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  • Writer's pictureGreg Kazmierski

Mastering Topographic Maps Will Make You a Better Deer Hunter

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

What is a Topo Map?

Topographic maps, also known as topo maps, provide a detailed representation of the Earth's surface features. These maps offer valuable insights into elevation, contours, and various terrain features of a specific area.

Understanding the information conveyed by contour lines, map scale, and legends can give hunters a significant advantage when scouting for prime hunting locations in good terrain.

topographic map overview

The Basics of Topo Maps

Contour Lines

Arguably the most important element to understand on a topo map are the contour lines. These lines connect points of equal elevation and allow you to visualize the rise and fall of the terrain.

topo map contour lines

By studying the spacing, shape, and patterns of contour lines, you can identify prominent features such as saddles, benches, points, hilltops, drainages, and hubs that significantly influence deer movement.

Index lines are the thick, bold lines that will appear as every fifth contour line. An index line will make it fairly easy to identify things such as rapid elevation change when looking at an area from a zoomed out point of view.

topo map index lines

Map Scale

To accurately gauge distances on a topo map, it's essential to understand the very basics of the map scale. The scale ratio represents the relationship between the map's measurements and the actual ground measurements.

Understanding the map scale makes it much easier to read topo maps and assess the close proximity of key land features.

topo map scale

Map Legend

A topographical map legend acts as a translator, helping you decipher the symbols and colors used throughout the map. It provides essential information about man-made structures, water bodies, vegetation, and other natural and artificial elements present in the area.

By referring to the legend, you can quickly identify potential deer habitats, water and food sources, and prime stand locations. Understanding the legend empowers you to navigate the map with ease and make informed decisions regarding your hunting approach.

topo map legend

Key Terrain Features

Now let's dive into the key terrain features that hold the secrets to successful deer hunting. Each terrain feature comes with it's own set of advantages and can make for great locations for trail cameras or hunting setups.

By learning to identify and understand these features on a topo map, you can increase your chances of encountering and harvesting mature bucks.


Saddles are the low points between two higher elevations, and are excellent ambush locations for deer hunters. They serve as natural travel corridors and can funnel deer movement, making them prime spots for setting up stands or ground blinds.

When analyzing topo maps, look for saddle-shaped depressions or areas where contour lines converge to indicate the presence of a saddle.

topo map saddle


Benches are a flat area along ridge line or a gentle slope area on the sides of hills or mountains (aka side ridge bench). They often occur in steep terrain and can provide ideal bedding areas for deer in hill country.

By locating these benches on topo maps, you can pinpoint potential hiding spots for deer love to hangout in during the day.

Marking all of the benches in an area and connecting the dots from one to the next is a great way to speed scout and locate things like travel routes and pinch points.

topo map bench


Points are areas where the land extends into a ridge or projects outward from a slope. They provide deer with decent cover and an advantageous vantage point, allowing them to survey lower elevation from secure high ground.

On a topographic map, points are typically represented by contour lines curving away from nearby lines, indicating an elevation increase. A ridge ending in a point can make for optimal buck bedding.

topo map point


Hilltops, as the name suggests, are the highest points in a particular area. Depending on the elevation changes and location, these areas can be accompanied by physical features such as rocky outcrop resulting in very little deer traffic.

Hilltops are characterized by contour lines forming circular or elliptical shapes. By marking these locations, you can begin to determine to what extent most deer use this area, providing you with potential for a great access route, especially on those morning hunts when the thermals are rising.

topo map hilltop


Drainages, also known as ravines or draws, are depressions in the landscape where water flows during rainfall or snowmelt. Drainages are indicated by the convergence of contour lines, forming V-shaped patterns.

topo map drainage

These natural features oftentimes have extremely steep terrain, making it very difficult for deer to travel through them. One of my favorite features during the hunting season has to be the top of these drainages which always seem to be accompanied by a convergence of deer trails.

topo map crossing


Hubs are areas where multiple terrain features converge. They can include saddles, drainages, points, and other significant elements. Hubs often act as transition zones that attract deer as they move between different types of terrain or habitat.

One of my favorite hubs, what I like to call a thermal hub can be whitetail magnets. These thermal hubs are areas that have a collection of thermals from all different directions and meet at a low point. Deer migrate to these areas frequently as it allows them to gather a ton of intel before committing to which direction they want to travel.

topo map thermal hub

Conclusion: How to Read a Topo Map for Hunting?

Once you understand how to read topo maps and key features to look for, locating more bucks will come natural to you. Pairing topo maps with different variations of aerial maps such as satellite imagery is a great way to level up your whitetail game.


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