What is a Topographic Map?

Last updated:28 April 2016

Topographic maps are detailed, accurate graphic representations of features that appear on the Earth's surface. These features include:

  • cultural: roads, buildings, urban development, railways, airports, names of places and geographic features, administrative boundaries, state and international borders, reserves
  • hydrography: lakes, rivers, streams, swamps, coastal flats
  • relief: mountains, valleys, contours and cliffs, depressions
  • vegetation: wooded and cleared areas, vineyards and orchards.

A map legend (or key) lists the features shown on that map, and their corresponding symbols.

Topographic maps usually show a geographic graticule and a coordinate grid, so you can determine relative and absolute positions of mapped features.

It is important to note that a map is merely a two or three dimensional representation of the physical environment at a given time. Therefore, a map will never be entirely up to date. Changes to the landscape and cultural features regularly occur (such as roads, vegetation, and buildings), resulting in maps becoming dated, although the rate of obsolescence varies depending upon location.

What are topographic maps used for?

Geoscience Australia develops and maintains topographic maps and data for a variety of applications. Of course, topographic maps are used for recreational purposes, such as travelling, hiking and orienteering, but they are also used by government and industry to assist with urban planning, mining, emergency management and the establishment of legal boundaries and land ownership.