Using & Understanding Topographic Maps

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  • 0:01 Topography
  • 0:45 Map Contours
  • 2:50 Scales and Other Features
  • 3:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Topographic maps are useful because they help us understand and locate topographic features on Earth's surface. But in order to properly read a topographic map, you need to be able to interpret its lines, symbols, and shapes correctly.


Take a look around you. You can see that the earth is not one flat plane, right? It has hills, mountains, valleys, and other features that give its surface a 3-dimensional shape. These features create topography, which is simply the shape of Earth's surface. The way we represent these features is on a topographic map. Also called a contour map, this is a 2-dimensional representation of Earth's 3-dimensional surface. Like any map, a topographic map shows us where certain features are located. But instead of identifying city boundaries or the best route to work, this type of map identifies topographic features and their elevation either above or below sea level.

Map Contours

Topographic Map

One of the first things you'll notice about a topographic map is the contour lines. These are elevation lines on the map in either feet or meters. Contour lines are farther apart in areas of lower elevation, but get closer together in areas of higher elevation. Think of it like this: if you looked down on a mountain from above, you would see the peak in the middle and the rest of the mountain spreading out around it. The areas nearer to the mountain peak look closer together because these areas are more vertical than they are horizontal. In other words, they have a steep slope, so from above, you see less of them. But as you get closer to the bottom where the elevation is lower, the ground spreads out in a more horizontal fashion so you see more of it from above. Looking at a topographic map is just like this, and the contour lines help you see the shape of the land through the elevation.

Contour lines may twist and turn with the landscape on the map, but they don't ever cross, and they don't ever split. Contour lines also turn to a 'V' or 'U' shape when they cross a running water body like a stream or river. Index contour lines have elevation values printed on them and are darker or thicker lines. These are the reference contours on the map, from which you can determine other elevation values. If every contour line had a printed value the map would get pretty messy. So instead, these contour lines show you elevation periodically with intermediate contour lines in between.

The space between contour lines is called the contour interval. Each map will have a different contour interval depending on the topography of that area. Areas that are fairly level do not need to show great changes in elevation so they may have smaller intervals, like maybe 10 feet. But if the map is showing an area with quick changes in elevation, 10-foot intervals would make for a lot of contour lines on the map, so it may be more appropriate to show contour lines for changes every 100 feet instead.

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