An Online Guide to Maps and Map Skills

Maps represent the Earth’s surface, or a part of it in two- or three-dimensional form. Maps give information about a place, such as its location relative to other places on the Earth’s surface, its distance from other places, and its size. There are many different types of maps, including political maps, topographic maps, physical maps, climate maps, thematic maps, and road maps. The information each kind of map depicts depends on its use: a map of a subway system shows different subway lines and major streets, but does not show mountain ranges or average rainfall because that information does not help the map user decide which subway line to take to reach their destination.

The maps we use most in our every-day lives when we want to go from one place to another are road maps. While technology has changed the way we get directions, knowing how to read a road map is very important. The maps on GPS devices or Internet map and direction services can be helpful in planning your route, but a state or county map will give you an overview of all possible routes you might choose, not only the shortest one and let you find alternative routes or detours in case of emergency or road closure. Paper maps also show more detail over large areas: looking at the map of an entire state on paper will show large and small roads, rivers, lakes, parks, monuments, and other details that an electronic map does not. Knowing how to read a paper map is also important in case your GPS device does not get satellite reception, runs out of batteries, or breaks. Knowing how to read other types of maps, such as topographic maps, or political maps, is also important. A topographic map is an important tool on a hiking or camping trip, when satellite or cellular phone service is not available. A climate map or a resource map is a visual depiction of information that relates it to geography, direction, and location, which can show patterns not readily visible from charts or other representations. This article will help you learn more about different kinds of maps and how to read and use them.

Political and Outline Maps

Political maps, or outline maps, show the governmental borders of countries, states, and counties. These maps indicate the location of capital cities with a star or a star inscribed in a circle. Major cities are indicated with a dot. Political maps do not show physical features such as mountains, although significant bodies of water such as oceans or bays are usually marked.

Road Maps

Road maps are designed for motorists to use in planning their travel routes. The level of detail shown by a road map depends on the map’s scale and purpose:

Some show surface roads of cities or towns while others show only major highways. A state-level road map usually shows major highways, minor highways or large roads, airports, railroad tracks, major and minor cities, national or state parks, military bases, areas of interest to tourists, lakes, and rivers. National road maps will show major highways, state borders, national parks, and major rivers and lakes. City, county, or regional maps will show a greater level of detail and include small streets, schools, libraries, parks, and other areas of local interest.

Physical Maps

Physical maps show natural features and some man-made features of an area. Land is shown in green or brown and water in blue. Physical maps show mountains and mountain ranges, rivers, and lakes. Elevation, or “relief”, is marked by color gradation: lower altitudes are green and higher elevations are shown as brown or orange. Some physical maps show soil type, land use, or land type (such as desert or rainforest). Man-made features shown on physical maps include national borders, capital cities, and major cities.

Topographic Maps

Topographic maps show the land contours of an area in great detail. Contour lines show the shape of the land and its elevation. These lines connect sections of land of equal elevation. Lines that are closely spaced indicate steep terrain or high elevation, while widely spaced lines indicate lower elevation or flatter terrain. Topographic maps use symbols to show other land features, such as streams, rivers, vegetation, civil boundaries, buildings, or streets.

Climate Maps

Climate maps show information about prevailing weather patterns of a region, such as average precipitation or temperature. Climate maps may or may not show political boundaries. Colors and shading, explained by the map’s key, indicate the amount of rainfall or snowfall or the average temperature in a given area. Climate maps do not show day-to-day weather systems but rather indicate broader trends and regional variations in climactic conditions.

Economic/Resource Maps

Economic maps show political boundaries and indicate economic factors through shading, color, and symbols. Economic maps indicate an area’s agricultural or industrial activity through symbols, such as a tiny sheaf of wheat to show grain farming or crossed picks to show mining. A resource map will indicate an area’s natural resources, such as gold or iron, through a combination of symbols and colors. The color of the symbol for mining, for example, may indicate different ores. Some economic maps use colors and shading to indicate a region’s economic growth rate, average income, or other economic indicators.

Types of Maps

Other Map Related information

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