While sharing some similarities, topographic maps also have many differences from other map types.
Maps illustrate portions of the Earth’s surface. They all have a compass rose showing directions, a scale indicator showing the ratio of map distance to real life distance, and a map key or legend describing what each of the map symbols means. There are six basic map types — climate, economic/resource, physical, political, road and topographic — each with a different way of representing that piece of land.
Topographic (topo) maps show natural features like mountains, waterways and vegetation as well as a few man-made highlights such as major buildings, roads, boundaries and electrical lines. What makes them different is that they use contour lines to depict the shape and elevation of the three-dimensional terrain. Each contour line represents a specific elevation. Contour lines drawn closely together indicate steep terrain, whereas contour lines stretched far apart reveal a flat or gently sloping landscape. Hikers use them in areas where there aren’t any roads, geologists use them for recording rock types and by engineers use them for planning roads and buildings.
Road maps help drivers find their way around cities, states and countries. Like topographic maps, they show major buildings, boundaries and natural features. Unlike topographic maps, there are no contour lines. The road map key may also specify travel times between certain points on the map. Tourist attractions frequently appear on road maps. Other items of importance on road maps include rail depots, airports, historical sites and hospitals.
Climate maps show boundaries and natural features like topographic maps. Unlike topo maps, they display regions by annual rainfall and snowfall amounts.
Like topo maps, economic or resource maps show boundaries and the locations of natural resources. Unlike topographic maps, resource maps point out locations of economic activities. Economic and resource locations include regional agriculture, mining, financial activities and specific industries (i.e. computer, medical, petroleum).
Like topographic maps, physical maps display a region’s landforms and bodies of water, like mountains and rivers. Unlike topo maps, physical maps use color to highlight features. Instead of contour lines, this map uses some lines along with shading, tinting and numbers or colors to indicate elevation.
Political maps have boundaries and major towns drawn onto them, like topographic maps. Unlike topographic maps, political maps divide regions along political lines, indicating the borders between towns, counties, states/provinces and countries. Atlases and large regional maps print each country in a different color to make the distinction more clear. Capitals and major cities are also indicated on state/province or country maps.