How to Read OpenStreetMap Based Topo Maps

While we’ve covered how to read a topo map and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) topographic maps in particular, OpenStreetMap-based topos are increasingly popular resources that merit their own post. In this post you will learn how to read OpenStreetMap-based topo map.

The OpenStreetMap (OSM) project leverages the knowledge of millions of people around the globe to crowdsource detailed world maps. As community involvement increases, OSM grows in detail and continues to improve—learn how you can help update OSM data in our recent blog post. Since OSM data is free to use, many apps and websites use it create custom maps for specific audiences.

OSM-based maps have higher resolutions than traditional USGS topos. They often provide more details than newer USGS topos, including additional feature types like cycle paths, bridleways, cable cars and chair lifts, brownfields, and better trail coverage to boot. Note that while USGS typically labels elevations on the 1:24,000 scale maps in feet, OSM-based maps label in meters.


OpenCycleMap, one example of an OSM-based topo map service, emphasizes existing and proposed bike trails, bike lanes, and other amenities for cyclists. While it adds contours and hill shading to the standard OSM map, OpenCycleMap still generally offers less detail about the terrain, such as land cover types.

OpenCycleMap adopts elements of the OSM style, like purple/blue dashed lines for cycling paths and pink dashed lines for footpaths, though they appear more prominent than in OSM, “bolded” even. Non-cycling features have a lighter appearance, with footpaths left unlabeled.

This map source shows national and regional cycling routes, local cycling networks, and footpaths. It also displays bicycle shops, bike parking locations, restrooms, bars, pubs, and cafés near cycling routes.

how to read openstreetmap

OpenCycleMap display for the Manitou Springs, Colorado area. Credit: ThunderForest and OpenStreetMap contributors.

OpenCycleMap pulls the latest data from OSM every couple of days. A variety of apps and websites pull OpenCycleMap data, including Gaia GPS. Learn more about OpenCycleMap symbols through the key.


OpenLandscapeMap by ThunderForest, another OSM-based service also found in Gaia GPS, focuses on terrain. Like OpenCycleMap, OpenLandscapeMap tones down non-naturally occurring features like roads, which all appear as light purple. Some other differences include:

  • less differentiation for trails
  • increased detail for land cover types ( like scrub, grassland, and farmland
  • darker and more prominently displayed water features
  • more labeled natural features like springs and geysers

OpenLandscapeMap also marks mountain peaks with a triangle, and labels their names and elevations, unlike the less specific USGS topos.


OpenHikingMap styles OSM data to create a map geared toward hikers. We wrote about OpenHikingMap when it was first released in 2013. This map labels trail names and peak elevations. It also shows protected areas, restrooms, parking lots, and several different land cover surfaces.

Now that You Know How to Read an OpenStreetMap-Based Topo Map

You may want to try these sources out in Gaia GPS as you brainstorm your next foray into the great outdoors. Follow the iOS and Android links throughout this post to find out how to use them in the app.

If you have any questions about using topos in Gaia, just email us at