Part One
  Map Reading

  Reading Topographical Maps Introduction 1. HOME

  Topographical Maps - Definition, Purpose and Categories 2. Maps

  Information in the margins of an army map 3. Marginal Information    and Symbols

  Latitude, Longitude and Other Methods to Locate Points on Topographic Maps 4. Grids

  Translating Distance on a Topographic Map to Distance on the Ground 5. Scale and Distance

  Grid North, Azimuth, Declination And Other Concepts Used To Find Direction With Topographic Maps 6. Direction

  Overlays - Used Primarily In Army Map Reading 7. Overlays

  Aerial Photographs - Supplements And Substitutes For Topographic Maps 8. Aerial Photographs

 Part Two
  Land Navigation

  Using Compass, GPS, Sun, Shadows, and Stars in Land Navigation 9. Navigation Equipment    and Methods

  Reading The Shape Of The Land In Topographic Maps 10. Elevation and Relief

  Orienting and Navigating With Topographic Maps 11. Terrain Association

  Mounted Land Navigating With Motorized Vehicles 12. Mounted Land    Navigation

  Land Navigation In Different Types of Terrain 13. Navigation in    Different Types of    Terrain

  Sketching Topographic Maps A. Field Sketching

  Folding Topographic Maps B. Map Folding     Techniques

  Units of Measure and Conversion Factors Used in Reading Topographic Maps C. Units of Measure and      Conversion Factors

  Units of Measure and Conversion Factors Used in Reading Topographic Maps D. Joint Operations      Graphics

  US Army Training Material for Map Reading and Land Navigation E. Exportable Training      Material

  Orienteering F. Orienteering

  US Army M2 Compass G. M2 Compass

  Additional Aids such as Night Vision Goggles and Global Positioning System or GPS H. Additional Aids      (GPS, Night Vision)

  Global Positioning System -  GPS J. Global Positioning      System - GPs


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The DMA's mission is to provide mapping, charting, and all geodesy support to the armed forces and all other national security operations. DMA produces four categories of products and services: hydrographic, topographic, aeronautical, and missile and targeting. Military maps are categorized by scale and type.

a.   Scale. Because a map is a graphic representation of a portion of the earth's surface drawn to scale as seen from above, it is important to know what mathematical scale has been used. You must know this to determine ground distances between objects or locations on the map, the size of the area covered, and how the scale may affect the amount of detail being shown. The mathematical scale of a map is the ratio or fraction between the distance on a map and the corresponding distance on the surface of the earth. Scale is reported as a representative fraction with the map distance as the numerator and the ground distance as the denominator.

Representative fraction (scale) = map distance
ground distance

As the denominator of the representative fraction gets larger and the ratio gets smaller, the scale of the map decreases. Defense Mapping Agency maps are classified by scale into three categories. They are small-, medium-, and large-scale maps (Figure 2-1). The terms "small scale," "medium scale," and "large scale" may be confusing when read in conjunction with the number. However, if the number is viewed as a fraction, it quickly becomes apparent that 1:600,000 of something is smaller than 1:75,000 of the same thing. Therefore, the larger the number after 1:, the smaller the scale of the map.

Figure 2-1.   Scale classifications for topographic maps.

Figure 2-1. Scale classifications.

(1)   Small. Those maps with scales of 1:1,000,000 and smaller are used for general planning and for strategic studies (bottom map in Figure 2-1). The standard small-scale map is 1:1,000,000. This map covers a very large land area at the expense of detail.

(2)   Medium. Those maps with scales larger than 1:1,000,000 but smaller than 1:75,000 are used for operational planning (center map in Figure 2-1). They contain a moderate amount of detail, but terrain analysis is best done with the large-scale maps described below. The standard medium-scale map is 1:250,000. Medium scale maps of 1:100,000 are also frequently encountered.

