All terrain features are derived from a complex landmass known as a mountain or ridgeline. The term ridgeline is not interchangeable with the term ridge. A ridgeline is a line of high ground, usually with changes in elevation along its top and low ground on all sides from which a total of 10 natural or man-made terrain features are classified.
Major Terrain Features.
Hill. A hill is an area of high ground. From a hilltop, the ground slopes down in all directions. A hill is shown on a map by contour lines forming concentric circles. The inside of the smallest closed circle is the hilltop.
Saddle. A saddle is a dip or low point between two areas of higher ground. A saddle is not necessarily the lower ground between two hilltops; it may be simply a dip or break along a level ridge crest. If you are in a saddle, there is high ground in two opposite directions and lower ground in the other two directions. A saddle is normally represented as an hourglass
Valley. A valley is a stretched-out groove in the land, usually formed by streams or rivers. A valley begins with high ground on three sides, and usually has a course of running water through it. If standing in a valley, three directions offer high ground, while the fourth direction offers low ground. Depending on its size and where a person is standing, it may not be obvious that there is high ground in the third direction, but water flows from higher to lower ground. Contour lines forming a valley are either U-shaped or V-shaped. To determine the direction water is flowing, look at the contour lines. The closed end of the contour line (U or V) always points upstream or toward high ground.
Ridge. A ridge is a sloping line of high ground. If you are standing on the centerline of a ridge, you will normally have low ground in three directions and high ground in one direction with varying degrees of slope. If you cross a ridge at right angles, you will climb steeply to the crest and then descend steeply to the base. When you move along the path of the ridge, depending on the geographic location, there may be either an almost unnoticeable slope or a very obvious incline. Contour lines forming a ridge tend to be U-shaped or V-shaped. The closed end of the contour line points away from high ground
Depression. A depression is a low point in the ground or a sinkhole. It could be described as an area of low ground surrounded by higher ground in all directions, or simply a hole in the ground. Usually only depressions that are equal to or greater than the contour interval will be shown. On maps, depressions are represented by closed contour lines that have tick marks pointing toward low ground.
Minor Terrain Features.
Draw. A draw is a less developed stream course than a valley. In a draw, there is essentially no level ground and, therefore, little or no maneuver room within its confines. If you are standing in a draw, the ground slopes upward in three directions and downward in the other direction. A draw could be considered as the initial formation of a valley. The contour lines depicting a draw are U-shaped or V-shaped, pointing toward high ground
Spur. A spur is a short, continuous sloping line of higher ground, normally jutting out from the side of a ridge. A spur is often formed by two rough parallel streams, which cut draws down the side of a ridge. The ground sloped down in three directions and up in one direction. Contour lines on a map depict a spur with the U or V pointing away from high ground
Cliff. A cliff is a vertical or near vertical feature; it is an abrupt change of the land. When a slope is so steep that the contour lines converge into one “carrying” contour of contours, this last contour line has tick marks pointing toward low ground. Cliffs are also shown by contour lines very close together and, in some instances, touching each other
Supplementary Terrain Features.
Cut. A cut is a man-made feature resulting from cutting through raised ground, usually to form a level bed for a road or railroad track. Cuts are shown on a map when they are at least 10 feet high, and they are drawn with a contour line along the cut line. This contour line extends the length of the cut and has tick marks that extend from the cut line to the roadbed, if the map scale permits this level of detail.
Fill. A fill is a man-made feature resulting from filling a low area, usually to form a level bed for a road or railroad track. Fills are shown on a map when they are at least 10 feet high, and they are drawn with a contour line along the fill line. This contour line extends the length of the filled area and has tick marks that point toward lower ground. If the map scale permits, the length of the fill tick marks are drawn to scale and extend from the base line of the fill symbol.
INTERPRETATION OF TERRAIN FEATURES
Terrain features do not normally stand a lone. To better understand these when they are depicted on a map, you need to interpret them. Terrain features are interpreted by using contour lines, the SOSES approach, ridgelining, or streamlining.
Contour Lines. Emphasizing the main contour lines is a technique used to interpret the terrain of an area. By studying these contour lines, you able to obtain a better understanding of the layout of the terrain and to decide on the best route.
- The following description pertains to the map sown above. Running east to west across the complex landmass is a ridgeline. A ridgeline is a line of high ground, usually with changes in elevation along its top and low ground on all sides. The changes in elevation are the three hilltops and two saddles along the ridgeline. From the top of each hill, there is lower ground in all directions. The saddles have lower ground in two directions and high ground in the opposite two directions. The contour lines of each saddle form half an hourglass shape. Because of the difference in size of the higher ground on the two opposite sides of a saddle, a full hourglass shape of a saddle may not be apparent.
- There are four prominent ridges. A ridge is on each end of the ridgeline and two ridges extend south from the ridgeline. All of the ridges have lower ground in three directions and higher ground in one direction. The closed ends of the U’s formed by the contour lines point away from higher ground.
- To the south lies a valley; the valley slopes downward from east to west. Note that the U of the contour line points to the east, indicating higher ground in that direction and lower ground to the west. Another look at the valley shows high ground to the north and south of the valley.
- Just east of the valley is a depression. There is higher ground in all directions when looking from the bottom of the depression.
- There are several spurs extending generally south from the ridgeline. They, like ridges, have lower ground in three directions and higher ground in one direction. Their contour line U’s point away from higher ground.
- Between the ridges and spurs are draws. They, like valleys, have higher ground in three directions and lower ground in one direction. Their contour line U’s and V’s point toward higher ground.
- Two contour lines on the north side of the center hill are touching or almost touching. They have ticks indicating a vertical or nearly vertical slope or a cliff.
- The road cutting through the eastern ridge depicts cuts and fills. The breaks in the contour lines indicate cuts, and the ticks pointing away from the roadbed on each side of the road indicate fills.
SOSES. A recommended technique for identifying specific terrain features and then locating them on the map is to make use of five of their characteristics known by the mnemonic SOSES. Terrain features can be examined, described, and compared with each other and with corresponding map contour patterns in terms of their shapes, orientations, sizes, elevations, and slopes.
- Shape. The general form or outline of the feature at its base.
- Orientation. The general trend or direction of a feature from your viewpoint. A feature can be in line, across, or at an angle to your viewpoint.
- Size. The length or width of a feature horizontally across its base. For example, one terrain feature might be larger or smaller than another terrain feature.
- Elevation. The height of a terrain feature. This can be described either in absolute or relative terms as compared to the other features in the area. One landform may be higher, lower, deeper, or shallower than another.
- Slope. The type (uniform, convex, or concave) and the steepness or angle (steep or gentle) of the sides of a terrain feature.
**Information adapted from the National Interagency
Incident Management System Basic Land Navigation
Manual, PMS 475 dated June 2007