Types of Maps: Topographic, Political, Climate, and More

Picture of a world map from 1602

 Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The field of geography relies on many different types of maps in order to study the features of the earth. Some maps are so common that a child would recognize them, while others are used only by professionals in specialized fields. Some of the most common types are political, physical, topographic, climate, economic, and thematic maps.

Fast Facts: Types of Maps

  • Simply defined, maps are pictures of the Earth's surface. General reference maps document landforms, national boundaries, bodies of water, the locations of cities and so on.
  • Thematic maps display specific data, such as the average rainfall distribution for an area or the distribution of a certain disease throughout a county.

Political Maps

A political map does not show topographic features like mountains. It focuses solely on the state and national boundaries of a place. These maps also include the locations of cities large and small, depending on the detail of the maps.

A typical example of a political map would be one showing the 50 U.S. states and their borders along with the United States' international borders.

Physical Maps

A physical map is one that documents landscape features of a place. These maps generally show things like mountains, rivers, and lakes. Bodies of water are commonly shown in blue. Mountains and elevation changes are sometimes shown with different colors and shades to show elevation. On physical maps, greens usually indicate lower elevations while browns usually indicate higher elevations.

This map of Hawaii is a physical map. Low elevation coastal regions are shown in dark green, while the higher elevations transition from orange to dark brown. Rivers are shown in blue.

World Map 3D Render Topographic Map
World Map 3D Render Topographic Map. FrankRamspot/Getty Images

Topographic Maps

A topographic map is similar to a physical map in that it shows different physical landscape features. Unlike physical maps, though, this type of map uses contour lines instead of colors to show changes in the landscape. Contour lines on topographic maps are normally spaced at regular intervals to show elevation changes (e.g. each line represents a 100-foot elevation change). When lines are close together, it means the terrain is steep.

Climate Maps

A climate map shows information about the climate of an area. These maps can show things like the specific climatic zones of an area based on the temperature, the amount of snow an area receives, or the average number of cloudy days. These maps normally use colors to show different climatic areas.

This climate map for Australia uses colors to show differences between the temperate area of Victoria and the desert region in the center of the continent.

Vegetation zones of the world, lithograph, published in 1897
Vegetation zones of the world, lithograph, published in 1897.  ZU_09/Getty Images

Economic or Resource Maps

An economic or resource map shows the specific types of economic activity or natural resources present in an area through the use of different symbols or colors depending on what is being depicted.

This economic activity map for Brazil, for example, uses colors to show different agricultural products of given areas, letters for natural resources, and symbols for different industries.

Road Maps

A road map is one of the most widely used map types. These maps show major and minor highways and roads (depending on the degree of detail), as well as things like airports, cities, and points of interest such as parks, campgrounds, and monuments. Major highways on a roadmap are generally shown with thick, red lines, while minor roads are lighter in color and drawn with narrower lines.

A road map of California, for example, would depict Interstate highways with a wide red or yellow line, while state highways would be shown in a narrower line in the same color. Depending on the level of detail, the map may also show county roads, major city arteries, and rural routes. These would be depicted in shades of gray or white.

Thematic Maps

A thematic map is a map that focuses on a particular theme or special topic. These maps are different from the six aforementioned general reference maps because they do not just show features like rivers, cities, political subdivisions, elevation, and highways. If these items appear on a thematic map, they are background information and are used as reference points to enhance the map's theme.

This Canadian map, for example, which shows changes in population between 2011 and 2016, is a good example of a thematic map. The city of Vancouver is broken down into regions based on the Canadian Census. Changes in the population are represented by a range of colors ranging from green (growth) to red (loss) based on the degree of change.