Cairn Cartographics

Have You Ever... Learned How to Read a Topo Map?

This is part two of our interview with Amelia Hagen-Dillon of Cairn Cartographers. If you missed part one, it's worth checking out. So I thought it would behoove us non-cartographers to learn some basic skills to help us understand maps. And while we're at it, play a little trivia! Keep track of your answers and submit them in a comment below.

Let's get started! For those who might not know what "Topo" means, let's start with some basics before jumping into the interview with Amelia. 

What is a topo map?
Wikipedia defines a topographic map as "a detailed and accurate graphic representation of cultural and natural features in the ground." Um, so in lay(wo)man's terms, it's basically a map that gives enough information to help us get a sense of the terrain of the mapped area. A topo map is the next best option to having a 3D pop-up replica in our pocket, The type of graphics used (like contour lines and shaded/darker regions) tell us if an area is steep, has rolling hills, deep canyons, etc.

TRIVIA QUESTION 1: Which one is the topo map? The image on the left or the right?

How do you pronounce "topo?"
I've heard people say it like "toe-po" or "tah-po."

TRIVIA QUESTION 2: What do you think is the correct pronunciation for "topo?" 

Okay Amelia, pretend I'm an alien on Earth and I've never seen a topo map. Will you walk me through all of the major characteristics I should understand about how it works?
At the most basic level, a map is an abstract representation of a landscape. I think of maps in two ways: 1) as a way of depicting a landscape on a scale we can wrap our brains around and 2) a way of putting one’s immediate surroundings into the context of a bigger picture.

The most basic components of a map are the scale and the orientation. The orientation just means which way is which. For most maps, including ours, this means north is at the top of the page. This is usually shown with a compass rose. One important thing to notice is the declination. Without being too long winded, declination is the difference between true north and magnetic north, it depends on location and changes over time so most maps will have the current declination for the given area in the compass rose. You can read more about declination here.


The scale is a way of determining how the map compares to the actual landscape. You’ll often see this as a number. 1:24,000 for example is the scale of the old USGS quads which means one inch (or mile, or foot or yard or meter or kilometer) on the map is equal to 24,000 of the same unit in the actual landscape. Scale is also usually given with a scale bar which shows how much a familiar distance would cover on the map. For example, a map with a scale of 1:63,360 one inch on the map is equal to one mile on the landscape.

What do you think is the most important information I need to understand, in order to
read a map?

The most important information on a map really depends of what the map is for. There needs to be something that the viewer can recognize as familiar so they can put things in context. On a map of an urban area this might be major road networks or familiar landmarks. For a map of the wilderness, it’s topography, vegetation and water (in the form of streams, rivers and lakes).

In the image below, there are many creeks all over the map. Do you think any of those are rivers? Well, rivers tend to be indicated with a thicker line than the ones used to indicate creeks below. Also, none of these are labeled as a river; they are all labeled as creeks. 

When I’m making a map, I think about what is going to be obvious to a person looking around them at the landscape, and then I try to convey that information on the map. Topography is probably the biggest thing that can be shown with contours, shaded relief or both. We use both on our maps. As a result, we get a lot of people telling us our maps actually look like the landscape, so it’s easier for them to read than a map with contours alone.


Another big one is vegetation. The green and white/gray in the background on our maps shows forested and non forested areas. It’s based on the data from the old USGS quads but we update it because it can be helpful to see big meadows or avalanche chutes and figure out where you are using them. We use the most detailed hydrography data we can get and we update the biggest rivers using the most recent aerial images to make it as accurate as possible.

If I'm lost on the trail, how would I use my map to figure out where I am?
The first thing I do is look for a landmark around me. This might be a bend in the river that I can see or a spot where the trail is right next to the creek, or maybe a long flat section on a ridge. Anything I can notice about where I am and then I imagine how that would look on my map. Then I orient the map and try and locate the landmark on the map. Here’s the thing: our brains don’t like to admit they are wrong. If you think you’ve been heading down one ridge your brain will try to convince you the map matches the landscape even if it doesn’t. This is why GPS can be great tools. Even the most basic GPS will give you your coordinates and you can locate yourself on the map with those.

In the image below, you can see correlating landmarks on the map and the photo. By identifying a landmark like Haystack Butte, you can then identify Elk Creek drainage and road.

TRIVIA QUESTION 3: Where was this photo taken from? A, B, or C? (Extra credit: How do you know?)

What should I look out for that indicates a trail is difficult?
This depends on what you think makes a trail difficult! If long steep climbs intimidate you than trails that cross a lot of contours or are in the darker shaded parts of a map are probably going to be steeper. Personally, I think the hardest trails are the ones that aren’t frequently maintained and are hard to follow. It can take so much mental energy to be constantly searching for the trail or climbing over downed logs. On our maps, we symbolize trails by class, so more frequently maintained trails are a different color than trails that might be hard to follow so people can have an idea of what to expect as far as trail conditions go.

