Navigation: How to Read a Map

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Maps help bowhunters identify roads, trails, terrain features, water sources, property boundaries, deer habitat, vegetation types and more. They’re a tool every hunter requires. But what good are maps if you don’t know how to read them?

Let’s discuss three common map types and their symbols to help you learn the woods and navigate them like a veteran.

Three Common Map Types

Many hunters use aerial maps, vegetation maps, topographical maps or all three to find and analyze bowhunting hotspots such as edges, funnels and creek bottoms.

  1. Aerial maps are actually photos taken by drones, airplanes or satellites. They show the land’s layout from a bird’s-eye view. As this Outdoor Life article discusses, hunters can use aerial photos to identify cover, funnels, habitats, bedding areas and potential stand sites.
  2. The National Park Service describes a vegetation map as “just what it sounds like: a map that depicts vegetation.” It shows whether the land is managed for forestry, recreation or agriculture; and provides an in-depth look at plant communities in relation to soil, geology, elevation and topography. This information helps hunters zero in on a prey’s preferred habitats and food sources.
  3. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a topographical map shows 2-D elevation characteristics and terrain features. These maps use contour lines to show the shapes and traits of the earth’s surface; and for identifying hills, ridges and valleys.

Jinna Larkin of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, works with maps every day as the state’s geographic information systems data coordinator. She said most maps complement each other and are best used together.

“The thing I love about maps is that each one gives a different perspective on the same location,” Larkin said. That is, topographic maps, vegetation maps and aerial photos all provide unique information about a specific spot. Each element is useful by itself, but it’s most useful when it helps you understand how each element interacts with the others.

Reading Maps

This aerial map was taken right over the Denver, CO area. You can see how the land is distributed as if you were looking outside a plane window to the ground below. Photo Credit: Jinna Larkin.

To start, study a topographic map to learn the terrain. Then switch to an aerial photo or vegetation map to learn the area’s cover and habitats.

The topographic map’s contour lines show elevation patterns. The closer contour lines are together, the steeper the landscape. The farther apart the lines, the flatter the land. The map’s legend shows how much elevation change each line represents. As you learn what contour lines represent, you can better identify gullies, ridges, knobs, swales and steep ridges that flatten into valleys and creek bottoms.

Deer, elk and other game typical follow terrain features when traveling. They avoid going straight up or down steep slopes, or crossing deep gullies and ditches. Instead, they’ll walk the slope’s edge or go around a ditch because it’s easier. By identifying terrain features, you’ll pinpoint areas where game animals likely move more often.

No matter where deer travel, however, they prefer security cover. That’s where aerial maps shine. Aerial images taken in summer often show dark-green cover with bumpy or textured looks. That likely indicates hardwoods mixing with pine or other conifers. Less-detailed areas in light green or brown are likely fields with grass or crops. And because hardwood trees lose their leaves in autumn, study a wintertime aerial image of the same site to easily distinguish between pines and hardwoods.

Vegetation maps can verify woodland cover types, or clarify what you’re studying. Realize, too, that deer often visit fields to forage for food, and stay near the woodlot’s edge for quick escapes into cover. Deer also like creek bottoms with oak trees and dense vegetation. By finding such places and features on your maps, you’ll zero in on prime deer hangouts.

For insights into these concepts, watch Midwest Whitetail’s video “How to Read Topo Maps.” In the 2015 video, host Bill Winke explains how to read maps, how to identify good hunting locations, and how to choose entry and exit paths to stands. Winke further explains these tips in this 2016 video.

Reading Map Symbols

A topographical map like this shows 2-D elevation characteristics and terrain features. These maps use contour lines to show the shapes and traits of the earth’s surface; and for identifying hills, ridges and valleys. Photo Credit: Jinna Larkin.

The worst thing you can do while reading maps is to overlook their symbols. You don’t want to climb a mountain and get turned away at the top by a locked gate. Had you known a solid black line with a dot at each end is a gate symbol, you would have found an alternative route.

Field and Stream magazine offers a five-minute video that explains map icons and symbols for gates, roads, streams, swamps, waterfalls and man-made structures. For a comprehensive list of map symbols, download and the USGS’s document on map symbols.

Find a Good Map

A vegetation map helps hunters zero in on a prey’s preferred habitats and food sources. A reference to each color can be found here. Photo Credit: Jinna Larkin.

Larkin said many companies create custom maps of specific sites for a fee, but you can find similar information online with a little time and research. You just need to know where to look.

Larkin recommends the USGS website, state wildlife agency websites, or ESRI, an advanced GIS mapping software. Libraries might also have large paper maps for viewing, but these maps are often dated. County websites or tax assessor offices might also provide local maps with property boundaries.

Bowhunters today also can use smartphone and computer apps that make maps even more useful and accessible. Bowhunting 360 identified five apps for resourceful hunters in this article. Larkin said Google Maps and the Hunt app by OnX Maps stay current and are extremely useful afield. Even so, do not undervalue paper maps. No app or online map can help if your batteries die.

“The basis for all map apps and websites is simply a really good map,” Larkin said. “Just because you don’t have access to the coolest new app or a custom-built map doesn’t mean you can’t get access to the information those tools are using.”

Lastly, for safety reasons, make maps part of your hunt plan. Bowhunters never want to reveal their hotspots, but you must trust coordinates and information about your destinations with family or friends. It could save your life if you get lost or injured. Also mark your parking spots, treestand locations and travel routes so rescuers can find you quickly.


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