Topographic Maps: An Introduction

By Julie Dial


Topographic maps are maps that show locations and elevations of natural and cultural features of a given area. Standard colors and symbols have been designated for use on these maps by the United States Geological Survey. Topographic maps are generally oriented to show north at the top. Scales and contour intervals vary on topographic maps depending on the series of the map and the relief (the variation in elevation) of the topography.


Learn the standard symbol signs and colors used on a topographic map. Become familiar with directions, scales, elevation readings, and ways of locating various features on topographic maps.


  • Alda topographic quadrangle map
  • topographic map symbols brochure
  • ruler


Answer the following questions about the topographic map using information provided on the map and in the map brochure.

Map Questions 

  1. What is the fractional scale of the map? 
  2. What is the scale of the map in inches to miles? 
  3. What is the contour interval of the map? 
  4. What part of Nebraska is represented on the map? 
  5. What quadrangle map is located to the northeast of this map? 
  6. What do the following colors represent on any topographic map? 
    1. Black 
    2. Green 
    3. Red 
    4. Blue 
    5. Brown 
    6. Purple
  7. Draw in the standard symbols for the following features:
    1. Swamp 
    2. School 
    3. Gravel pit 
    4. Intermittent stream 
    5. Depression
  8. Locate the following features according to township and range: 
    1. The town of Alda (NW) 
    2. School No. 23 (NE central) 
    3. Valley View School (W central) 
    4. Campbell Cemetery (SE>
  9. Tell what feature is at the following places: 
    1. NW 1/4, NW 1/4, S16, T10N, R10W
    2. SE 1/4, SE 1/4, S6, T10N, R10W 
    3. SE 1/4, SE 1/4, S11, T9N, R10W 
    4. SW 1/4, SW 1/4, S5, T10N, R10W
  10. Give the elevations at the following positions: 
    1. Orchard located in S7, T9N, R10W 
    2. Windmill located at NW 1/4, S3, T9N, R10W 
    3. Well located in NW 1/4, S6, T10N, R10W
  11. Using the map scale and ruler, give the distance between the following locations: 
    1. Alda School and Alda Cemetery 
    2. Campbell Cemetery due north to the south bank of the south channel of the Platte River
  12. How would one determine the length of the south channel of the Platte River?