What are maps useful for?
I think maps are most useful for planning a trip when you need to be able to see a large area all on one page and a GPS or computer screen isn’t big enough. I also love having a map when I reach a high point or somewhere with a big view and I want to be able to identify landmarks in the landscape around me.

Do we still need maps if we have GPS? 
When I tell people I make maps, often their first response is, “Aren’t maps being replaced by GPS?” You can read a whole blog post about how I think maps and GPS are both important tools, here.

Why is a map important to have in the wilderness?
The fact that a map can’t run out of batteries or break is always a big plus! If you need to figure out where you are or how to get to where you want to go, a map and the skills to read it will help. For me, I really love to know where I am in context of a larger landscape. A map is the best tool to help me understand that.


I hope this interview provided you a basic understanding of maps. Here are two final trivia questions:

TRIVIA QUESTION 4: Where did Amelia meet her partner Jaime?

TRIVIA QUESTION 5: How many times does Amelia mention the word "context?" In what context?  ;-)

Submit your FIVE trivia answers in the comments below FOR A CHANCE TO WIN A CAIRN CARTO MAP OF YOUR CHOICE!

  • Include your full name, email address & your answers in your comment below.
  • Submit your answers by March 5, 2015

UPDATED on 3/5/15:

1. The map on the RIGHT
2. The pronunciation of "topo" depends on where you're from. No wrong answer!
3. C
4. In Yellowstone, during a summer internship
5. Three. The word "context" is mentioned in reference to a larger landscape.

Samuel Mandell! You get to choose a map from Cairn Cartographics' collection! (I'm glad we live together because we can share. Yay!)


Have You Ever... Talked to a Cartographer?

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

I had never spoken to a cartographer until just recently, when I sat down with Amelia Hagen-Dillon of Cairn Cartographics. I got to pick her brain about what life is like as a cartographer, and it was such a great opportunity to learn! Amelia was fascinating, and I wished I could bring all of you around the table to "listen in" on what she had to say.

Why? Because cartography is necessary in the world of wilderness backpacking. I don't leave home without a map when I'm on a journey, and yet, this essential tool can be overwhelming and difficult to understand. (You're not alone if you've ever felt that way.) So I want to first introduce you to Amelia, and next week, she'll provide a beginner guide on how to understand maps. Woohoo! 

Let's cover some basics...How old are you, Amelia?

Where are you from originally?

What is your profession? 
Cartographer, and all the other things that go along with being a small business owner (marketing and communications, account manager, operations and logistics). 
What exactly is cartography?
Cartography is the art and science of making maps. 

Image   courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

What stands out to you when you first open a map?
I notice how clean the design is and how easy it is to get my bearings. I look at typography (the style, arrangement or appearance of printed letters) and topography (the features, such as mountains and rivers, of an area of land) and how the whole design works together.

How did you first get into cartography?
I took a few GIS (special mapping software) classes in college and loved them but I always thought it was kind of a bummer to make all these maps of places I had never been.  I found a summer internship in the Greater Yellowstone area mapping invasive weeds. Jamie (my now business and life partner) was my crew leader for that job. Along with two other people, the four of us spent the summer hiking to random GPS points and collecting data about the landscape there.

Then I spent a semester abroad hiking in Patagonia which is criss-crossed by all these old “gaucho” trails that were historically used to move sheep and cattle between summer and winter pasture, but now are disappearing. I thought it would be fun to map them as part of a cultural history project using the technology that I had learned about in Yellowstone. When I got home, Jamie and I started talking about how to make a project like that happen. We applied for a National Geographic grant to pursue that idea, which we didn’t get (but someone else did, a few years later). Instead, we decided to make maps closer to home, which was western Montana for both of us by then.

Tell us more about this Jaime character.  ;-)
Jamie Robertson is my partner in crime. We first met when he was my crew leader for the summer job I just mentioned. He studied geography and cartography in college and dreamed of making maps of wild places. We’ve been working and exploring together since 2007.

Sounds like you've found a great partner!
So tell me, what does the day in the life of a cartographer look like?

