Symbols or pictures are drawn on the map to represent a land feature or point of interest. They often look like what they are supposed to represent (a triangle for a mountain or a curved line for a river)

The symbols can be found in an atlas at the beginning (usually titled under “Legend”). 

These are the common symbols that can be found on trail maps. For more examples of symbology, this website provides many:

Citation: Making The Word Seem A Better Place. “Examples of Map Key Symbols.” Examples of Map Key Symbols, 1 Jan. 1970,

Bearing Line

To determine the direction of travel:

  1. Draw a bearing line between points, and align the compass edge along it.
  2. Turn the compass bezel so it aligns with any longitude line (n-s line)
  3. Pick up the compass and read the TRUE NORTH bearing.
  4. Adjust for magnetic north declination (here in Maine, you add 15°). Read the MAGNETIC NORTH bearing. When you navigate, use this bearing.

To determine distance


  1. Measure the distance using the string on your compass or a ruler
  2. Use the scale ruler on the map to determine the distance
  3. If you measured with a ruler measure using the scale rule or multiply by the scale; 1”=2mi…so let’s say you measured 1.25” that would be 1.25*2=2.5mi

Reading contour lines

Thin lines on a contour map indicate the elevation and slope of the land. 

Contour lines often have a number on them; that is, the elevation. 

The closer two contour lines are to each other, the steeper the hill, and the further they are from each other, the less steep. 

A “V” in the contour line indicates a sharp direction change.

On the diagram to the right is a real-life picture of Chick Hill as well as the accompanying topographic map. The blue lines in between show the connection between the two. 

Picture of Chick Hill compared to topographic lines

Guide on how to orient yourself without a compass