How to Read Contours
by Emus Orienteering Club
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.