Topographic map

Topographic map

A topographic map is a type of map characterized by large-scale detail and quantitative representation of relief, usually using contour lines in modern mapping, but historically using a variety of methods. Traditional definitions require a topographic map to show both natural and man-made features.

The Canadian Centre for Topographic Information provides this definition of a topographic map: However, in the vernacular and day to day world, the representation of relief (contours) is popularly held to define the genre, such that even small-scale maps showing relief are commonly (and erroneously, in the technical sense) called "topographic." According to cartographers Kraak and Ormeling, a topographic map does not always depict relief:

The study or discipline of topography, while interested in relief, is actually a much broader field of study which takes into account all natural and man made features of terrain.


Topographic maps are based on topographical surveys. Performed at large scales, these surveys are called topographical in the old sense of topography, showing a variety of landmark and landscape information. This is in contrast to older cadastral surveys, which primarily show property and governmental boundaries. The first multi-sheet topographic map series of an entire country, the Carte géométrique de la France, was completed in 1789. Topographic surveys were prepared by the military to assist in planning for battle and for defensive emplacements (thus the name and history of the United Kingdom's Ordnance Survey). As such, elevation information was of vital importance.

As they evolved, topographic map series became a national resource in modern nations in planning infrastructure and resource exploitation. In the United States, the national map-making function which had been shared by both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior migrated to the newly created United States Geological Survey in 1879, where it has remained since.


Topographic maps have multiple uses in the present day: any type of geographic planning or large-scale architecture; earth sciences and many other geographic disciplines; mining and other earth-based endeavours; and recreational uses such as hiking or, in particular, orienteering, which uses highly detailed maps in its standard requirements.

Map conventions

The various features shown on the map are represented by conventional signs or symbols. For example, colors can be used to indicate a classification of roads. These signs are usually explained in the margin of the map, or on a separately published characteristic sheet.

Topographic maps are also commonly called contour maps or topo maps. In the United States, where the primary national series is organized by a strict 7.5 minute grid, they are often called topo quads or quadrangles.

Topographic maps conventionally show topography, or land contours, by means of contour lines. Contour lines are curves that connect contiguous points of the same altitude (isohypse). In other words, every point on the marked line of 100 m elevation is 100 m above mean sea level.

There are several rules to note when viewing topographic maps:

  • The rule of V's: sharp-pointed vees usually are in stream valleys, with the drainage channel passing through the point of the vee, with the vee pointing upstream. This is a consequence of erosion.
  • The rule of O's: closed loops are normally uphill on the inside and downhill on the outside, and the innermost loop is the highest area. If a loop instead represents a depression, some maps note this by short lines radiating from the inside of the loop, called "hachures".
  • Spacing of contours: close contours indicate a steep slope; distant contours a shallow slope. Two or more contour lines merging indicates a cliff.

Of course, to determine differences in elevation between two points, the contour interval, or distance in altitude between two adjacent contour lines, must be known, and this is given at the bottom of the map. In most cases, contour intervals are consistent throughout a map. Sometimes dashed contour lines are present; these represent half the noted contour interval.

These maps usually show not only the contours, but also any significant streams or other bodies of water, forest cover, built-up areas or individual buildings (depending on scale), and other features and points of interest.

Today, topographic maps are prepared using photogrammetric interpretation of aerial photography. Older topographic maps were prepared using traditional surveying instruments.

Publishers of national topographic map series

Most countries have some sort of national mapping program. Those listed below are only a small selection. Several commercial vendors supply international topographic map sets.


The Centre for Topographic Information produces topographic maps of Canada at scales of 1:50,000 and 1:250,000. They are known as the National Topographic System (NTS). A government proposal to discontinue publishing of all hardcopy or paper topographic maps in favor of digital-only mapping data was shelved in 2006 after intense public opposition.


The National Survey and Cadastre of Denmark is responsible for producing topographic and nautical geodata of Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.


The National Land Survey of Finland produces the Topographic Database (accuracy 1:5000-1:10 000) and publishes topographic maps of Finland at 1:25,000 and 1:50,000. In addition topographics maps can be viewed by using a free map service MapSite


The Institut Géographique National (or IGN) produces topographic maps of France at 1:25,000 and 1:50,000. In addition, topographic maps are freely accessible online, through the Géoportail website.


The Survey of India is responsible for all topographic control, surveys and mapping of India.


The Geographical Survey Institute of Japan is responsible for base mapping of Japan. Standard map scales are 1:25,000, 1:50,000, 1:200,000 and 1:500,000

New Zealand

Land Information New Zealand is the government agency responsible for providing up-to-date topographic mapping. LINZ topographic maps cover all of New Zealand, offshore islands, some Pacific Islands and the Ross Sea Region. Vector data from the New Zealand Topographic Database (NZTopo) is also available. NZTopoOnline is a publicly accessible, free online service.


Swisstopo (the Federal Office of Topography) produces topographic maps of Switzerland at seven different scales.