(3)   Large. Those maps with scales of 1:75,000 and larger are used for tactical, administrative, and logistical planning (top map in Figure 2-1). These are the maps that you as a soldier or junior leader are most likely to encounter. The standard large-scale map is 1:50,000; however, many areas have been mapped at a scale of 1:25,000.

b.   Types. The map of choice for land navigators is the 1:50,000-scale military topographic map. It is important, however, that you know how to use the many other products available from the DMA as well. When operating in foreign places, you may discover that DMA map products have not yet been produced to cover your particular area of operations, or they may not be available to your unit when you require them. Therefore, you must be prepared to use maps produced by foreign governments that may or may not meet the standards for accuracy set by DMA. These maps often use symbols that resemble those found on DMA maps but which have completely different meanings. There may be other times when you must operate with the only map you can obtain. This might be a commercially produced map run off on a copy machine at higher headquarters. In Grenada, many of our troops used a British tourist map.

(1)   Planimetric Map. This is a map that presents only the horizontal positions for the features represented. It is distinguished from a topographic map by the omission of relief, normally represented by contour lines. Sometimes, it is called a line map.

(2)   Topographic Map. This is a map that portrays terrain features in a measurable way (usually through use of contour lines), as well as the horizontal positions of the features represented. The vertical positions, or relief, are normally represented by contour lines on military topographic maps. On maps showing relief, the elevations and contours are measured from a specific vertical datum plane, usually mean sea level. Figure 3-1 shows a typical topographic map.

(3)   Photomap. This is a reproduction of an aerial photograph upon which grid lines, marginal data, place names, route numbers, important elevations, boundaries, and approximate scale and direction have been added. (See Chapter 8. )

(4)   Joint Operations Graphics. These maps are based on the format of standard 1:250,000 medium-scale military topographic maps, but they contain additional information needed in joint air-ground operations (Figure 2-2). Along the north and east edges of the graphic, detail is extended beyond the standard map sheet to provide overlap with adjacent sheets. These maps are produced both in ground and air formats. Each version is identified in the lower margin as either Joint Operations Graphic (Air) or Joint Operations Graphic (Ground). The topographic information is identical on both, but the ground version shows elevations and contour in meters and the air version shows them in feet. Layer (elevation) tinting and relief shading are added as an aid to interpolating relief. Both versions emphasize airlanding facilities (shown in purple), but the air version has additional symbols to identify aids and obstructions to air navigation.

Figure 2-2.   Joint operations graphic (air) (army map).

Figure 2-2. Joint operations graphic (air).

(5)   Photomosaic. This is an assembly of aerial photographs that is commonly called a mosaic in topographic usage. Mosaics are useful when time does not permit the compilation of a more accurate map. The accuracy of a mosaic depends on the method employed in its preparation and may vary from simply a good pictorial effect of the ground to that of a planimetric map.

(6)   Terrain Model. This is a scale model of the terrain showing features, and in large-scale models showing industrial and cultural shapes. It provides a means for visualizing the terrain for planning or indoctrination purposes and for briefing on assault landings.

(7)   Military City Map. This is a topographic map (usually at 1:12,550 scale, sometimes up to 1:5,000), showing the details of a city. It delineates streets and shows street names, important buildings, and other elements of the urban landscape important to navigation and military operations in urban terrain. The scale of a military city map depends on the importance and size of the city, density of detail, and available intelligence information.

(8)   Special Maps. These are maps for special purposes, such as trafficability, communications, and assault maps. They are usually in the form of an overprint in the scales smaller than 1:100,000 but larger than 1:1,000,000. A special purpose map is one that has been designed or modified to give information not covered on a standard map. The wide range of subjects that could be covered under the heading of special purpose maps prohibits, within the scope of this manual, more than a brief mention of a few important ones. Some of the subjects covered are:

  • Terrain features.

  • Drainage characteristics.

  • Vegetation.

  • Climate.

  • Coasts and landing beaches.

  • Roads and bridges.

  • Railroads.

  • Airfields.

  • Urban areas.

