Reading Topographic Maps
Overview This activity provides an introduction to topographic map
reading. Students learn some basic concepts and then
answer a series of questions based on topographic maps
of the local area. A variety of map features are utilized to
enhance the understanding of difference of scale and
1.2 – Draw conclusions from different kinds of maps
Oklahoma PASS 2.1 – Apply the concepts of scale and orientation
Objectives 2.2 – Compare physical maps
(6th Social Studies) 2.3 – Recognize and locate basic landforms on maps
Standard 1 – Use maps and other technologies to report
National Geography information
Standard 3 – Analyze the organization of people on
Standards Earth’s surface
Standard 14 – How human actions modify the physical
Grade Level Middle School. Can be modified with additional
questions for higher levels.
GIS Skill Level None. GIS software is not needed for this activity (though
it can be used as a map viewer if desired).
Other Skills Students should have had some introduction to map
symbols and basic map features.
Time Should be completed in one 50-minute class.
Teacher Note Questions should be modified to reference a specific set
of topographic maps for the student’s local region.
Reading Topographic Maps Teacher Guide 1
Reading Topographic Maps
This is not a GIS activity, but the students should be able to view
topographic maps to answer the questions.
USGS Map Sets (Provided by Oklahoma State Cartography Services)
• Topographic Map Quads, 1:24000 – Lake Carl Blackwell, Stillwater SW, Stillwater
North, Stillwater South, Glencoe, Ripley
• Topographic Map Quads, 1:25000 – Enid, Oklahoma City
This project should be based on the features of local topographic
maps. Students should be given a chance to get to know the
standard features of a topographic map before beginning the actual
Developed by Steve O’Connell
Reading Topographic Maps Teacher Guide 2
Reading Topographic Maps
Maps are the basis of all geographic work. Without a map, it would be very
difficult to understand the spatial characteristics about a place. One of the
most widely-used map types is a topographic map. Topographic maps
display elevation and landscape features as well as generalized human-
In this activity, you will familiarize yourself with the features of topographic
maps. Even though there are a number of variations in topographic maps,
they generally use similar display techniques and it is important to recognize
symbols and information in each of the different forms. After a brief
introduction to some concepts, you will use a set of topographic maps to
answer a series of questions.
Step 1 Getting to Know the Map
Topographic maps from the USGS generally use a standardized
format. This is important because it allows users to understand a map
from any part of the country without learning a new set of standards.
The information in the margins of the map are the most important
and you should review these before trying to read the map itself. The
two most important pieces of information are:
• Scale – Located at the bottom of the map in the center. Scale is
noted in several formats but the most widely-used is the
ratio shown with the map distance and corresponding
earth distance (example 1:24000)
• Contour Interval – Usually located below the scale bars at the
bottom of the map. The contour interval varies from map
to map depending on the local terrain so it is extremely
important to check the interval value before referencing
These are not the only pieces of information in the margins of the
map. Some of the others include:
• Map Quadrangle Name – The name of the map is usually noted in
both the upper right corner and the lower left corner. The
map is named for the most prominent feature (man-made
or natural). The names of adjoining topo sheets are usually
located along the sides and corners of the map.
• Map Producer Information – On a USGS topo sheet, this information
is at the top left corner, but other types of maps will list it
with the other map information at the bottom, usually on
the left-hand side.
• Declination Diagram – Located to the left of the scale information,
the declination diagram provides map and compass users
with information on the local declination to Magnetic
North. The angle listed is the local difference between true
and Magnetic North.
Reading Topographic Maps 2
Step 2 Using Topographic Maps
Today, you will learn to identify features on topographic maps by
answering some questions about some maps that are located in
different places around the classroom.
When your teacher tells you, go to one of the map locations. You will
answer the questions in the rest of this activity using the maps. The
map station you are at will determine what series of questions you will
answer. Make sure you are answering the correct questions for the
map you are viewing.
Map Set 1:
1. What is the name, scale (ratio), and contour interval of this map?
LAKE CARL BLACKWELL; 1:24000; 10 FEET
2. You probably have noticed that Lake McMurtry is shaded purple.
There are other features on the map that are also purple.
Why are these features purple? (Hint: Read the map
information at the bottom)
THESE FEATURES ARE REVISIONS
3. What is the name of the topographic Quadrangle located to the
west of this one?
4. On USGS topographic maps, township sections are noted with a
red number in the center. If there are no section-line roads,
a red line is used to depict the section boundary. In what
section is the Spillway from Lake Carl Blackwell located?
Reading Topographic Maps 3
Map Set 2:
5. What is the name, scale (ratio), and contour interval of this map?
STILLWATER SW; 1:24000; 10 FEET
6. What is the declination (in Degrees) to Magnetic North from this
7 ½ DEGREES
7. The town of Marena is located two miles south of Highway 51
and two miles east of the Indian Meridian. What is the
elevation at Marena? (Make sure you note your units!!!!!!!!!)
8. What is the last revision or edit date for this map?
Map Set 3:
9. What is the name, scale (ratio), and contour interval of this map?
STILLWATER NORTH; 1:24000; 10 FEET
10. What does the red shaded area in Stillwater represent?
BUILT-UP OR URBAN AREA
11. What is the name of the Railroad line that served Stillwater when
this map was made?
ATCHISON TOPEKA AND SANTA FE
12. What is the name of Stillwater High School on this map?
DONART HIGH SCHOOL
Reading Topographic Maps 4
Map Set 4:
13. What is the name, scale (ratio), and contour interval of this
STILLWATER SOUTH; 1:24000; 10 FEET
14. To the south of Stillwater, north of Stillwater Creek, you should
notice a pattern of green dots. What does that pattern
15. Driving on Highway 51, how far is it to Yale? To Tulsa?
19 MILES; 65 MILES
16. Sunset Memorial Gardens is a cemetery located about four
miles south of Stillwater on Highway 177 in Section 11. What
is the elevation of the contour that runs through the
Map Set 5:
17. What is the name, scale (ratio), and contour interval of this
GLENCOE; 1:24000; 10 FEET
18. Just to the north of Glencoe, the Cimarron Turnpike and the
Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad cross. Based on
the information on the map, which one crosses on top of
THE CIMARRON TURNPIKE
19. On the western edge of the map, you should see a red dashed
line cutting through the middle of several sections. In
several places the line divides an area of green and an
area without green. What might this apparent line
A FENCELINE / PROERTY BOUNDARY
Reading Topographic Maps 5
Map Set 6:
20. What is the name, scale (ratio), and contour interval of this
RIPLEY; 1:24000; 10 FEET
21. According to the map, does the town of Mehan have a
22. In a number of locations along the Cimarron River you should
see a tan/brown dotted pattern. What do these symbols
23. Do you best on this one: What is the highest contour line present
on this Quadrangle?
Map Set 7:
The two maps in this set are slightly different than the others in this
activity. You should make sure to note the differences.
24. What is the scale (ratio), and contour interval of these maps?
1:250000; 100 FEET
25. On the Enid Map find Morrison. What is the elevation listed for
Morrison? (Make sure you note your units!!!!!!!!!)
26. What is the name of the Railroad that passes through Morrison?
ST. LOUIS – SAN FRANCISCO
Reading Topographic Maps 6