The Different Types of Maps and What They Are Used For

There are many different types of maps. Usually, their classification depends on the kind of information they depict.

According to one common classification, there are two basic types of maps:

  • Topographic and general reference maps: This type of map highlights geographical information based on the actual landscape.
  • Thematic maps: This type of map focuses on information other than the landscape. They do use a geographical map as background and context.

Both of these maps can stand alone. They do not need additional maps or information for clarification.

They may also be part of a series of related maps, referred to as series maps.

The maps mentioned in the list below are all different, but they have one thing in common. A set of rules that determines exactly how they are made and what they show.

General Reference Maps

General reference maps are simple maps that most people are familiar with. They show the important physical features, whether manmade or natural, in a certain area.

They summarize the landscape to facilitate the exploration of an area or location. Their simplicity makes them easy to read and interpret.

Early maps of the earth fall into this category.

Most general reference maps highlight or emphasize a specific theme. A road map, for instance, highlights roads, so that a traveler can find his way.

Often the map uses different colors and line widths to distinguish between major and minor roads.

Normally, general reference maps show differences in altitudes in a stylized manner. Other common examples of general reference maps are street and tourist maps.

Their main purpose is to help the reader to get from one place to another with ease.

Topographic Maps

Topographical maps give detailed information about elevation and the landscape. It is somewhat similar to a physical map in that it indicates various landscape features.

However, instead of colors, they use contour lines to indicate differences in the landscape.

The contour lines are usually defined by preset differences in elevation. Therefore, the closer the contours are on the map, the steeper the terrain.

The applications of these maps are many. Many make use of them for camping, fishing, hunting, and hiking.

They also serve professional purposes such as urban planning, resource management, and surveying.

The advantage of these maps is that they show the layout of the land. From this type of map features like mountains, rivers, streams, and valleys are easily seen.

Most of the time they also show other artificial landmarks such as roads. A well-known example of a topographical map is the ordnance survey map.

This type is also much used outside the military setting. Other mapmakers offer similar detailed alternatives.

Even if the topographical map does not include features such as roads or lakes, an experienced map reader can still find their current location.

Thematic Maps

Thematic maps focus on a specific topic or have an explicit purpose. The information may be physical, or statistical and measured, or interpreted.

Sometimes, these maps require specialist knowledge for interpretation.

The focus of these maps is not the geographical details and they are usually not shown in detail. If reference points like cities, elevations, and highways are relevant for the data, they may be indicated.

Thematic maps can visualize a wide variety of data types. They can show anything ranging from weather to geology, to population density.

There are even thematic maps that track the location of whales.

Physical Maps

A physical map is a map that describes the geographical features of an area.

Many physical maps use a green-brown-grey color palette to indicate the elevations in the landscape. Green indicates elevations around sea level and darker green slight elevations.

Brown is often used as the altitude increases. The highest elevations are then shown in greyish colors.

Bodies of water, like lakes, rivers, and seas are usually depicted in blue. Lighter shades indicate shallow water and a darker shade of blue shows deeper waters.

Some physical maps show information that is also found on, for example, a political map. Their main purpose, however, is to show landforms, like deserts, lakes, and mountains.

It gives a complete overview of the terrain in question. It mainly focuses on the natural features of a landscape.

Road Maps

A road map focuses on roads and transport links, not the geographical characteristics of an area. It is one of the most common types of maps.

Depending on the scale and level of detail, a road map shows major and minor roads and highways.

The larger and more important roads are often depicted by thick red lines. The smaller roads use thinner lines in lighter colors.

Included in the road map are things like airports, cities, and certain attractions. These are points of interest that many would choose as their destination.

It also features campsites, monuments, and parks.

Google Maps has grown into the most popular mapping system. It is accessible online worldwide.

Besides the maps, it offers a service for calculating travel routes. Many have used this feature while they are traveling by car, bike, plane, or even on foot.

Climate Maps

As the name says, this type of map displays information about an area’s climate.

A climate map shows the weather patterns in a specific region. It shows climate zones, usually in different colors, overlaid on a normal map.

Normally, there is an accompanying legend that explains what each color means.

Depending on the information presented, a climate map can span a small region, a continent, or even the entire world.

Different physical parameters may be shown in one single map. For instance, one map can show temperature, rainfall, and seasonal variations.

Navigational Charts

Navigational charts are used in a nautical or areal context. They contain the layout of shorelines and sea beds in the case of nautical applications.

Besides their use at sea, they are also used in air travel. Together with general reference and topographical maps, they provide the pilot with information to find his way.

These charts are often made by governmental mapping organizations:

  • Navy: Many national navies have the task of mapping coastlines and their territory’s waters. Sometimes civil defense bodies or port management authorities take part in this task.
  • Air force: Often the national air force takes part in producing navigational maps. Authorities that control civilian air traffic are sometimes responsible as well.

These types of maps are generally provided as charts. The information helps a navigator to find their way without accidents.

It indicates certain features, like shallow waters and submerged rocks. In addition to indicating these important features, these charts contain specialized navigational aids.

Cadastral Maps and Plans

Cadastral maps are very common, although most people rarely come across them. They give very detailed information about individual properties, such as boundary information.

These maps are prepared after surveying houses or land. Joining smaller cadastral plans results in larger cadastral maps.

There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians kept cadastral maps. This makes the cadastral map one of the oldest types of maps.

The maps they made in Egypt kept track of land ownership after the Nile river flooded.

The word “cadastral” comes from “cadaster” which refers to a public record. It can also mean a survey, or map of the property, degree, or ownership of land for purposes of taxation.

It is most likely to see one after buying a house, or after having a piece of land surveyed. People that deal with town planning will also come across them.

Political Maps

The political map is a common type of reference map. They hang in many classrooms around the world.

They show geographical boundaries between governmental units. As such they are useful for showing countries, states, or counties.

Some will also show other features like cities, roads, and different bodies of water.

The political map does not focus on topographical features. Instead, it indicates the national or state borders in a region.

In other words, the highlighted features are man-made. They are often characterized by their absence of complicating features.

Ending thoughts on different types of maps

The maps discussed above have one important thing in common. They are all made based on a predefined set of rules.

This determines how they are made and what they show. This is also called “Specification”.

Each of these maps focuses on a different type of information. However, there are some other features that many of these maps have in common.

For example, it is not unusual to find a compass rose that indicates where north, east, south, and west are. Also, most maps have a scale, which helps in estimating distances.

Even though each type of map highlights something different, there are also areas of overlap. A topographic map, for instance, can show the distribution of a local species of orchids.

In this way, it is both a topographic map and a thematic map. If this orchid shows tourists where to go, it also becomes a general reference map.

If you liked this article about the types of maps, you should also check out this article with map illustration examples.

We also wrote about a few related subjects like the map elementsmap vector, what is a vector map, interactive maps, the choropleth map and how to make one, thematic map examples, and statistical maps.

A bit obvious by now, but we really like maps so we wrote even more about subjects like funny maps, metro maps, fantasy maps, and even the US electoral map.

I take it you like maps as well so make sure to check out MapSVG, a great WordPress maps plugin you should check out.

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