This really depends on the time of year. During the winter, all of our work is office work. So my day looks more or less like this: 

7:30-8: Wake up 
8-8:30: Drink coffee, read email and check social media. Once I’m feeling caught up with what’s happening in the world (and caffeinated), Jamie and I talk about what we are working on and what we're trying to get done. This is a mix of work and household tasks since our work life and personal lives are so intertwined. Then I write a very specific to do list and spend some time thinking about what order I should try to tackle it in. 
8:30-Mid afternoon: A mix of work and many breaks for snacks, laundry, putting away dishes and other "work-from-home" distractions. 
Mid-afternoon break: Exercise. Typically I would go for a trail run but my knee has been hurt this winter so I’ve been spending a lot of time at the gym.
Pre-dinner: I work a little more until it’s time to make dinner.
Dinner: Jaime and I eat together, and we often talk about maps! 
Post-dinner: If I am really on a roll, I might work a little more. But usually, I catch up some more on social media and read or write for a while before heading to bed. 

The summer is when we really get to know the area that we are mapping.

This means 5-10 days at a time, we are backpacking or truck camping and hiking to GPS trails. In the field, our days are pretty simple. We are up at or before first light, and I make breakfast while Jamie packs up camp. We typically hike for 8-9 hours but if it is really hot we might take a break in the afternoon for a few hours, especially if we can find a swimming hole. Once we get to camp, we make an early dinner and turn in. I usually read for a few hours before I fall asleep.

Image   courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

So it takes a year to make a map?!
Yes! We start by collecting all the data that is out there in the public domain for the area that we want to map. Looking at that helps us decide where to put the boundaries of our map. We try and track down as many people as we can that are familiar with the area to ask about trail conditions so we can know what to expect when he hike most of it. Then we spend the summer getting to know the area and GPSing trails, and the fall/winter combining our data together with existing data, and cleaning it up to make it look like a map. Once that's done, we get our maps printed at a press in Denver in the spring, so they are ready to ship out to stores during the summer when people usually buy maps.

Is that what makes Cairn Cartographics unique?
I think so. We spend more time on the ground getting to know the area we're mapping, than any other cartographers I know of. I think our intimate knowledge of the places we map shows through in the maps themselves. We also go over every single detail on our maps with a fine tooth comb. Everything from the green vegetation layer to the rivers and streams, to trails and roads gets fixed up using the most up to date aerial imagery and GPS data.

Is there a formula to creating a high-quality map?
I don’t think there is a single formula, just a lot of time and attention to every single detail.

What maps have you made so far?
The North and South Bob Marshall, The Rattlesnake Wilderness and Missoula, The Mission Range, The North Half of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the South Half of the Selway-Bitterroot will be out this spring.

Image   courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Which one are you most proud of? Why?
Our first map, the South Half of the Bob Marshall, because we proved to ourselves that we could make this crazy idea work! Also, the Rattlesnake and Missoula map because it was the map I wanted from the first day I moved here, but it didn’t exist. So I made it!

Which wilderness do you think more people need to know about? What have you experienced there?
All wilderness and Capital-W Wilderness! Some of the most wild places we’ve been haven’t been in federally designated Wilderness. I think there are always ways to get off the beaten path if you are creative [and experienced] with your trip planning. It’s easier to go to the places you see written up on blogs or in magazines like the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall, for example, or Blodgett Canyon in the Bitterroot. But if you spend some time looking at the map, you will notice trails you never knew were there or loops that look fun to try. Or, you might notice big open off-trail ridges that might connect two drainages. I would encourage people to be creative and explore, as you get more experience with backpacking and reading maps. Even small wilderness areas feel bigger when you get away from popular areas.

What's your favorite wilderness? Why?
The Bob Marshall has a special place in my heart because it is where we made this dream become a reality. The feeling of topping out on a pass in the Swan Range and looking to the west and north and south and knowing that it is Wilderness as far as you can see is pretty special. And I love the Rattlesnake too, because I think it is so amazing that we have a place like that so close to town.

Which area(s) are you drawn to for your next map?
We are still trying to decide. We have a lot of ideas so it’s just a matter of picking one!

What is something that most people don't know about cartography that you discovered, only by being in the field? There are so many little decisions that go into making a map that are totally subjective. The scientist in me has a hard time with this but the fact is the landscape doesn’t usually fit into neat categories. Sometimes a hillside is somewhere between forested and meadow and you have to decide which to display it as. Sometimes a road is somewhere between improved and unimproved and you just have to put it in a category. As humans we want things to be neat and tidy but in real life landscapes are pretty messy.

Are there other women cartographers you admire? Do you have any female mentors? If so, tell us about her.
I wish! I don’t have any mentors or role models that are in the cartography world specifically. I would credit my undergrad advisor and two or three other female professors that I had in college who were/are really passionate about encouraging women to study science and to be courageous about being smart and ambitious. Without the confidence they inspired I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Image   courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

Image courtesy of Cairn Cartographics.

How can we learn more about you?
You can find all things about my work on our website and my personal musings on

Check back next week for a beginner guide on how to understand maps!

Take 10% off your entire Cairn Carto purchase by using the code SQSC10. Click here to see all their maps.