What Is a Topographic Map?

What Is a Topographic Map?
A topographical map is a detailed map designed to show land features that help with navigating undeveloped terrain. The United States Geologic Survey is the main producer of "topo" maps in the US.


Topographical maps were created during the 18th century in France. They were designed to aid in battle planning, so knowing land features and elevation was critical.


Topographic maps allow you to navigate using characteristics of the natural environment. They are especially useful to hikers and backpackers.


The main variable in a topographical map is the scale at which it is drawn. In the US, the most common map series is drawn on a scale of 1:24,000 over 7.5 minutes (a further subdivision of longitudinal degrees).


The main feature of a topographic map is elevation, which is shown by contour lines. Contour lines are drawn at regular intervals. The maps also show things like lakes, rivers, roads, and forest cover.


Until recently, data used in creating topographical maps was gathered via aerial photography. Currently, Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites are transmitting data automatically, which may make map production quicker, easier and more precise.

Article Written By Emily Crespin

Emily Crespin manages logistics for a wilderness education program in the Colorado Rockies. She holds a Bachelor's degree in biology and a Master's in communications and public relations. Crespin has been a freelance writer and technical editor since 2008.

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