The distinctive characteristic of a topographic map is the use of elevation contour lines to show the shape of the Earth's surface. Elevation contours are imaginary lines connecting points having the same elevation on the surface of the land above or below a reference surface, which is usually mean sea level. Contours make it possible to show the height and shape of mountains, the depths of the ocean bottom, and the steepness of slopes. 

USGS topographic maps also show many other kinds of geographic features including roads, railroads, rivers, streams, lakes, boundaries, place or feature names, mountains, and much more. Older maps (published before 2006) show additional features such as trails, buildings, towns, mountain elevations, and survey control points. Those will be added to more current maps over time. 

The phrase "USGS topographic map" can refer to maps with a wide range of scales, but the scale used for all modern USGS topographic maps is 1:24,000. That covers a quadrangle that measures 7.5 minutes of longitude and latitude on all sides, so these are also referred to as 7.5-minute maps, quadrangle maps, or “quad” maps (modern topographic maps for Alaska have a scale of 1:25,000 and cover a variable distance of longitude). Each topographic map has a unique name. 

Within this domain there are two product categories:

  • US Topo maps are the current topographic map series, published as digital documents (that can also be printed) from 2009 to the present.

  • The Historical Topographic Map Collection (HTMC) is scanned images of maps originally published (at all scales) as paper documents in the period 1884-2006.

The USGS also publishes other kinds of maps, including some topographic maps that are not standard quadrangle maps. 

Learn more:

Related Content

Filter Total Items: 9

How do I find, download, or order topographic maps?

Download all dates and scales of USGS topographic maps (both current US Topo maps and Historical topographic maps ) free of charge from the following applications. With the exception of GNIS, each site has an option for toggling on map indices showing an outline of all the maps, though you might need to zoom in to see the outlines: Map Locator on...

Where can I find indexes of USGS topographic maps?

View map indices on these interactive maps (you must zoom in to see the index lines and map names) : Map Locator on the USGS Store - Click the icon on the left that looks like two pieces of paper and select “1:24,000”. TopoView - Click on any of the round map scale indicators on the right side of the map. The National Map Viewer - Click on the...

How are U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps named?

A USGS topographic map is usually named for the most prominent feature within the bounds of the map, which is frequently a community. Most topographic maps are named for the most centrally located, well-known, and/or largest community identified on the map. If the community for which the map should be named falls on two or more maps, a directional...

Do you offer teacher discounts for your maps and other cost products?

Yes. Educational institutions qualify for discounts on purchases made through the online USGS Store . To receive any discounts you must first be set up in their system. Please fax your request on school letterhead (or on a purchase order) to 303-202-4693 and include your Federal Tax ID number ( not to be confused with your Federal Tax Exempt...

Will US Topo maps become part of the Historical Topographic Map Collection when a newer version is published?

Superseded US Topo maps will remain available for download, but will not become part of the Historical Topographic Map Collection , which is scans of USGS topographic quadrangles originally published as paper documents between 1884-2006. The first US Topo maps were published in 2009. They are updated and superseded every 3 years (maps for one...

There are multiple copies of the same map in your Historical Topographic Map Collection that all have the same date. Is there a difference between those maps?

Yes, these are different maps that typically resulted from revisions and reprints. The differences are often minor. The date used to identify a map can be found in the lower right corner. If there are multiple editions with the same compilation date, look for additional dates in the lower right portion of the map collar that might differentiate...

How do I get a full-scale plot of a 1:24,000-scale (7.5-minute) topographic map?

There are three ways to get full-scale plots of USGS topographic quadrangle maps, including both Historical Topographic maps (produced 1884-2006) and US Topo maps (produced 2009-present). Order a paper map from the USGS Store . Use the Store’s Map Locator to find the desired map. Download the GeoPDF map file and send it to a local printing...

How current are US Topo maps?

US Topo maps are remade every three years. The US Topo production schedule follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) collection schedule. The linework features shown on the maps are generated from the latest data holdings in The National Map and other standard sources. The overall goal of the project...

How do US Topo maps differ from historical USGS topographic maps?

Historically, USGS topographic maps were made using data from primary sources including direct field observations. Those maps were compiled, drawn, and edited by hand. By today's standards, those traditional methods are very expensive and time-consuming, and the USGS no longer has funding to make maps that way. A new USGS topographic map series...
Filter Total Items: 2
Date published: July 19, 2017

Historical Maps at Your Fingertips

Earlier this month, the USGS launched “TopoView 2.1”, an enhancement to the current popular TopoView mapping service that lets users discover, interact, and download historical USGS topographic maps scans.

Date published: July 5, 2017

Finding Yourself Outdoors

Updated USGS digital topographic maps feature more trails and other recreation points of interest

Filter Total Items: 9
Screen shot of US Topo Story Map
August 18, 2016

US Topo Story Map – Topographic Maps for the Nation

US Topo Story Map – Topographic Maps for the Nation

Photo of Santa Fe, New Mexico 2013 United States Topo map
July 22, 2016

Santa Fe, New Mexico 2013 US Topo quadrangle

Santa Fe, New Mexico 2013 US Topo quadrangle, with orthoimage off. 

video thumbnail: US Topo
February 29, 2012

US Topo

US Topo is the next generation of topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Arranged in the familiar 7.5-minute quadrangle format, digital US Topo maps are designed to look and feel (and perform) like the traditional paper topographic maps for which the USGS is so well known. In contrast to paper-based maps, US Topo maps provide modern technical advantages

...
November 18, 2010

PubTalk 11/2010 — Silicon, Software, and Science

Monitoring the Earth's Landscape with Low-Cost High-Tech

by Rian Bogle, Remote Sensing Specialist

 

  • The USGS is one of the world's largest providers of remote sensing data, employing the best tools and techniques to expand our knowledge of the Earth.
  • Working with low-cost field and aerial imaging technologies,
...
Image: Cartographers in the Field
January 1, 2007

Cartographers in the Field

This Depression-era oil painting was created by USGS field man Hal Shelton in 1940. The painting depicts mapping techniques used in the early days of cartography, including an alidade and stadia rod for determining distances and elevations and a plane-table for sketching contour lines. A USGS benchmark is visible near the top. The straight white lines represent survey

...
November 18, 2004

PubTalk 11/2004 — From Plane Tables to Pixels

The Revolution in Mapping at the U.S. Geological Survey

by Susan P. Benjamin, Research Geographer

  • Mapping the United States in the 19th century was arduous, dangerous work; flash floods, bears, and bandits were just a few hazards
  • By the mid-20th century, aerial photography, photogrammetry, and stereophoto pairs, allowed
...
Vintage 1903 quadrangle covering the O’Fallon, Missouri area

Vintage 1903 quadrangle covering the O’Fallon, Missouri area

Vintage 1903 quadrangle covering the O’Fallon, Missouri area from the USGS Historic Topographic Map Collection. 1:25,000 scale

Little River Gorge quadrangle, Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Little River Gorge quadrangle, Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Little River Gorge quadrangle, Great Smoky Mountain National Park