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How to read topo maps for deer hunting

As an avid deer hunter, I understand the importance of having the right tools and knowledge to increase my chances of success. One tool that has proven invaluable is the topographic map, also known as a topo map. These maps provide detailed information about the terrain features and contour lines that can make all the difference in locating deer and planning strategic hunting spots.

Understanding the Basics of How to Read Topo Maps for Deer Hunting

Before we delve into the intricacies of reading topo maps for deer hunting, it’s important to grasp some fundamental map basics. One key aspect is map orientation, which refers to the direction in which the map is oriented. While there is no right or wrong orientation, maintaining consistency in orientation is crucial for effective communication.

When reading a topo map, you’ll notice that the map is divided into grids and is accompanied by a compass rose indicating the cardinal directions. The top of the map represents north, the bottom represents south, the left represents west, and the right represents east. By aligning yourself with the north direction, you can orient yourself on the map and accurately interpret the terrain features it represents.

In addition to map orientation, understanding the topographic representation is essential. Topographic maps use contour lines to depict the elevation and shape of the land. These contour lines connect points of equal elevation and can show the steepness or flatness of the terrain. By closely examining the contour lines, you can identify ridges, valleys, saddles, and other key topographic features that are crucial for deer hunting.

The 10 Rules of Contour Lines: Decoding the Language of Topo Maps

Contour lines on topographic maps provide valuable information about the shape and elevation of the terrain. By understanding the 10 rules that govern these lines, hunters can effectively interpret the topographic representation and gain insights into the landscape. Here are the essential rules to decode the language of topo maps:

Every contour line represents a specific elevation: Each contour line on a topo map represents a constant elevation above sea level.

Contour lines never intersect: Contour lines never cross one another, indicating that the terrain does not have sudden drops or cliffs within the contour interval.

Closed Loops: Contour lines form closed loops when they represent hills, mounds, or depressions.

Rivers and streams: Contour lines that represent rivers and streams form V-shaped patterns, with the point of the V always pointing upstream.

Hills and mountains: Contour lines on hills and mountains form concentric circles that decrease in size as the elevation increases.

Contour interval: The contour interval is the vertical distance between contour lines and is usually specified on the topo map. It determines the amount of elevation change between adjacent contour lines.

Index lines: Every fifth contour line is typically an index line, which is slightly bolder and often labeled with the elevation.

Steepness of slopes: Extremely close contour lines signify steep terrain or slopes, while widely spaced lines represent a gentle slope.

Valleys and ridges: Valleys or ridges form a V-shape, with the point of the V facing uphill.

Depressions: Depressions have hachure marks (short lines) on the inside, indicating an area of lower elevation than the surrounding terrain.

Key Topographic Map Features

When studying topo maps for deer hunting, it is essential to identify key terrain features that can greatly influence how whitetails move through and where whitetails bed in a certain area. By identifying these features on the map, you can strategically plan your hunts. Here are some of the key terrain features that you should be on the lookout for:

Ridge Tops

Ridge tops are elevated areas that offer whitetails a vantage point to survey their surroundings and detect potential threats. These areas often provide cover, such as thick vegetation or forested areas, making them attractive to deer. Ridge tops serve as travel corridors for deer, especially during their movement between feeding and bedding areas.


Bottoms, also known as valleys or low-lying areas, are important features to consider when studying topo maps. They provide deer with access to water sources and abundant vegetation, making them prime feeding areas. Bottoms also offer cover and protection from harsh weather conditions, attracting deer during different times of the day.


Drainages refer to the natural channels formed by water flow on the landscape. These features are often characterized by draws, gullies, or creek beds. Drainages act as natural funnels, directing whitetail movement through narrow corridors. Hunters can take advantage of drainages by positioning themselves along these paths and intercepting deer as they travel through.

By understanding and locating these key topo features on your hunting property, you can develop effective hunting strategies and increase your chances of success. Remember to combine your knowledge of topo maps with on-the-ground scouting to confirm the presence of deer sign and further refine your hunting plan.

Saddle and Point Identification

When it comes to deer hunting, understanding the types of terrain that influence deer movement is crucial. Two important features to look for on a topographic map are saddles and points. Saddles are low points or depressions between two higher areas, such as hills or ridges. These natural travel routes act as funnels for deer, guiding them from one area to another. Points, on the other hand, are elevated areas that offer a vantage point and can serve as bedding areas or feeding spots for deer.

To identify saddles on a topo map, look for contour lines that form a gentle U-shape or a saddle shape between two higher contour lines. These lines indicate a passage where deer are likely to cross, making them prime locations for setting up stands or placing trail cameras. Points, on the other hand, are characterized by contour lines that form circular or oval shapes. These areas provide deer with a clear view of their surroundings, making them ideal spots for scouting or observing deer behavior.

