How to Find Contour Lines: Low-fi & High Tech Options

Knowing how to find and mark out a contour line is pretty darn useful. It allows to you build foundations for houses, catch and store water and nutrients in swales or swale pathways, make fantastic walking tracks across steep hillsides and numerous other fantastically functional things. We’ve just been teaching 3 different ways (high tech and low-fi) you can find and mark contour lines to our Permaculture Design Course students and thought we’d share them with you too…

The Bunyip Level (aka the water level)

Bunyip level

Caroline and Nysha learning the ways of the bunyip

Firstly, I have no idea how the bunyip level earned this name, if you know I’d love to hear from you. This handy tool consists of two posts and a hose connecting them meaning it’s either free or dirt cheap to make. On each of the upright timber posts are measurements showing up to 1 metre off the ground. This means you can match the water line against the numbers at both ends of the hose, ensuring you have the same level. We added some yellow food dye into the hose so you can see the water line more clearly, however this was a bad colour choice as it inspires thoughts of urine…. Will choose a different colour next time. You can make your own so easily at home, watch Brad Lancaster’s video about how and check out all his other work, when it comes to water harvesting he’s one of the best.

Bunyip w group

The hose can be varying lengths, this one is approximately 10 metres which allows you to mark out short or long areas and move around corners or structures. One thing you do have to watch out for is making sure that you hold the post perfectly upright. To help, you could hold a spirit level against the post to make sure it’s vertical (instead of leaning to one side) so you get an accurate reading.  This is a minor, yet crucial detail in creating successful contours.

We’ve used the bunyip level a lot of our own place for creating swale pathways amongst our vegetable gardens, they work a treat.

The A-frame

Todd w A frame

 Todd calibrating the A-frame

The A-frame consists of three sticks, a length of string and a weight to hold the string down – we’ve used a big heavy bolt for this particular one. When making your own, the key thing to remember is to make the distance between the legs a desirable length, 1m or 2m generally works well as it helps you keep track of distance. You can see a step-by-step guide to making, calibrating and using an A-frame here, all filmed to a thumping techno sound-track… But don’t worry, you can turn the sound down. The guys on this short film are using nails to join the timber pieces together, I’d actually recommend using screws, bolts or just some strong lashing as nails have a tendency to pop out sooner rather than later.

A-frame marking contour

The A-frame in action, you can see the short sticks in the ground marking the actual contour line.

The Laser Level

The laser level is the high tech option which can get fairly pricey (depending on how much you’re willing to spend), however you can also hire them by the day. Currently this is what we do when we need it for big jobs as it’s super quick to mark out large areas with one person and when you’re working with an earth moving machine it’s easy to check or tweak levels as earth is being moved. It consists of a tripod with a ‘computer head’ (not the proper term… obviously) on top which projects a laser light to the height of your choice and a long, retractable measuring stick with an electronic reader on it which picks up the laser light coming from the tripod.

June w Laser Level

June marking out a contour on our current part-time Permaculture Design Course, 2014

Laser LevelThe laser level can be used across long distances by one person and is super quick to get accurate contour lines marked out quick smart. 

All three of these contraptions can also be used to create a gradual ‘fall’ on your site so that water is channeled across landscapes, or you might want to create a ramp for wheelbarrows and walking. If moving water, the recommended fall is 1:400, one metre over 400m (or 1cm over 4m) this will move your water slowly over your property, ensuring that it still soaks into the soil first being moving to the next area you’re directing it to.

The really great things is that when used correctly the A-frame and bunyip level are just as accurate as the laser level, they simply require a bit more time to do the job. But if you’re just working on your own garden and not looking to do big landscaping projects regularly we can’t recommend these two options enough!

Handy Resources

A big thanks to Tamas Oszvald for taking all these photos!

* Your blogger is Hannah Moloney, co-director of Good Life Permaculture and lover of all things fun and garden-esk.

6 Responses to “How to Find Contour Lines: Low-fi & High Tech Options”

  1. Geoff

    An adaptation of the bunyip level is to replace one stick with a drum with a tap on it that you attach the tube to. You can then use it single-person to level things, particularly useful when digging for slabs and tank stands. Sit the drum on a chair or small table near where you’re working, and open the lid and tap. Set your stick at the point you want to level to and mark a line on your stick at the water level. Where-ever you put the stick you’ll be able to see where you need to dig or fill to get to that level by making sure the water is at the line. Just be careful of leaks.

    The A frame can also be adapted for rough contour mapping. I’ve got a 1m span one calibrated to measure up and down in each direction in increments of 5cm. Follow the fence lines then grid patterns across an area recording the plus and minus heights, tally them up from your selected zero point and you’ve got the makings of a contour map.

    • Hannah Moloney

      Spot on Geoff,
      Thanks for raising these points – I left them out of the article in the name of ‘keeping it simple’, but you’re totally right.

  2. Julian

    Thanks for the article. I am thinking of making a smallish swale, on rather flat ground. Two issues I’m wondering about, if you could suggest solutions: 1) the ground has very subtle undulations, so there isn’t one distinct contour if measuring in 1-2m sections – how do you decide where to put the other side of the a-frame/bunyip if there are several spots on the same level?
    2) the area has been recently heavily mulched with wood chip so it’s actually hard to find the soil ground level- suggestions?

    • Hannah Moloney

      1. It’ll all even out over a period of distance so don’t worry about the tiny variability. 2. Dig down through the mulch layer to place your tools.


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