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Introduction to Cartography

Cartography is the art of map making. Cartography can be a very interesting hobby. I learned the art of Cave Cartography. When I was a caver I help survey in dozens of caves. I produced maps of 3 or 4 small caves and mostly finished a cave with 1 mile of passage. However the same principles and techniques used in the mapping of caves can apply to anything you want to map. Above is a cross section of the entrance area in the cave. Here is a link to the full Bear Maze Map and below is the front of the cave showing where the cross section cuts through the upper and lower areas. I apologize to those that know that this map above is somewhat incomplete. We have never finished it yet for various reasons and it looks like we may never finish it. It is now off limits to enter because of the “White Nose Syndrome” that is killing bats. The reason it is off limits is because all caves on public lands are now illegal to enter until further notice. What is a map? It’s a tool used by a given audience with a given purpose in mind. Maps are used by decision makers for educational purposes and by the curious. Maps can be simple and they can be complicated. Maps can be drawn in perfect dimensions to perfect scale. Or they can be less than real with incorrect scale, distances, and directions even and still be very useful. It depends on the intended purpose and audience as to how the map would be designed. It also depends on the amount of effort that can be put forth towards the end result. A highly detailed and accurate map would require the most time, effort, care, and work. Part of the design process is in deciding which details to leave out. When most people think of a map they think of street maps with a plan view projection. This is top down bird’s eye view. Maps can also have profile and cross section projections which are side views. They may have various types of 3D projections. A projection simply means a view of the entire entity to be mapped or views of parts of the entity to be mapped. The goal is to give the viewer quick access to important information with a bit of artistic flair added in many cases. What kinds of things might preppers want to map? One of the main things that comes to mind is a homestead for the purposes of planning and design, especially in regards to permaculture design. Other things that might be of interest would be hunting and gathering grounds. Fishing locations on lakes and streams and ponds. If you become good enough, you might even map some things for money; such as a state park, golf course, small town, hiking trails, biking trails, horse trails, a housing development, etc. You might then sell copies of the map on the internet. I’m not saying you would get rich but it might pay for your hobby work anyway. Once you have decided what to map and the purpose you would next design the scale, projections, detail based on your time, resources and needs. For example I was on a trip with one friend to “Farmers Cave” which has never been mapped. We spent about 12 hours in the cave and moved along 1,500 feet of passage which I sketched as we went. I estimated distances and made up imaginary survey stations. I took a quick compass reading to get general directions between these survey stations to make the sketching a bit more accurate. Later at home I drew up a map composed of the sketches. Some of it was out of scale and not all directions were entirely accurate or distances. But it served a purpose which was to show some information about passages in the cave, difficulty for traveling and surveying, so that a real survey could be planned. And it’s a stand-in map until a real map is produced. Indeed this preliminary map is fine for the purposes of navigation. To map that same distance the proper way it would take a team of 4 about 4 or 5 trips into the cave on different days, or one day with 5 teams. In the permaculture theme, you will probably have less detail in zones farther away from the house and more detail in zones closer to the house. Your zones up near the house might be very accurate spatially with placement of things, while the larger 40 acres farther away will have more rough estimations. You may not even have real time and resources to map the outer 40 in detail. Hunting and gathering grounds probably would not be well surveyed. However we can cheat a bit with the larger areas by copying from maps others have made. Such as county maps, USGS Topo maps, Google maps, aerial/satellite photos etc. If your land has had an official survey by all means copy from that. Below is a set of tabs which outline what I will be talking about in this article series. The first thing I will be talking about is the tools of Cartography that I am most familiar with. These tools can be cheap but usually are not very accurate if cheap. For a bit more, you can get good quality tools that definitely do the job. Then, if you want, you can buy professional surveying equipment but no need to go that far.

Tools of Cartography

  • Compass
  • Clinometer
  • Tape measure
  • Sketchbook/paper
  • Databook/paper
  • Protractor
  • Ruler
  • Pencils
  • Xara Extreme software and scanner/printer
  • or lighted drafting table and drafting tools

Data Collection

  • Identifying stations
  • Taking a compass reading
  • Taking a back compass reading
  • Taking a clinometer reading
  • Taking a back clinometer reading
  • Pulling tape


  • Scale
  • Using the protractor
  • Using a ruler
  • Symbols Over multiple pages

Preparing the Data

  • Using a spreadsheet
  • Trig functions
  • Formulas

Drawing the Map (Pencil or Computer)

  • Using a lighted drafting table
  • Using a lamp and sheet of glass for lighted table
  • Using translucent graph paper.
  • Final inking.
  • Using a scanner
  • Using Xara Extreme
  • Other software solutions

Publishing the Map (Ink or Printer)

  • Printing the map on a home printer
  • Taking the map or file to the print shop

Military Lensatic Compass accurate to 3 degrees. The first and most important tool is a compass. A compass will give you a magnetic angle from 0 to 360 degrees. Zero degrees being magnetic north. The earth’s magnetic field is shaped different in different locations and varies from true north quite a bit in some instances. So when you are preparing data a conversion from magnetic north to true north is usually made. For some kind of quick and dirty mapping you may choose not to worry about it. Many of the common compasses including the military compasses can be read to near 1 degree but are really accurate from 3 to 5 degrees. I’m sure land surveyors have compasses accurate to minutes and seconds. Sunnto Mariner Compass accurate to 1 degree. A good one to get for around $150 is a Sunnto brand compass. This compass was originally made for mariners for navigating on the high seas. It can be read to the 1/4th degree and gives you an accuracy of about 1 degree. In one mile of survey you should not be off 20 feet and that is with 100’s of survey stations and lines. A mile is 5,280 feet. It’s likely that if you are good you won’t be off 5 feet.



