Topographical Mapping 101

As you roll out wireless equipment, you’ll find yourself looking at your environment in a different way. Air conditioning ducts, pipes, microwave ovens, power lines, and other sources of nastiness start leaping into the foreground as you walk around. By the time you’ve set up a couple of nodes, you will most likely be familiar with every source of noise or reflection in the area you’re trying to cover. But what if you want to extend your range, as in a several-mile point-to-point link? Is there a better way to survey the outlying environment than walking the entire route of your link? Maybe.

Topographical surveys have been made (and are constantly being revised) by the USGS in every region of the United States. Topo (short for topographical) maps are available both on paper and on CD-ROM from a variety of sources. If you want to know the lay of the land between two points, the USGS topos are a good starting point.

The paper topo maps are a great resource for getting an overview of the surrounding terrain in your local area. You can use a ruler to quickly gauge the approximate distance between two points and to determine whether there are any obvious obstructions in the path. While they’re a great place to start assessing a long link, topographical maps don’t provide some critical information: namely, tree and building data. The land may appear to cooperate on paper, but if there’s a forest or several tall buildings between your two points, there’s not much ...

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