Reading topographical maps and understanding the actual terrain of any area you live or travel through is essential.
If you want to navigate efficiently using landmarks and find the most efficient and easiest route through any terrain, you’ll need to understand major terrain features.
Understanding these features is also crucial for tactical proficiency in the field, as blundering around with no care for the terrain is a great way to get yourself lost… or worse.
I’ll be telling you all about the five major terrain features that every prepper should know in the rest of this article, and we’ll discuss the minor terrain features in a separate article.
Hills are the most fundamental and instantly recognizable terrain feature, defined as points or areas of high ground.
Specifically, when you’re on a hill, the hilltop, the ground should slope down away from you in all directions. It is distinct from a mesa, which is typically surrounded by sheer cliffs.
Hills are important both because they are generally dependable visual landmarks that can be seen from a great distance, but also because, when scaled, they allow you to see a lot farther than you would closer to the general level of the region.
But hills can be problematic: they take a lot more time and energy to cross compared to flat land.
And though they can offer commanding fields of fire there are also highly visible and conspicuous targets and can greatly increase your visibility when you are on them.
Valleys are sort of the counterpart to hills, being a stretch or section of level ground that is bordered on either side by higher ground.
Contrary to popular conception, valleys don’t always contain streams or rivers.
Valleys can be extremely convenient for travel because they allow you to remain more or less on level ground instead of going up and down hills.
However, your direction of travel will be constrained by the direction that the valley meanders in.
But valleys can be risky, also: they’re natural concourses for human travel, and also highly prone to flooding, especially flash flood events.
Traveling through a valley can help you stay concealed from observation, particularly for anyone who might be looking for you to cross hills.
Still, anyone who is able to gain a position of advantage above you on either side of the valley will literally be shooting fish in a barrel, and you are the unfortunate fish.
Ridges are lines of high ground marked by height variations along the crest.
All points of a ridge crest are higher than the ground on both sides of it, making ridges distinct from cliffs and also not simply a line of hills.
Ridges are similarly important terrain features because they can provide easier travel in a given direction going along their length compared to going up and down hills over and over again.
We’re just going to be commanding points from which to observe or shoot, but in this regard, they’re also similar to hills in that they are highly conspicuous and draw lots of attention.
One of the most fundamental mistakes soldiers make early in their career is summiting a ridge and silhouetting themselves against the background of the open sky, something referred to as “skylining”.
This makes the shape of a person or anything else on a true ridge extremely easy to spot, especially when moving.
Accordingly, people who don’t want to be noticed will travel along the ridge on either side just far enough below the summit that they will not be visible against the open sky.
A saddle is sort of a companion feature to a ridge, being a dip or low area between two high points along the crest of the ridge.
Note that a saddle is not necessarily the low ground between two hills, but it is instead a break or marked dip between an otherwise level ridge.
Saddles are important to note for a couple of reasons, typically as it pertains to traversal of the region on foot or by vehicle.
Crossing a ridge perpendicularly, a saddle might be the ideal place to do so, as they are typically far less steep and easier to traverse compared to going up the steep sides of the hill leading to the ridge proper.
However, if you’re traveling along the line of the ridge itself, a saddle will form a place of pronounced steepness, which might make it doubly difficult going down and then also going back up the far side to continue along the ridge.
Saddles can also be highly prone to avalanches and landslides, meaning you must give them extra caution whenever conditions are favorable for either event.
Depressions, as you probably guessed, are low points, even holes, in the terrain. Are defined by being surrounded on all sides by higher ground.
Depressions can be shallow or steep, and depending on their exact nature they can serve as obstacles to foot or vehicular movement, or potentially a welcome reprieve from observation or wind.
As expected, depressions are also highly prone to flooding in most cases, and can be death traps in the case of a flash flood.
An Easy Mnemonic to Remember Them
One easy mnemonic to help you remember the major terrain features comes from the United States Army, although I cannot be sure that they are the ones that came up with.
Remember this: Hidden Valley Ranch Salad Dressing – standing for hills, valleys, ridges, saddles, and depressions!
Easy enough, and you’ve even got one of the features, valley, right there in the name.
Learning to Identify These Major Terrain Features Will Help You Navigate and Travel Efficiently
Learning how to easily identify these major terrain features on a topographical map is essential if you want to be able to navigate overland easily, and travel through a region efficiently.
You might think that a topographical, or topo, map is easy enough to read just by figuring out the symbols and lines, but believe me, when you are underway in unfamiliar territory and already stressed or tired, it can get very, very difficult.
Making Use of Major Terrain Features is Also Important Tactically
If you’re worried about protecting yourself while bugging out or patrolling during a serious SHTF event, you’ve got to learn how to maximize the advantage these terrain features can give you while also minimizing how they can hurt you as you travel or patrol.
This is basic infantryman stuff, and way beyond the confines of this article, but it’s something to keep in mind if you need any more motivation to start figuring it out.
Keep in Mind that Terrain Features are Relative to the Terrain Around Them!
Something else to keep in mind that usually baffles beginners is that these terrain features are always relative to the terrain around them.
For instance, if you live in Central Kentucky “hills” are really just going to be small, gently sloping mounds, but if you live out west near the Rocky Mountains, a hill can be a genuine mountain, and saddles can be virtually impassable drops if traveling along a ridge.
Always filter your conception of these terrain features through your fundamental knowledge of the region. Failing to take that into account when planning can be disastrous!
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.