LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Topographic maps add a third dimension to latitude and longitude by showing natural (and cultural) features of the earth’s surface — in particular, elevation. Historically, mapmakers used a variety of methods to indicate elevation. To get a quick sense of elevation, we can use color, as in this map:

Figure 12-1. A topographic map of North Carolina, using color to represent elevation.

North Carolina topographic map

This method of showing elevation wouldn’t help much for a closeup map, though — say, for hiking or roadbuilding. For simplicity, clarity, and accuracy, most topographic maps today use contour lines.

Contour lines

Contouring is drawing lines on a two-dimensional grid of numbers that connect points of equal value. In the following grid, for example, I’ve drawn contour lines connecting multiples of 10, so we’d say that the contour interval — the space between the lines is 10:

Figure 12-2. A grid of numbers with contour lines. The contour interval is 10.

contour grid

That’s a simple example. Here’s a more complicated one — can you see the hills and plains?

Figure 12-3. A more complex grid of numbers with contour lines. The contour interval is 5.

complex contour grid

Classroom activity

If you want to use this in your classroom, I’ve provided a blank grid below. Have students try different contour intervals (5 and 10, say) and see how it affects the finished picture. What geographical features seem to appear? Which are more or less prominent depending on the contour interval? (Hat tip to Lorraine Remer for the idea.)

Contour grid (blank)
Open as PDF (265 KB, 1 page)

Finding and using topographic maps

On a topographic map, the numbers on the grid correspond to elevation — typically feet or meters above sea level. The contour lines on a topographic map show lines of constant elevation, so it’s easy to see hills, valleys, and plains, and the lines are usually labeled with their elevation.

Figure 12-4. Topographic map of Stowe, Vermont.

topographic map

Topographic maps on the web

The U.S. Geological Survey provides map data along with information on how to get that data in map form. The simplest way is to go to the USGS store and select the Map Locator. Follow the instructions to generate a topographic map of your location (or any other location in the United States). Once you’ve downloaded them, topographic maps can be integrated into any study of history or geography, particularly where terrain is relevant to the events you’re studying. (The Lewis and Clark expedition comes to mind.)

Classroom activity

To add a hands-on component to your exploration of topographic mapping, have students make models of a landscape with hills, valleys, and plains. Then measure the elevation of various points on the model, and draw or paint contour lines onto it. (How can you measure the elevation of points on the model? You might design something with two rulers held at a right angle by a protractor, using the vertical ruler to measure height from the desk and the horizontal one to touch the model. Or present it to students as an engineering challenge!)