Canada Topographic Maps

Topographic Map Keys - Help

Legend Map Symbols

Topographic Map Keys

In cartography, symbols are everything. The very nature of a map as an abstracted representation of the Earth requires symbols to perform the abstraction. To not have symbols is to not have maps.

When we first think of symbols, we tend to think of graphics representing elements that appear at points, like bridges and houses. Symbols can also be linear, representing such features as roads, railways and rivers. However, we also need to include representations of area, in the case of forested land or cleared land; this is done through the use of colour.

The set of symbols and their appropriate use on National Topographic System (NTS) maps is described by a specific set of rules: Standards and Specifications for Polychrome Maps. This guide ensures uniform depiction of land features on both 1/50 000 and 1/250 000 maps. However, like other forms of information, maps invariably undergo change. As an example, the fourth edition of a textbook will not have the same cover design or table of contents as the first edition. The information will be as reliable, but will have been reworked in certain places to reflect new findings or deliver the material in a more accessible fashion. In a similar way, changes are made to the symbols shown on NTS maps. Newer editions of 1/50 000 and 1/250 000 maps use symbols which look different from older NTS maps.

Download a two-page topographic map legend (PDF).

The most common map symbols are shown and defined in the following images:

Transportation Features:

Roads and Trails

Roads and Trails Topographic Map Symbols

Railways and Airports

Railways and Airports Topographic Map Symbols

Other Transportation Features (tunnels, bridges, embankments, etc.)

Other Transportation Features Topographic Map Symbols

Hydrographic Features:

Man Made Hydrographic Features (docks, dams, canals, etc.)

Man Made Hydrographic Features Topographic Map Symbols

Naturally Occurring Hydrographic Features (falls, rapids, marsh, etc.)

Naturally Occurring Hydrographic Features Topographic Map Symbols

Terrain Features:

Elevation (contours, spot heights, etc.)

Elevation Topographic Map Symbols

Geomorphology and Geology

Geomorphology and Geology Topographic Map Symbols

Land Cover

Land Cover Topographic Map Symbols

Human Activity Symbols:


Recreation Topographic Map Symbols

Agriculture and Industry

Agriculture and Industry Topographic Map Symbols

Buildings and Other Man-Made Features

Buildings and Other Man-Made Features Topographic Map Symbols

Some categories of symbols on NTS maps include many different features. To let map users learn more about features in those categories, labels are used. A good example of how labels are helpful is with large buildings: a label will indicate which building is a hospital and which is a skating rink.

This page contains data © Department of Natural Resources Canada. All rights reserved.
Bookmark and Share