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Topographic Maps - Tips and Hints

Map Scale

Know what map scale you're using in order to measure distance. Refer to the scale bar at the bottom of the map.

1:50 000 scale: 1 cm = ½ km
1:250 000 scale: 1 cm = 2½ km
Get more information, see The basics! (PDF, 1.34 MB)


A legend explaining the symbols used is provided on the back of a National Topographic System (NTS) map for easy reference. 
Get more information, see GEOSCAN!

Compass Bearings

Using a compass along with a topographic map ensures an exact direction for locating features. An approximate but quick way to orient your map is to align the compass needle (when it is pointing north) with the top of the map. Remember that north is always at the top of an NTS map.
Get more information!

Map Orientation

A map is oriented when it is made to correspond to the ground features it represents. If you know your location and can also identify the position of a distant object, you can orient your map by turning it so it corresponds to the ground features.
Get more information!

Magnetic Declination

When allowing for magnetic declination, remember: declination west, magnetic best (add); declination east, magnetic least (subtract).
Get more information, see Geomagnetism Canada!

Contour Lines

Use contour lines to determine elevations of mountains and flat areas. The closer together the lines are, the steeper the slope. Note that contour numbers are often positioned differently, since they indicate the direction of elevation by always reading (pointing) uphill.
Get more information, see The Basics! (PDF, 1.34 MB)

Water Features

Some water feature symbols also reveal water flow direction (e.g. direction of flow arrow in rivers, falls symbols pointing downstream).
Get more information, see GEOSCAN!


At a glance, you can easily identify wooded areas (green) and clearings (white).
Get more information, see GEOSCAN!

Aerial Photographs

Aerial photographs can enhance the use of your topographic map by providing an aerial view of the ground features shown on the map sheet. They are available for all NTS map sheets and may be obtained from the National Air Photo Library.
Get more information, see National Air Photo Library!

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