on a map are widely spaced at the top and closely spaced at the bottom. (See Figure 9-8.)

Terrain Features

All terrain features are derived from a complex landmass known as a mountain or ridgeline. (See Figure 9-15.) The term ridgeline is not interchangeable with the term ridge. A ridgeline is a line of changes in low to high ground. These changes can encompass a total of 10 natural or man-made terrain features.

Major Terrain Features

Major terrain features are hills, valleys, ridges, saddles, and depressions. A good mnemonic used to remember the major terrain features is hidden valley ranch salad dressing


VALLEY- Valleys

RANCH- Ridges

SALAD- Saddles

DRESSING- Depressions

A hill is an area of high ground. From a hilltop, the ground slopes down in all directions. A hill is shown on a map by contour lines forming concentric circles. The inside of the smallest closed circle is the hilltop. (See Figure 9-16.)