How to Read Contours

by Emus Orienteering Club
(Serving orienteering in the Northern and Western suburbs of Melbourne)



Contour lines show the shape of the terrain - and if you know how to interpret them, you can work out what land formations are present.  On a colour map, contour lines are thin brown lines on the map.  On street-orienteering maps, contour lines are usually thin, lighter or grey lines that curve across the map.

Each contour line shows the lie of the land by connecting points of equal height above sea level.  They enable the three dimensional terrain to be represented on a two dimensional piece of paper.

The hardest map reading skills to learn are how to interpret the contour lines, how to recognise from the map what the land will look like on the ground, how to distinguish gullies from spurs.  This is partly because the contour lines are the only "imaginary" symbols on the map - all other symbols represent identifiable feature on the ground.

Important Land Forms

It is essential, for enjoyment of orienteering, to be able to quickly and accurately recognise the shape of the land by looking at the contours.  This page shows the most common and most important features to recognise and navigate in the bush - street-orienteers can get by with a much more simplistic understanding of contours.


This is a hill top and is shown by a loop contour or several concentric loop contours depending on how high the hill is.  Some examples are shown below.

Fig1 - Small knoll
 - roughly circular

Fig2 – Steep hill, circular

Fig 3 Two elongated, flattish knolls along a long, generally flat ridge


Named after a rider’s saddle-is a low point between two knolls.  It looks up to higher ground on two sides, and looks down on to lower ground on the other two sides.

A saddle, with higher ground to the east and west, and lower ground to the north and south

Steep and Flat Terrain

Contour lines close together indicate steep terrain; contour lines a long way apart indicate flatter terrain. This is probably the key thing that street orienteers need to recognise - to know which way is uphill and which way is down - and to distinguish a hilly area from a flatter area.

Steep Hillside Much flatter land

 Gullies and Spurs

A gully is a small valley, usually where water runs in wet weather. A spur is a sloping ridge jutting out from the side of a hill.  In most Australian terrain, hillsides have been eroded to form a series of gullies separated by spurs.  Some hillsides, however, remain straight and featureless without being broken into spurs and gullies. Every bend in a contour indicates either a gully or spur.  It is crucial to be able to tell which of the two it is.

How to distinguish between a gully and a spur
  • Find the highest point ( the knoll)

  • SPURS point away from the knoll and downhill

  • GULLIES point towards the knoll and uphill.



How to know which way is uphill and downhill?

It is not easy to tell, because unlike normal topographic maps, orienteering maps do not have the heights of the individual contours marked. Locate a high point or a low point, and follow the contours from there.

Here are some hints:

1)       Watercourses flow in lower land than that immediately surrounding them.

2)       Water flows downhill.  Watercourses get larger and join each other as they flow down to lower country.

3)       Look for closed loop contours indicating hill tops. The immediately surrounding land is lower.

Interpreting spurs and gullies is best learned in the terrain with a map. It can also be reinforced by means of suitable theoretical exercises.



Training Index

What is Street-Orienteering?

Golden Rules for ALL Street-Orienteers

How to Read a Street-Orienteering Map

How to Read Contours

Taking part in your first Scatter Course

Taking part in your first Score Course

How to read contours

Street-O Strategy - a Guide for Beginners

Emus Home Page




We hope you enjoyed reading this material.

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