What do Topographic Maps Show?

Topographic maps give a reader much more detail about terrain than other maps, which is one reason why they are popular with outdoors enthusiasts. Unlike a regular map, a topographic (or "topo," for short) map can show features on the ground, both manmade and natural. These maps are defined as navigational tools that show land the way it really appears. They are sometimes referred to as contour maps. 
What do Topographic Maps Show?

History of Topo Maps

The topographic map has been around since the late 1700s, and has continued to evolve into the extremely detail-oriented maps we see today. Topos were developed through topographical surveys; the information they revealed was compiled and transferred to these special maps to show the features of the relevant terrain.

Key Benefits

Topographic maps help all sorts of people plan events and projects that would otherwise require physically inspecting the area. Professional planners looking to construct buildings or whole neighborhoods can use topos to find suitable construction areas. Miners have used them to study specific regions to predict where to dig. Even hikers and bicyclists use topographic maps to plan the best routes.

Topographic Map Features

A variety of features are shown on topographic maps, also known as contour or topo maps. These maps use symbols and colors to represent different elevations and types of terrain, and to identify large items on the surface of the earth. Contour lines are a very common way to show differences in terrain or elevation, but color also plays a major part. For example, a topographic map may show the United States with red, green and yellow splotches, which could represent, high, middle and low altitudes. These maps are also used to show mountains, large bodies of water (such as lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and streams), large structures and/or local vegetation.

Contour Lines Identification

Maps all come with legends, but there are many features specific to topographic maps that are industry-standard, and will read the same on any of them. Knowing how to read contour lines, for example, is necessary for using a topo map. Sharp, pointed "V" shapes in the contour lines represent stream valleys caused by erosion. "O"-shaped contour lines are generally representative of uphill and downhill terrain; the closer the loops get, the nearer the top of the hill they are. Intervals between contour lines indicate differences in elevation. Contours that are close together represent a steep grade or slope, whereas lines spaced farther apart indicate a slighter grade.


Knowing how to read a topographic map is an important skill for anyone who hikes, cycles, or camps in the backcountry. If you're planning to use a lensatic compass to help guide your outdoor adventures, you'll have to do so in conjunction with a contour map. It's also a good idea to be able to draw a topo map in the field or to know how to make one using Google Earth.


Trip Planning Resource

These maps can also play an important part in activity planning, such as when you are looking to identify the best route to travel. For instance, a motorist wishing to cross the country would not want to plan a route simply by looking at the available roads and picking the shortest travel time. By looking at a topographic map, a motorist can be aware of mountain ranges, rocky areas, river crossings, landmarks and a myriad of other things that can help him or her make more informed travel decisions.

Article Written By Derek Odom

Derek Odom has been an avid off-road trail enthusiast for over 10 years. Coupled with his love for four-wheel drive trails and safety is a love for camping and the outdoors. Through the years, he has acquired great knowledge of outdoor activities and enjoys sharing that information with interested readers.

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