by Diane Spicer
Hiking map symbols are a secret language, one that is very useful for hikers.
If you've never taken the time to look carefully at a map, you are missing out on a lot of information which could add huge amounts of enjoyment to your hiking.
Somebody spent a lot of time and/or money mapping the location you're interested in hiking through.
They translated what they saw into handy little pictographs, and put them on a map to make your hike safer, and to save you time.
So how do you read a map?
When you need to read a map, you're going to be focusing on symbols, with words playing a supportive role.
Learn to love a chance to flip your thinking like that!
Hiking map symbols are an elegant shorthand to give you a mental picture of the terrain you'll be hiking through.
The key to using symbols?
Use the key!!
Hikers love topographical maps because they depict the hiking terrain and topograhy by highlighting useful features:
The map's key (or legend) explains which colors and symbols are used to convey all of this important information.
Some of it is intuitive: green for vegetation, blue for water.
But sometimes you need to consult the key to figure out how the landscape has changed.
And it can be fun to see which symbols were chosen to represent natural and man made landscape features.
I'd love to convince you that hiking map symbols are the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Spend the next few minutes looking at these symbols (free pdf download from United States Geological Survey, or USGS).
I'll bet there are a few surprises in there for you!
I personally never knew that a wooded marsh or swamp has a different symbol from a submerged wooded marsh or swamp.
And if I want to avoid human interventions on the landscape, I can tell at a glance where mines, roads, structures, or farming has occurred.
Alternatively, if I get a bit turned around during my explorations, I might want to know in a hurry which direction to go to cross the nearest road.
See how the symbols give you a lot of information quickly?
If you spend a bit of time familiarizing yourself with map symbols, you can translate map information fluidly into action on a hike.
Smart hikers are map savvy - join the crowd!
That way, you can avoid the crowd (if you want to).
And if you need a few more navigation ideas, here they are.
Hiking Maps Symbols
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
As an Amazon Associate, Hiking For Her earns from qualifying purchases.