How to Read a Topographic Map

By: Debra Ronca  | 

Topographic Map Contour Lines

Topographic map contour lines
Contour lines help users to see points of equal elevation. © HowStuffWorks

Co­ntour li­nes are the greatest distinguishing feature of a topographic map. Contour lines are lines drawn on a map connecting points of equal elevation, meaning if you physically followed a contour line, elevation would remain constant. Contour lines show elevation and the shape of the terrain. They're useful because they illustrate the shape of the land surface — its topography — on the map. Here's a cool way to understand how to interpret contour lines: Take an object like a ball or a pile of laundry, and shine a red laser pointer along the object's side. The line you see will look like a contour line on a topographic map.

In order to keep things simple, topographic maps show lines for certain elevations only. These lines are evenly spaced apart. We call this spacing the contour interval. For example, if your map uses a 10-foot contour interval, you will see contour lines for every 10 feet (3 meters) of elevation — lines at 0, 10, 20, 30, 40 and so on. Different maps use different intervals, depending on the topography. If, for example, the general terrain is quite elevated, the map might run at 80- to even 100-foot (24- to 30-meter) intervals. This makes it easier to read the map — too many contour lines would be difficult to work with. Look in the margin of your map to find out its contour interval.


To make topographic maps easier to read, every fifth contour line is an index contour. Because it's impractical to mark the elevation of every contour line on the map, the index contour lines are the only ones labeled. The index contours are a darker or wider brown line in comparison to the regular contour lines. You'll see the elevations marked on the index contour lines only. To determine elevations, pay attention to the amount of space in between lines. If the contours are close together, you're looking at a steep slope. If the contours have wide spaces in between — or aren't there at all — the terrain is relatively flat.