Understanding Topographic Maps for Kids

Understanding topographic maps is mainly about decoding the symbols and numbers on and around them. Begin to learn the meaning of the symbols, and you will be on your way to understanding the features shown on these maps, and what they can tell you about the terrain and area. 

Parts of a Topographic Map

  • Title: At the top, right-hand corner of the map, you'll find the title. This defines the area covered on the map. It will also tell you the more specific area name, and the area covered by the map measured in square minutes. The minute measurement is equivalent to 1.2 miles. In the upper right corner of the map is another title, at an angle. This tells you the title of the next map, which continues from the one you're reading. You'll find the titles of adjoining maps in all four corners.
  • Navigation: Around the outer edge of the map, you will see numbers. These correspond to latitude, longitude and Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) grid markers.
    • Latitude is a measurement of distance from the equator, north or south.
    • Longitude is a measurement of distance from the Prime Meridian, east or west.
    • Degrees of latitude and longitude are separated by about 70 miles. Within them, they can be measured by minutes and seconds. These are not times, but distances. A minute is equal to 1.2 miles, and a second is equal to .02 miles.
    • UTM measurements are divide a map of the entire Earth into a grid. There are 60 zones across the top and 20 zones along the side. Within the cell on a grid where the mapped area falls, the positions are divided into meters north and east. These coordinates are also listed on the side of the topographical map.
  • Contour lines: These show the elevation measurements of the land, at intervals of 20 feet. Each line represents an area 20 feet higher than the last, with some elevations marked along the contour lines. The lines are usually curvy, following the shape of the hills and valleys of the land surface.
  • Symbols: You will find a symbol key on the map, showing you other markings that indicate rivers, mines, caves, roads, buildings and other landmarks. 
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