topographic map

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a map showing topographic features, usually by means of contour lines.
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Compare contour map.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is a topographic map?

A topographic map is a map that indicates the features of the land’s surface, such as mountains, hills, and valleys. This is typically done with wavy lines that represent the curves and elevation of the land.

Topographic is the adjective form of the noun topography, which refers to the surface features of land. Topographic maps are sometimes called topo maps for short.

Topographic maps are frequently used by hikers to navigate and plan their routes, but they’re for more than just recreation. Architects, biologists, and many other professionals rely on them for important information about a particular landscape.

What are topographic maps used for?

If you’re exploring the big outdoors, you need a map. But not all maps are created equal. It’s no use using a road map to explore the back country of a national park, for example—you’re going to need a topographic map. Hiking on a steep incline is a lot different than on a flat surface, and topographic maps help to identify land features that are not shown on other maps. They show all the features of the land, including how high or how low a particular area is, so you can know what you’re getting into—instead of heading blindly toward your destination and ending up having to walk on the side of a steep cliff. (Been there. Not fun.)

Of course, topographic maps aren’t only for hikers. They are also used for many professional and scientific purposes. Because of their detailed representation of the land, topographic maps are also important to the military. Even if you’re not a hiker, it’s probably a good idea to learn how to read one, just in case you ever find yourself in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but your wits and a topographic map.

How to read a topographic map

Traditionally, a topographic map is a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional features. Most maps show landmarks and represent distance in some way, but topographic maps have to show the ups and downs of the landscape on the flat surface of the map. They typically do this by using contour lines to represent elevation. When these lines are very close together, it means the incline is steep. When they are farther apart, it means there is a gradual slope. They also use numbers to indicate just how high the elevation is in certain areas, such as at the bottom of a valley and at the top of a mountain. This way, you can tell how much elevation change there is between two points—which is crucial information for hikers who want to know how difficult a part of a trail will be.

Did you know ... ?

The first known topographic map of an entire country was a multi-page topographic map of France, completed in 1789. The United States Geological Survey started making topographic maps of the U.S. in 1884. The British mapping agency, the Ordnance Survey, grew out of efforts to map the Scottish Highlands so the English could suppress a rebellion.

What are real-life examples of topographic map?

Topographic maps are used in all kinds of professional contexts but are perhaps most associated with hikers, who often call them topo maps. Here’s a video showing how to read a topographic map.

What other words are related to topographic map?

Quiz yourself!

Which of the following things would you be able to learn from a topographic map?

A. the height of a mountain
B. how steep the side of a valley is
C. the increase in elevation from one point to another
D. all of the above

How to use topographic map in a sentence