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Topographic Maps - USGS Maps - Reading Topos



General information about USGS topographic mapping


Reading Topographic Maps

Map Scales


Other USGS Maps Non-topo

Topo Map Symbols



Land Surface Features

Water Features

Buildings and Related Features

Roads, Railroads, and Other 

Download PDF Version of the Map Symbols (13.3 MB)

Reading a Topographic Map

Interpreting the colored lines, areas, and other symbols is the first step in using topographic maps. Features are shown as points, lines, or areas, depending on their size and extent. For example, individual houses may be shown as small black squares. For larger buildings, the actual shapes are mapped. In densely built-up areas, most individual buildings are omitted and an area tint is shown. On some maps, post offices, churches, city halls and other landmark buildings are shown within the tinted area.

The first features usually noticed on a topographic map are the area features such as vegetation (green), water (blue), some information added during update (purple), and densely built-up areas (gray or red).

Many features are shown by lines that may be straight, curved, solid, dashed, dotted, or in any combination. The colors of the lines usually indicate similar kinds or classes of information: brown for topographic contours; blue for lakes, streams, irrigation ditches, etc.; red for land grids and important roads; black for other roads and trails, railroads, boundaries, etc.; and purple for features that have been updated using aerial photography, but not field verified.

Various point symbols are used to depict features such as buildings, campgrounds, springs, water tanks, mines, survey control points, and wells.

Names of places and features also are shown in a color corresponding to the type of feature. Many features are identified by labels, such as "Substation" or "Golf Course."

Illustration of ground configuration shown by contours

Illustration of ground configuration shown by contours

Ground Configuration shown by contours

Topographic contours are shown in brown by lines of different widths. Each contour is a line of equal elevation; therefore, contours never cross. They show the general shape of the terrain. To help the user determine elevations, index contours (usually every fourth or fifth contour) are wider. The narrower intermediate and supplementary contours found between the index contours help to show more details of the land surface shape. Contours that are very close together represent steep slopes. Widely spaced contours, or an absence of contours, means that the ground slope is relatively level. The elevation difference between adjacent contour lines, called the contour interval, is selected to best show the general shape of the terrain. A map of a relatively flat area may have a contour interval of 10 feet or less. Maps in mountainous areas may have contour intervals of 100 feet or more. Elevation values are shown at frequent intervals on the index contour lines to facilitate their identification, as well as to enable the user to interpolate the values of adjacent contours.

Bathymetric contours are generally offshore since they show the shape and slope of the ocean bottom. They are shown in blue or black. Bathymetric contours are shown in meters at intervals appropriate to map scale and coastal profile, and should not be confused with depth curves.

Depth curves are shown along coastlines and on inland bodies of water where the data are available from hydrographic charts or other reliable sources. Depth figures, shown in blue along the curves, are in feet on older USGS maps and in meters on newer maps. Soundings, individual depth values, may also be shown.