Key Points:

  • Saddles are low points or depressions between two higher areas on a topo map.

  • Contour lines that form a U-shape or saddle shape indicate the presence of a saddle.

  • Points are elevated areas on a topo map that offer a vantage point for deer.

  • Contour lines that form circular or oval shapes indicate the presence of a point.

  • Saddles and points serve as natural travel routes and can be strategic hunting locations.

By identifying these features on a topo map and understanding their significance in deer movement, hunters can capitalize on natural travel routes, increasing their chances of encountering deer. Whether it’s setting up stands or placing trail cameras, focusing on saddles and points can greatly enhance hunting success.

Benches and Bowls: Overlooked Hotspots for Deer Activity

When it comes to deer hunting, many hunters focus on ridge tops, bottoms, and drainages as prime hunting locations. However, there are two often overlooked terrain features that can be hotspots for deer activity: benches and bowls. These flat spots in the landscape can provide excellent cover and food sources for deer, making them attractive areas to target.

Identifying benches and bowls on a topo map can be a bit challenging, but it’s not impossible. Look for contour lines that spread out in specific areas, indicating a flatter terrain. Benches are typically found on the side of a slope, while bowls are often surrounded by steeper slopes. These features can offer deer both security and access to food, making them ideal locations for ambush hunting.


Benches are horizontal or gently sloping areas on the side of a hill or mountain. They provide a transition zone between steep slopes and flatter terrain. Deer often use benches as travel routes, as they provide cover and allow them to move along the hillside without expending too much energy. Look for contour lines that are evenly spaced and run parallel to the slope to identify benches on a topo map.

  1. Focus on contour lines that are equidistant from each other, indicating a flat or gently sloping area.

  2. Look for contour lines that are parallel to the slope, suggesting the presence of a bench.

  3. Pay attention to contour lines that intersect a drainage or a draw, as benches often occur in these areas.


Bowls, on the other hand, are circular or oval-shaped depressions in the landscape. They are typically surrounded by steeper slopes and can offer deer both security and a variety of food sources. Deer may bed down in bowls during the day and venture out to feed in nearby areas during low-light hours. To identify bowls on a topo map, look for contour lines that form concentric circles or oval shapes.

  • Search for contour lines that enclose a circular or oval-shaped area, indicating the presence of a bowl.

  • Look for contour lines that are closely spaced together, suggesting a steeper slope surrounding the bowl.

  • Identify areas where contour lines converge, as this can indicate the lowest point of the bowl.

Putting Theory into Practice: Scouting and Hanging Trail Cameras

Once you have learned how to read topo maps and understand the various terrain features, it’s time to put that knowledge into practice. Scouting the terrain and hanging trail cameras in strategic locations is essential for successful deer hunting. By referencing topo maps, you can identify potential pinch points, funnels, bedding areas, and travel routes that are likely to attract deer.

Take the time to physically explore these areas to confirm the presence of deer sign. Look for tracks, rubs, scrapes, and other indicators of deer activity. This boots-on-the-ground approach will provide valuable visual evidence of deer movement and help you make informed decisions about stand placement and hunting strategies.

When it comes to hanging trail cameras, position them in high-potential locations that align with the terrain features you identified on the topo map. Place them near deer trails, food sources, or bedding areas to capture the movements and habits of the local deer population. By combining the insights from your topo map analysis with the real-life observations from your trail cameras, you can refine your hunting strategies and increase your chances of success in the field.

The Value of Boots on the Ground: Identifying Subtle Funnels

While topo maps are invaluable tools for deer hunting, they may not always reveal all the subtle funnels and pinch points in an area. That’s why it’s essential to get your boots on the ground and explore the terrain firsthand. Logging roads, bench flats, and small ridgetop saddles are examples of features that may attract deer but might not be apparent on a topo map. By physically exploring these areas, you can uncover potential pinch points and explore areas with significant terrain changes, increasing your chances of encountering deer.

When exploring the terrain, keep an eye out for logging roads. These roads often provide easy access for deer as they move between different areas of cover and food sources. By identifying logging roads on the ground, you can determine whether they intersect with other terrain features like ridges or drainages, creating natural travel routes for deer.

Bench flats, also known as flat spots, are another terrain feature that can attract deer. These flat areas provide deer with a sense of security and can serve as bedding areas or travel routes. By locating bench flats on the ground, you can identify potential hunting spots where deer may spend time.

Wrapping Up

After exploring the basics of reading topo maps for deer hunting and delving into various terrain features, we can conclude that this skill is essential for hunting success. By understanding contour lines and interpreting the depicted terrain features, hunters can strategically plan their hunts, locate high-potential hunting areas, and increase their chances of encountering deer.

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