United Kingdom

The Ordnance Survey (or OS) produces topographic map series covering the United Kingdom at 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 scales. The 1:25,000 scale is known as the "Explorer" series, and include an "OL" (Outdoor Leisure) sub-series for areas of special interest to hikers and walkers. It was formerly known as the "Pathfinder" series. The 1:50,000 scale is known as the "Landranger" and carries a distinctive pink cover. More detailed mapping as fine as 1:10000 cover some parts of the country. The 1:25K and 1:50K metric scales are easily coordinated with standard romer scales on currently available compasses and plotting tools. Ordnance survey maintains a mapping database from which they can print specialist maps at virtually any scale.

United States

The United States Geological Survey (or USGS), a civilian Federal agency, produces several national series of topographic maps which vary in scale and extent, with some wide gaps in coverage, notably the complete absence of 1:50,000 scale topographic maps or their equivalent. The largest (both in terms of scale and quantity) and best-known topographic series is the 7.5-minute, 1:24,000 scale, quadrangle, a non-metric scale virtually unique to the United States. Each of these maps covers an area bounded by two lines of latitude and two lines of longitude spaced 7.5 minutes apart. Nearly 57,000 individual maps in this series cover the 48 contiguous states, Hawaii, U. S. territories, and areas of Alaska near Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Prudhoe Bay. The area covered by each map varies with the latitude of its represented location due to convergence of the meridians. At lower latitudes, near 30° north, a 7.5-minute quadrangle contains an area of about . At 49° north latitude, are contained within a quadrangle of that size. As a unique non-metric map scale, the 1:24,000 scale naturally requires a separate and specialized romer scale for plotting map positions. In recent years, budget constraints have forced the USGS to rely on donations of time by civilian volunteers in an attempt to update its 7.5-minute topographic map series, and USGS stated outright in 2000 that the program was to be phased out in favor of their National Map (not to be confused with the National Atlas of the United States produced by the Department of the Interior, one of whose bureaus is USGS).

An older series of maps, the 15-minute series, was once used to map the contiguous 48 states at a scale of 1:62,500, but was discontinued some time ago for maps covering the continental U.S. Each map was bounded by two parallels and two meridians spaced 15 minutes apart - the same area covered by four maps in the 7.5-minute series. The 15-minute series, at a scale of 1:63,360 (one inch representing one mile), remains the primary topographic quadrangle for the state of Alaska (and only for that particular state). Nearly 3,000 maps cover 97% of the state. The U.S.A. remains virtually the only developed country in the world without a standardized civilian topographic map series in the standard 1:25,000 or 1:50,000 metric scales, making coordination difficult in border regions (the U.S. military does issue 1:50,000 scale topo maps of the continental U.S., though only for use by members of its defense forces).

The next-smallest topographic series, in terms of scale, is the 1:100,000 series. These maps are bounded by two lines of longitude and two lines of latitude. However, in this series, the lines of latitude are spaced 30 minutes apart and the lines of longitude are spaced 60 minutes, which is the source of another name for these maps; the 30 x 60-minute quadrangle series. Each of these quadrangles covers the area contained within 32 maps in the 7.5-minute series. The 1:100,000 scale series is unusual in that it employs the Metric system primarily. One centimeter on the map represents one kilometer of distance on the ground. Contour intervals, spot elevations, and horizontal distances are also specified in meters.

The final regular quadrangle series produced by the USGS is the 1:250,000 scale topographic series. Each of these quadrangles in the conterminous United States measures 1 degree of latitude by 2 degrees of longitude. This series was produced by the U.S. Army Map Service in the 1950s, prior to the maps in the larger-scale series, and consists of 489 sheets, each covering an area ranging from at 30° north to at 49° north. Hawaii is mapped at this scale in quadrangles measuring 1° by 1°.

USGS topographic quadrangle maps are marked with grid lines and tics around the map collar which make it possible to identify locations on the map by several methods, including the graticule measurements of longitude and latitude, the township and section method within the Public Land Survey System, and cartesian coordinates in both the State Plane Coordinate System and the Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system.

Other specialty maps have been produced by the USGS at a variety of scales. These include county maps, maps of special interest areas, such as the national parks, and areas of scientific interest.

A number of Internet sites have made these maps available on the web for affordable commercial and professional use. Because works of the U.S. Government are in the public domain, it is also possible to find many of these maps for free at various locations on the Internet. Georeferenced map images are available from the USGS as digital raster graphics (DRGs), in addition to digital data sets based on USGS maps (notably Digital Line Graphs (DLGs) and digital elevation models (DEMs)).

Global 1-kilometer map

This map is derived from GTOPO30 data that describes the elevation of Earth's terrain at intervals of 30 arcseconds (approximately 1 km). It uses color and shading instead of contour lines to indicate elevation.

Each tile is available at a resolution of 1800 × 1800 pixels (approximate file size 1 MB, 60 pixels = 1 degree, 1 pixel = 1 minute)

See also

Notes and references

External links

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