What is a Topographic Map? - Definition & Features

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  • 0:00 Topographic Maps
  • 0:40 Contour Lines
  • 1:25 Contour Interval
  • 2:34 Relief Map
  • 2:57 Digital Elevation Model
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Jeff Fennell
Expert Contributor
Jamie Lawton

Jamie has a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Northeastern University and has taught college chemistry.

A topographic map shows how the ground is shaped and provides a way to calculate the height of the features on the map. This lesson explains what a topographic map is and how to determine the heights of features on the map.

Topographic Maps

A topographic map is a type of map that shows heights that you can measure. A traditional topographic map will have all the same elements as a non-topographical map, such as scale, legend, and north arrow.

topographical map

On a map, you are looking straight down, so it is difficult to see the change in elevation of the ground. As you can see in this image, a topographic map uses lines to determine the heights of features such as mountains and valleys. Topographic maps can show the heights of features a variety of ways, including contour lines, relief, and color.

Contour Lines

The defining feature of a two-dimensional topographical map is its contour lines. A contour line is a line joining points of equal elevation on a surface. An easy way to imagine a contour line is to imagine walking around the shore of a lake. As you walk, you will always remain at the same elevation, and eventually you will return to your starting point.

There are three rules for contour lines:

  1. Every point along a contour line is the exact same elevation
  2. Contour lines can never cross each other
  3. A contour line must close on itself

Some contour lines will have their elevation marked next to them, but not all. In order to calculate the height of any contour line, you need to know the contour interval.

Contour Interval

A topographical map will contain many contour lines, but the change in elevation between each line will remain the same; this is called a contour interval. By making the change in elevation between the lines equal, it is easy to calculate height by using multiplication.

For example, this image shows contour lines that we can use to calculate contour intervals:

contour lines

For this map, the contour interval is 5. This can be calculated by dividing the difference between the two known elevations by the number of contour lines in between. While the horizontal distance varies between the lines, it is important to remember that contour lines are there to show elevation. In addition to calculating the contour interval, it is also usually labeled on the map near the legend.

An easy way to think about topographic maps is the distance between the lines is horizontal distance, while the values of the lines are the elevation. If the distance between the lines is very far apart, that indicates a gradual increase in elevation. If the lines are close together, the change in elevation happens very quickly, indicating a steep terrain.

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Additional Activities

Make Your Own Topographic Map

What you will need:

  • Paper
  • Cardboard, preferably a thicker cardboard
  • Scissors that will cut the cardboard
  • Pens and pencils
  • Markers, paint (optional)


1) Begin by using the cardboard to build an imaginary terrain. For example, cut out a series of circles, one smaller than the next, and stack them, with the largest on the top and the smallest on the bottom. They should look a bit like a hill. Repeat with the other shapes as you like.

2) Arrange the stacks of circles on your paper. As you build your terrain, you'll notice that some areas sit higher on the paper and areas that sit lower.

3) Once you've arranged your imaginary terrain to your liking, you'll be ready to make your topographic map. Lets go back to your original stack of circles. Start by tracing the largest circle on the paper. Now, trace the next-largest circle inside the circle on the paper. Repeat this process for each circle. The result will be a series of circles, one inside the other. Though the drawing is flat, each circle represents an increase in elevation equal to the thickness of the cardboard in your imaginary terrain. You can repeat this process for all of the shapes that you built up with the cardboard.

4) When you are done tracing, you can color in the terrain and add some rivers. You could also name some of the peaks in your terrain.

5) You now have a topographic map of the terrain that you created!

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