Next if you are mapping anything with any real vertical change you will need what is known as a clinometer (Incline Meter). This measures vertical angles from +90 degrees (straight up) down to +45 degrees (steep upward climb) down to 0 degrees (flat horizontal) to -45 (steep downward angle) down to -90 degrees (straight down). You can use a protractor, string and weight combination for this, that is with one person holding the protractor rig and another reading it from the side. But your accuracy would be about 5 to 10 degrees. Sunnto also sells a mariners clinometer in which you may read it to 1/4 degree. This gives you a 1 degree accuracy. It too costs near $150 but I highly recommend it.You will need a tape measure (100′) which in the USA would be in feet and inches, but preferably in feet and 1/10s of feet. Otherwise you will have to convert inches to 1/10s of feet in your calculations. Some people like metal tapes and some like nylon tapes. I like nylon tapes myself. These tapes are on reels. A good tape measure might cost you $50. If your survey stations are pretty much always going to be exactly 100′ apart you might opt for a chain that is 100′ long exactly. You might even want to make up a 200′ chain. Can a pace count work? Sure if you don’t mind the loss in accuracy. Again this might depend on the purpose of the map.

A field sketchbook is not absolutely necessary but cavers use them and I like them. These are small 6″x8″ books and use paper that has a graph on one side and data grid on the other. Miner OX is a site where you can buy these supplies. Look under “field books”. Link to Paper on MinerOx. So, as you fold the pages, your data grid is on the left and your sketch is on the right. However, you may also use one clipboard with 8.5×11 graph paper and one with 8×11 ruled paper and get by just fine. If you are not actually surveying but estimating distances and directions, then you may only need to use a sheet of graph paper for sketching. For the sketch book, you can get paper which is water resistant. It’s possible to get Mylar graph sheets that you might write on with special grease pencils in highly wet conditions. You would also need a protractor for measuring angles on the sketch, and you will need a ruler and pencils. The protractors sold in the stores are usually too big for the small sketchbooks. You can download a protractor image, scale it and then print and laminate it for use with the small sketchbooks. With 8.5×11 clip boards the protractors you find at Walmart would probably work fine. Mechanical pencils are what I always used and they don’t have to be the expensive ones. Any pencil might do as long as you can sharpen it. You may want fatter and finer pencil tips but I always went with the cheap mechanical pencil tips size. For a ruler I simply folded a sheet of graph paper a few times where one edge was on a major line. You may choose to make your own ruler by laminating a piece of graph paper, or buy a professional rule made for drafting that would have the proper scale marks on it. A computer is not absolutely necessary but a good scientific calculator would be if you didn’t have a computer. And I recommend a spreadsheet at least with the computer. There is special software for surveying and the software that cavers use might work for you. I have a project which I’m not very far along on for just the purpose. A computer is not necessary for drawing, drafting, inking and publishing the map but it can be a great help. You can also use traditional drafting boards, lighted drafting tables with various types of drafting paper. You could even use the kitchen table, but I at least highly recommend a sheet of glass with a lamp underneath for lighted tracing. Some graph paper is partially translucent, and some paper you use for inking the final map can be partially translucent as well. The point is that you will need to be able to draft and ink on top of prior sketches and drawings. The modern and better way to do this is in using modern computer software. A cad system will work but most cartographers do not like the mechanical looking drawing that they make. The very best software I have seen that cavers use is called Xara Extreme. It is vector graphics software. The Bear Maze map above was made using Xara Extreme. It has nice layering features so that you can import scanned sketches on one layer and then draw on top of the sketch in another layer. Also you can put different parts of the map in different layers and turn layers on and off at will. If you are drawing a small map you can print it on 8.5 x 11 at home. But if you are working on a huge map you may have to make an image file using Xara X and then take that image file to a print shop for printing. Xara X comes with all the tools you might expect for drawing fonts, text, lines, curves etc. It does take a bit of practice and technique sometimes to make things look spiffy and achieve the right effect with least effort. The nice thing about computer maps is that they are easy to edit and amend in the future if changes are needed. The next article will be on field data collection and sketching otherwise known as surveying. I will have one on preparing the data and maybe drawing the line plot. Lastly one on drawing the map and publishing the map.

About Larry Gray

Profile photo of Larry Gray
I'm a middle aged man from the (Arkansas) River Valley area of Arkansas. I grew up on a 200 acre poultry and cattle farm. I have almost 2 years of college towards a computer science degree. My careers so far have been restaurant management 5 years, office work with some computer tech work 6 years and trucking 10 years. I've also had some work in nuclear rad work tool room and part time security. I was in the US Army Reserve for 8 years. And like Jack I've been to Honduras, was there for two weeks once. On the side I have been doing and studying computer work, tech and programming my whole life. I was into caving quit heavily from 1990 to 1993. I explored around 150 caves in northern Arkansas area. I did some rock climbing at the time also, which is part of caving actually. I've been more into fishing than hunting. And my trucking career has given me little time for hunting. I'm currently training new truckers at http://www.willisshawexpress.com Willis Shaw Express the first interstate refrigerated/frozen food haulers. I'm not married yet, never have been and have no kids. I currently camp out on a good friend of mine's land in a 22' camper I own. I have no land yet and I'm currently working to pay off around $25K debt. Some of my prepping is on hold til that is done. Until then I can learn more and prepare for prepping. blog.larrydgray.net

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