Introduction to Topographic Maps Banner link to home page GeoSTAC Link to Department of Geosciences at Idaho State University
by Jim Riesterer . . . . . . . . . . Edited by Scott Hughes, Dan Narsavage & Diana Boyack

Topographic Maps Tutorial

Introduction & Materials
What is a Map?
Using Topo Maps
Map Scale
Reference Datum
Map Projections
Grid Systems
State Plane
Public Land Survey
Vertical Scale
Creating Profiles
Vertical Exaggeration
Calculating Slope
Using a Compass
Magnetic Declination
Get a Bearing
Go from A to B
Find Self on a Map

Topographic Maps Field Exercises

Exercise 1
Exercise 2
Exercise 3
Exercise 4

GeoSTAC Home

Field Exercises
April 7, 2008

Introduction & Materials

Maps that deal with the surface changes on the earth are called topographic maps. This exercise will look at how topographic maps are created, what information they contain, how you can use them with a compass to get where you want to go, and how to measure the relative positions of points of interest.

Much of the information discussed is applicable to all types of maps, but for the exercises associated with this tutorial, the emphasis will be on information contained in a 7.5 minute topographic map. Here is a link for USGS information regarding maps.

Required Materials:

  • 7.5 minute series U.S. Geological Survey topographic quadrangle map (1:24,000 scale) and perhaps a clipboard or other flat surface on which to write in the field.
  • compass (capable of measuring azimuth, borrow one if necessary)
  • protractor (inexpensive)
  • graph paper (including a sharp pencil and eraser, not a pen)
  • field notebook (optional)


Your map must represent a location that is accessible to you by car, truck, llama, or whatever means of transportation is available. Make sure it has a few sites of interest to you, such as lakes, streams, mountains, neighborhoods, etc. (just about anything is appropriate). You can buy these at local outfitter stores, some bookstores, your local BLM or Forest Service office or through the U.S. Geological Survey.


Gain an understanding of what a map is, how a map is made, and how to use a topographic map and compass.

Requirements to complete this module:

  • Read through the entire tutorial, using links to visit more extensive explanations in the companion tutorial. Throughout the exercise, questions will be posed and answered. You will maximize what you get out of this exercise if you work through the questions yourself before reading the answer, but you are not required to turn in your results.
  • At the end of the on-line tutorial there are a series of questions in the all-important Field Exercises. You will need to complete all of these exercises, answer the associated questions, and turn in your results.

Continue to ... What is a Map ...