How to Make a Topographical Map

How to Make a Topographical Map
Topographical maps are invaluable to outdoor enthusiasts of all sort. Not only do they indicate the locations of mountains, rivers and other major geographical features, but they provide a detailed picture of the contours and elevation changes of the land. Making your own topo map can help you study an outdoor destination before you go and prepare for the challenges that await you.


Difficulty: Moderate

Things You’ll Need:
  • Maps
  • Outdoor guidebooks
  • Pencil
  • Paper
  • Pen
  • Marker
Step 1
Collect several maps of the area you want to make a map of. You will need some topographical maps, but any map that shows major landmarks can also help you. You can find maps in the collections of city and college libraries and in outdoor guidebooks. There are also online topographical map resources, such as the ones linked to below.
Step 2
Create a map legend. In the lower left-hand corner of the sheet of paper you are using for your map, record the map scale, the highest and lowest elevations, and the location of the area you are mapping. You can write the name of the area, or give latitude and longitude to be more precise. Then, draw a compass showing north, east, south and west on your map.
Step 3
Draw the main landmarks. Sketch the shapes of trails and roads, lakes and rivers, mountains and any other important features. Make a symbol for each type of feature, and record it in the legend. For example, you could draw bodies of water in blue, or put a triangle by each mountain.
Step 4
Draw your first contour line. Sketch out the shape of the lowest elevation level on your map. Write the elevation next to the line.
Step 5
Pick out increments for elevation changes. If your map is very flat, you might want to add a new contour line for every 10 feet of elevation change. On the other hand, if you are drawing a map showing dramatic rises and falls, you may want to use an elevation line for every 200 or 300 feet of rise. Try to find a scale that doesn't crowd your map with too many elevation lines, but gives you enough information to be useful.
Step 6
Draw the second lowest elevation line. Continue to add contour lines for greater elevation until you have filled in all the topographical information. Write the elevation of every fifth line on the map to make it easier to read. If you don't, you will have to count lines all the way from the bottom to see the elevation of a particular point.
Step 7
Label all the local peaks and valleys. You should record the maximum elevation of every plateau, hill or mountaintop and the minimum elevation of every river, valley or other indentation.

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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