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What are Topo Maps?

Paulla Estes
Updated May 21, 2024
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The term topo map is short for the lengthier topographic map. Topo maps, also known as contour maps, are maps that show the Earth’s surface in a series of contour lines. Contour lines give reference to the elevation of any given point, and the lines are drawn in a series of intervals that show mountain heights, ocean depths, and the steepness of slopes. Topo maps usually give a reference surface to any given map, and the contour lines are drawn from that point. For instance, in Hawaii, the reference surface would be sea level, while in Colorado, it might be a low river valley or the lowest point in the state, depending on the size of the map.

Contour lines on topo maps always have a line of equal elevation, meaning that if a topo map is drawn for a particular hill or mountain, any given elevation will have a contour line to match that height, and the line will never cross itself. Elevations are usually printed on topo maps just along the edge of the contour line, or sometimes superimposing it. Contour lines drawn very close together indicate steep slopes, while those that are few and far between indicate a generally level ground surface.

Contour lines on topo maps vary significantly in contour interval. Contour interval indicates the steepness of an incline. On a topo map representing a sharp mountain grade, for instance, the contour interval may be 100 feet (30.48 meters) or more, meaning that there is a 100 foot (30.48 meter) elevation change between each contour line. Topo maps depicting level ground might have a contour interval of only 10 feet (3.48 meters).

Topo maps are not limited to contour lines for mountains, slopes, and plains. Other geographical data is also typically printed on topo maps, such as rivers, lakes, and canals, as well as significant roadways, railroads, property lines, and hiking trails. Topo maps even have symbols for campgrounds and buildings, though often, a highly populated area is simply depicted with a darker colored tint across the map; this way, elevations can still be shown under the city streets and structures.

Contour lines on topo maps are generally drawn in brown, important roads in red, other roads and trails in black, and waterways in blue. Topo maps designed to show the slopes and contours of the ocean floor have contour lines known as bathymetric contours. Not surprisingly, these contour lines are drawn in either blue or black.

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Paulla Estes
By Paulla Estes , Writer
Based in Maine, Paulla Estes is a freelance writer and website editor with a B.A. in English Literature from George Mason University. With over 15 years of experience in the field, Paulla appreciates the flexibility and consistency that comes with contributing to All The Science. She relishes the opportunity to continuously learn new things while crafting informative and engaging articles for readers.

Discussion Comments

By Almita — On Aug 02, 2011

@Calvin77 - I think it was a man named Eratosthenes who first tried to map the Earth. He tried to measure it scientifically. He actually figured out how big around the Earth and was only off by 5 percent. It's pretty amazing when you think about what they had to work with back then.

By measuring shadows, he created geography with longitude and latitude in its earliest form. He also managed to divide it by the climates – with the equator in the middle and the two cold areas on the top and bottom. God, Greeks were amazing!

By Calvin77 — On Aug 02, 2011

@Almita - The Turin Papyrus map is considered the older topo map, but it isn't of the whole world. I've been trying to find out where the very first map of the entire world was made.

So far, I've found out that the project to map the whole world was started in 1913 but only 800 of the 2000+ sheets were completed.

I do a lot of writing and I love designing maps for my stories. I've looked at lots of maps and they are always fascinating.

By minthybear19 — On Aug 01, 2011

@Almita - I hope they reassemble it. I hate it when they put up a display of something and leave it in pieces. I've seen displays for digs that were arranged to be like how they found it instead of how it was supposed to be. I know that it's nice to see the way they found it -- but can't they just snap a picture instead? I definitely would like to see the finds reassembled instead.

I saw pictures of the Turin Papyrus map online – that would be awesome to see in person. You're right though, I hope they arrange it correctly. Especially since they obviously know how it goes.

By Almita — On Jul 31, 2011

Maps are amazing. Currently, the earliest known topographic map is the Turin Papyrus map, found in ancient Egypt. It was found in dozens of pieces and has been reconstructed in the Turin museum. I went and saw it -- what a amazing find!

When I went and saw it, it was not reconstructed all the way. The museum had it displayed in two halves and I didn't get to see it completely put together. I know that someone has suggested that the map be fully reassembled for viewing instead of how it is right now.

Of course, online you can get a reconstructed picture of it, but I would love to see the real thing put back together again.

Paulla Estes

Paulla Estes


Based in Maine, Paulla Estes is a freelance writer and website editor with a B.A. in English Literature from George...
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