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Topographic Map Activities

Instructor: Josh Corbat

Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Want to help students improve their map reading skills? This lesson contains several ideas for activities that will make learning about topographic maps engaging and meaningful.

Topographic Maps: an Escape from the Digital World

A common use of topographic maps is for finding your way in natural areas, especially on rough terrain. Topographic maps make it easy for the user to determine the difficulty of walking (or hiking) from one point to another by detailing elevation changes and landforms the user will encounter. It's certainly possible to access topographic maps on connected devices, but many people still use printed topographic maps to find their way while exploring the natural world. The activity ideas that follow are designed to help students understand the features of topographic maps, as well as practice how to use them in the natural world.

A topographic map with corresponding landforms for comparision. Each line on the map, called a contour line, represents an equal change in elevation from adjacent lines.
Topographic map with corresponding landforms.

Landform Identification

Topographic maps are great for identifying and talking about geographic landforms. Provide each student with a common topographic map and allow them to spend some time looking at it individually. Ask them to identify any landforms they notice (they can write directly on the maps if you printed out a copy for each student) and jot down a few key characteristics (like elevation change or length). Then, hold a class discussion that points out each landform visible on the map and goes through all pertinent characteristics. This can be a great introductory activity because it lets students immerse themselves in a topographic map right away.

Hiking Plan

Any hiker knows that you need to plan each day's hike closely in order to conserve energy and supplies. Give students a topographic map of a hiking area (bonus points if you can find one that students may have hiked in the past!) and provide a common starting location. Give students a location to end their multi-day trip at, and have them create a hiking plan. Limit each day to a particular number of miles hiked, or limit the change in elevation they can hike in each day (or both). Each plan will be different, so have students present their plans to the class for feedback. When finished with their plans, you can have students vote on which plan seems best. Alternatively, if you have the time and the means, you can have students actually enact one of the hiking plans created.

Elevation Change in a Year

This activity is a fun way to bring topographic maps into students' daily lives. Give students access to topographic maps of the surrounding area and any other areas the students frequently travel to. Students' task will be to determine the total change in elevation they experience throughout a typical year.

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