If this is the first time you are joining the Map Reading series, you should start from the first post.
In the last map reading post, we went over contour lines and their part in representing terrain on the map. To make map reading easier, some terrain features tend to appear more ofter than others and have distinct names to identify them. Learning these features makes map reading simpler and trains us to identify them quickly. They are:
Hill (Also: Mountain) – A hill has a distinct single summit and incline that rises above the surrounding area. On the map, there will be several contour “rings” leading to a peak. There is no clear difference between a hill and a mountain, but it tends to be subjective to the area – bellow 500 metes (1500ft) will be a hill and above will be a mountain, etc. A mountain tends to be described as having steeper inclines than a hill.
Ridge (Also: Arete or Spur) – A continuous elevated terrain with sloping sides. In the map represented by “U” or “V” shaped contour lines where the higher ground is in the wide opening. Arete is a narrow ridge and a Spur is a smaller ridge branching off a summit or a main ridge.
Valley (Also: Gully, Draw, Couloir) – Long depression in the terrain that has a narrow elevated side and a wide lower opening. A valley can be “V” or “U” shaped and often can be seen as a “negative” to a ridge. On a map, valleys are represented by the same contour shape as ridges with the difference being the the wide openings are at lower elevation. A gully (or draw) is a narrower valley and a couloir is a gully that is formed on the slope of a ridge.
Saddle (Also: Col or Pass) – A low point between two distinct peaks (or hills) and forms the shape of a saddle. Saddles are represented on the map by a set of rings of a flatter area with two separate ring sets to represent the two peaks. A Pass is the actual low point in the saddle and a col is a pass going through an arete. Pass and cols are more commonly seen in higher mountainous areas rather than in lower altitude.
Cliffs – Very steep slopes, sometimes vertical or even overhanging. Represented on the map by very dense contour lines; when the cliffs are over hanging, the contour lines might overlap. Note: If the cliff face is shorter than the contour intervals, they might not show on the map but still represent an obstacle (10m cliffs won’t show on a map with 25m contour line intervals).
The five terrain features above cover the important features on the map and can be any size. A hill can be a 100m (300ft) rolling mount or the 8,611m (28,251ft) summit of K2 – they still both have a distinct high point and several contour rings leading to it.
The best way I know to practice recognizing common terrain features is by marking a few on a map you know and taking it out to find them in real life. Start small and get used to looking for those easy to spot features.
Do you think I’ve missed any other major feature that you use all the time in map reading? Leave a comment and we can have another list with more to offer later on.