Topographic Maps: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Patrick Zedrow

Patrick has taught intermediate science, language arts, and technology. He has a master's degree in educational technology.

You could say that reading a topographic map has its ups and downs. It measures land elevation! This lesson focuses on how to read and understand the features of a topographic map.

Purpose of a Topographic Map

Can you imagine if your job was to travel around in a helicopter observing mountains and valleys? Topographers do just that! Topography is the study of the physical features of land. Observations of land are not only taken while flying--topographers also use satellites, radar, levels, and telescopes. These professionals help create topographic maps, which show the changing elevation (height) in landforms around our world. These maps are useful for understanding how the shape of our land could affect rivers, weather, and soil types.

A mountain shown from the side and what it would look like on a topographic map.
A mountain shown from the side and what it would look like on a topographic map.

3D Visualization

Even though you read a topographic map on a flat sheet of paper or a computer screen, you are supposed to visualize a three-dimensional image of the map in your mind. Imagine you are a bird looking directly down at the landform. Being straight above the land, it may be difficult to see how high up some landforms are. This is why topographic maps have features on them that help you visualize the three-dimensional landforms, such as elevation labels and contour lines.

Contour Lines

The red contour line shows where the elevation is 7,000 feet above sea level.
The red contour line shows where the elevation is 7,000 feet above sea level.

Contour lines are lines drawn on a map that show a change in elevation. A contour line may look wavy or circular. Everything near that line is generally the same height from sea level--how high they reach above the average water level. Try this: If you put your finger on a contour line and follow it around the map, every place your finger is touching is that same elevation.

Topographers make reading maps even easier by adding numbers right next to certain lines. Say you're observing a contour line and the number 12,500 is right on top of it. This means that contour line is showing you a landform that is 12,500 feet in elevation above sea level. That must be a mountainous region, such as the Rocky Mountains. If you ever visit there, you may want to bring a topographic map!

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