How to Create a Topographic Map

How to Create a Topographic Map
Whether you are planning a mountain climbing expedition, an extended backwoods hiking trip or just a relaxing afternoon walk in the woods with your family, a topographic map can help you prepare. Topographical maps show you natural features and roads just like a normal map, combined with a detailed picture of the contours and elevation changes in an area. They can cue you in to difficult climbs and hazardous dropoffs, and even help you find the best scenic views. Creating your own topographical map can give you more detail about an area and let you customize your trip.


Difficulty: Moderate

Things You’ll Need:
  • Hiking books Maps Elevation data Pen or pencil Colored markers
  • Hiking books
  • Maps
  • Elevation data
  • Pen or pencil
  • Colored markers
Step 1
Gather several maps of your destination. Get trail maps, road maps and existing topographic and elevation maps to gather details the necessary information for your own topo map of your trip. Use the most current maps you can find, since landmarks can change over time.
Step 2
Create a map legend. Write the basics about the area you are mapping in the map legend. In the lower left corner of your map record the map scale, and the minimum and maximum elevations. You should also record the longitude and latitude of the area you are mapping. Don't forget to include symbols for roads, trails, rivers, peaks and other major features. You could use blue lines for rivers or dotted lines for trails. Finally, draw an arrow to indicate which direction is North on the map.
Step 3
Draw in rivers, trails, roads, train tracks and other features to your map. You can also mark in details relevant to your trip, such as where you plan to camp or where you are going to catch the trail. Alternatively, you can add these details later.
Step 4
Draw the lowest contour line. Draw your first contour line at the lowest elevation level. Your contour line should connect all points at the same level of elevation. So, if your lowest point is 1,000 feet, your contour line should connect all the other points in the area that occur at 1,000 feet. Label the elevation of the contour line on the map.
Step 5
Decide on a vertical scale. The more dramatic your elevation changes, the bigger your vertical scale should be. If you are mapping a mountainous area, you may want to have every line indicate 300 feet of rise. If you are making a topographic map of gentle countryside, however, each line could indicate as little as 10 feet of vertical rise.
Step 6
Finish the contour lines. Draw the rest of the contour lines from the lowest elevation to highest. Write the elevation number of every fifth line. This will make it much easier to estimate the elevation of any point on the map at a glance.
Step 7
Mark all high and low points. Record all of the local high and low elevations of the area on your map. You should write the highest elevations of all peaks and the lowest depths of all valleys on the map regardless if these elevations occur every fifth contour line.

Tips & Warnings

Make sure your contour lines are correctly aligned with your landmarks, roads and natural features.
Make sure your contour lines are correctly aligned with your landmarks, roads and natural features.

Article Written By Isaiah David

Isaiah David is a freelance writer and musician living in Portland, Ore. He has over five years experience as a professional writer and has been published on various online outlets. He holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan.

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