The ability to read topographic maps are based on the skill to identify the following terrain features: Hill, Ridge, Valley, Saddle, Depression, Draw, Spur and Cliff. You will hear terrain features categorized as either Major (hill, ridge, valley, saddle, depression) or Minor (draw, spur, cliff). When terrain features are discussed they are always identified in the same manner on all maps regardless of the map's contour interval (which is the distance between relief lines on a map). On maps some terrain features are easier to identify due to the unique size and shape of the terrain feature. Hills in West Virginia are quick to identify, due to their height, then hilltops in eastern Kansas which have gradual slopes. The ability to recognize terrain features on a map is a basc skill that is key for land navigation, finding a point on the ground or navigating from one point to another.
Throughout my military career terrain features were taught using the fist and the hand method (see picture above) to show what terrain features look like in relation to each other on the ground. The following are the military terrain feature definitions.
1. Hill - point or small area of high ground. When you are on a hilltop, the ground slopes down in all directions.
2. Ridge - a line of high ground with height variations along its crest. The ridge is not simply a line of hills; all points of the ridge crest are higher than the ground on both sides of the ridge.
3. Valley - reasonably level ground bordered on the sides by higher ground. A valley may or may not contain a stream course. A valley generally has maneuver room within its confines. Contour lines indicating a valley are U-shaped and tend to parallel a stream before crossing it. The course of the contour line crossing the stream always points upstream.
4. Saddle - a dip or low point along the crest of a ridge. A saddle is not necessarily the lower ground between two hilltops; it may be a break along an otherwise level ridge crest.
5. Depression - a low point or hole in the ground, surrounded on all sides by higher ground.
6. Draw - similar to a valley, except that it normally is a less developed stream course in which there is generally no level ground and, therefore, little or no maneuver room. The ground slopes upward on each side and toward the head of the draw. Draws are caused by flash floods and can be found on flat terrain but are more often found along the sides of ridges. Contour lines indicating a draw are shaped like a "V" with the point of the "V" toward the head of the draw (high ground).
7. Spur - a short, continuously sloping line of higher ground, normally jutting out from the side of a ridge. A spur i often formed by two thoroughly parallel streams cutting draws down the side of a ridge
8. Cliff - a vertical or near-vertical slope. A cliff may be shown on a map by contour lines being close together, touching, or by a ticked "carrying" contour line. The ticks always point toward lower ground.