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Micro Ventures: Make a Topo Map

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

As part of the Micro Venture series, we’re here to make navigation and map basics entertaining and fun. What better way to learn than learning how topographic maps work with an understanding of contour lines!

Topographic (or topo) maps show the ups and downs of the landscape. Creating your own topo map activity teaches you (and kids) how contour lines work to visualize what the map’s terrain will look like in person.

Before we jump in to build the topographic activity, let’s go over the basics.

Contour lines

Topo maps have contour lines, which are the lines that indicate elevation lines (or how tall or steep the terrain is). The closer the contour lines on the map, the steeper the terrain. The further apart the line, the more gentle the terrain. Depending on the map, the spacing of the contour lines may vary from feet or meters and with different scales. Before you leave the trailhead, make sure to know how far the distance is between the contour lines.

Knowing how to read the contour lines will also help you identify ridges and valleys as well as give you an idea for the depth of field to try to image what the terrain may translate to before even going to that area.

Make a topo map

Now it’s your turn!

Gear list

  • Play-Doh or clay

  • Cardboard

  • Dental floss

  • 2 toothpicks

  • Paper

  • Pencil

  • Ruler

Topo map directions

  1. Place Play-Doh on the cardboard.

  2. Form your mountain, giving it interesting shape and features. It should be about 4 to 5 inches high with a flat bottom.

  3. Use your pencil to poke 2 holes down the center of the mountain–making sure they go all the way down.

  4. Use a ruler to measure up the mountain in 1-inch sections, dividing in equal thickness.

  5. Use dental floss to cut through the mountain, starting at the top mark and working your way to the bottom. Make sure the floss is tight and level.

  6. Move the first slice of the mountain to the paper and trace around it.

  7. Push the pencil through one hole and make a mark. Do this again with the other hole. Then set the slice aside.

  8. Poke the two toothpicks through the holes in the paper. This will help you line up each slice of mountain.

  9. Cut another slice of mountain, line up the holes with the help of the toothpicks, and trace around it. Repeat with each section until you reach the bottom of the mountain.

  10. Stack up the sections to reform your mountain, compare to your topo map and finish it off by naming your mountain!!

After creating a mountain, add complexity by creating a mountain ridge, valley with a river running through, or two mountains connected by a pass.

In last week’s Micro Venture, you learned parts of a map when map making.

Map legends

After you have your topo map created, add the scale and a legend to your topo map.

A map’s legend is your guide to reading the details and features of the map. You can find the scale of the map, or a small ruler on what the distance represents on a small line (usually in miles or kilometers).

Map legends define the symbols found on the map, Some examples include roads and highways, trails, campsites, water sources, land management boundaries and other noteworthy points of interest.

Maps show colors to help understand the terrain. Rivers, lakes, and bodies of water are blue while forests and heavy vegetation are green. The brown squiggly lines are normally contour lines.

BONUS: Girafficorn topo coloring sheet

Add a little fun and color your own topographic girafficorn.

Micro Ventures, a free digital program to engage all ages in nature-related activities. Stay tuned for a different "Micro Venture" each week this summer.

SheJumps values providing low-to-no cost opportunities for our members. In the current state of the world, our ability to continue providing these programs relies on the availability of limited resources. If you find this education valuable, please consider a donation to support the future of our programs. Contribute to SheJumps ⟶

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