  • Electric power.

  • Fuels.

  • Surface water resources.

  • Ground water resources.

  • Natural construction materials.

  • Cross-country movements.

  • Suitability for airfield construction.

  • Airborne operations.


If military maps are not available, use substitute maps. The substitute maps can range from foreign military or commercial maps to field sketches. The DMA can provide black and white reproductions of many foreign maps and can produce its own maps based upon intelligence.

a.   Foreign Maps. These are maps that have been compiled by nations other than our own. When these must be used, the marginal information and grids are changed to conform to our standards if time permits. The scales may differ from our maps, but they do express the ratio of map distance to ground distance and can be used in the same way. The legend must be used since the map symbols almost always differ from ours. Because the accuracy of foreign maps varies considerably, they are usually evaluated in regard to established accuracy standards before they are issued to our troops.

b.   Atlases. These are collections of maps of regions, countries, continents, or the world. Such maps are accurate only to a degree and can be used for general information only.

c.   Geographic Maps. These maps give an overall idea of the mapped area in relation to climate, population, relief, vegetation, and hydrography. They also show general location of major urban areas.

d.   Tourist Road Maps. These are maps of a region in which the main means of transportation and areas of interest are shown. Some of these maps show secondary networks of roads, historic sites, museums, and beaches in detail. They may contain road and time distance between points. Careful consideration should be exercised about the scale when using these maps.

e.   City/Utility Maps. These are maps of urban areas showing streets, water ducts, electricity and telephone lines, and sewers.

f.   Field Sketches. These are preliminary drawings of an area or piece of terrain. (See Appendix A.)

g.   Aerial Photographs. These can be used as map supplements or substitutes to help you analyze the terrain, plan your route, or guide your movement. (See Chapter 8 for additional information).


Accuracy is the degree of conformity with which horizontal positions and vertical values are represented on a map in relation to an established standard. This standard is determined by the DMA based on user requirements. A map can be considered to meet accuracy requirement standards unless otherwise specified in the marginal information.

Return to Beginning of Chapter 2 - Maps



Map Reading and Land Navigation Buy the book this website is based on: Map Reading and Land Navigation

This website is based on the US Army Field Manual: "Map Reading and Land Navigation" Buy a copy from to take with you out in the field.


Book Review - Be Expert with Map and Compass

One of the best ways to learn and become proficient in any subject is to find a way to make a game or sport of it. That's exactly what orienteering does! Orienteering began to develop almost 100 years ago in the Scandinavian countries as a fun and effective method for military training in land navigation. Bjorn Kjellstrom was closely involved with the early development of orienteering, and he is the person who introduced the sport to North America. He, along with his brother Alvar, and a friend named Gunnar Tillander, invented the modern orienteering compass. They manufactured and marketed it as the Silva Protractor compass. This compass, along with Bjorn's book Be Expert with Map and Compass, made it much easier for anyone to learn how to use a map and compass.

This book has become the most widely read classic on the subject of map reading, compass use, and orienteering. Over 500,000 copies have been sold in the english language editions alone. There have been very successful editions published in French, Italian, and other languages as well. It is a short (just over 200 pages), easy to read, enjoyable book that can help you to have fun while you learn the subject quickly and effectively.

The book is organized into four main parts, plus a short, useful introduction. Part 1 covers having fun with maps alone. Then, Part 2 covers having fun with a compass alone. Part 3 puts it together and shows you how to have fun with a map and compass together. This section also introduces the game or sport of orienteering. Part 4 covers competitive orienteering for those who would like to compete with others in the sport.

A reproduction of a segment of an actual topographic map is included as a fold-out in the back of the book. It is used together with the "how-to" instructions the book provides. For example, one of the exercises in Part 3 is an imaginary orienteering "hike" that uses the sample map.

If you would like to have one of the best books available on map reading and using a compass, Be Expert with Map and Compass is hard to beat. You can buy a copy from today.

Read a book review of Agincourt

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