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11 Different Types of Maps

A compass on top of a reference map

Maps are symbolic representations of areas on a flat surface or a real element. These devices are extremely useful and handy because they represent specific details and show meticulous features of certain regions, areas, and more.

A map shows boundaries, physical features of a place, climate, topography and sometimes, even economic activities of a city or country. Different kinds of maps have different purposes, each of which is used when necessary.

Believe it or not, maps have been around since ancient times, and they have been a means of navigation and identification. During the 17th and 19th centuries, maps became more factual and accurate as different countries started opting for mapping programs.

Aerial photography, which came about during the First World War, played a massive role in map-making.

Since there are so many types of maps available, it is important to be aware of the different kinds of maps. However, even though there are thousands and thousands of unique maps around the world, most maps are identified as part of 2 major groups: reference maps and thematic maps.

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  • Reference maps are used to show the locations of geographic boundaries, cultural features (including cities, roads, and places), and the physical features of certain regions. Common examples of reference maps would be political maps, physical maps, topographic maps, road maps, zip code maps, time zone maps, and geological maps. Different reference maps have been created for almost all countries in the world.

  • Thematic maps are used to show the variation of a theme in a geographic region. For example, weather maps are used to show the different temperatures in a region. Different colors are used to determine the different temperatures throughout the year, and they show what you can expect from any region of the Earth. Other examples of thematic maps would be resource maps and income maps.

Types of Reference Maps

Political Maps

Political map of the world

Political maps are the most popular reference maps. These are the maps that are mounted on classroom walls all around the world. The purpose of these political maps is to show the geographic boundaries between countries, counties, and states. They also show cities, roads, and major bodies of water, which may include lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Political maps allow people to grasp a better understanding of the world’s geography. These maps are the first kind of maps that are introduced to students in school. They are known as reference maps because they are referred to over and over again when anyone has any sort of question-related to the world or the place they are living in.

Physical maps are either printed on paper or other physical mediums, but they are also digital, which means they can be easily accessed and viewed online. Every single day, millions of people go on the internet to search for a political map that they can refer to. The most popular search when it comes to maps is “map of the world.”

There are thousands of different kinds of political maps that have been created to show different geographies of the same place. For example, there have been physical maps of entire countries, maps that show different states, maps that show different counties, and so on.

Sometimes, these maps are broken down into smaller political units for people to get a better understanding of their geography.

As mentioned before, political maps are the most common kind of maps in classrooms, but these maps have made appearances in offices as well. They are annotated with photographs, thumb pins, market flags, or sticky notes to show where the business is located, to show family travels, or other activities that may have taken place on a larger scale.

Election Result Maps

Election result map of the United States

Election Result Maps are also considered as a type of political map. The purpose of an election result map is to show the geographic location of a candidate and where he or she has received the most support/votes. These geographic locations are most commonly political subdivisions of a country, state, and more.

The most famous type of election map would be the red state and blue state map of the United States of America during the presidential elections. The states that win with Republican votes are distinguished with a red color, whereas the states that win with Democratic votes are distinguished with a blue color.

When the elections are going on, and while the votes are coming in, these maps are considered thematic maps. However, when they are looked at in the future, they are referred to as reference maps because of the historical significance they hold.

Physical Maps

Physical map of the world

The purpose of a physical map is to show the natural features of Earth’s landscape. They are popularly known to show topography by tonal variation or with the use of solid colors. The color scheme of a physical map varies from dark green to brown to gray and is meant to represent the elevations of land.

The dark green shades are used to show the elevation near sea level, and the color changes into brown and tan colors. The different shades of green show the highest to lowest elevations on a map. The significance of each color is written on the key.

Bodies of water, including lakes, rivers, oceans, and seas, are shown with blue color. The light shades of blue are used to distinguish shallow areas, and the darker shades represent the deeper, larger bodies of water. Ice caps and glaciers are represented by the color white.

Physical maps also show important political boundaries, like where one state meets another or important boundaries within a country. Major roads and cities are also shown. Cultural information is not a priority for these maps, but it is included for geographical references and so that the map would be user-friendly.

Topographic Maps

Topographic map with contour lines

The purpose of topographic maps is to show how the surface of the Earth is shaped. This is usually accomplished with the help of contour lines that show different elevations. However, the different elevations can also be shown with the use of different colors, shaded relief, color gradients, and other related methods.

Topographic maps are handy for skiers, hunters, hikers, and other individuals that are outdoors most of the time. Moreover, they are also great for engineers, geologists, construction workers, surveyors, architects, landscape planners, biologists, and more. The military uses topographic maps as well.

These maps show the important features of a region as well, including streams, lakes, and rivers. Since their location is also determined solely by topography, these natural things become important elements for topographic maps.

Cultural features are also shown on these maps. Cultural features include roads, buildings, schools, churches, hospitals, trails, place names, cemeteries, benchmarks, and much more. A set of symbols is used to distinguish each of these elements on the map.

Traditionally, topographic maps are printed on larger pieces of paper that have the four boundary lines on them (these are the lines of latitude and longitude).

Road, Street, and Highway Maps

Road map with red markings

As the digital mapping world was taking over, a lot of map creation took place during the 1990s. In 1996, MapQuest (one of the first popular online service for mapping), allowed people to create and customize maps in the United States if they had access to the internet.

After the first few months, many people became cartographers. Soon after, more and more of these people were creating unique looking maps every single day. The maps that were being created during this time have set historic records.

In this day and age, Google Maps is the most popular online mapping service in the world. Apart from having a user-friendly map that everyone can use, it also provides travel routes and directions.

It creates directions for individuals that are walking, driving, taking public transportation, cycling, or hopping on a plane.

More than thousands of maps, travel routes, and street views are created with the help of Google Maps on a daily basis. When people are traveling, it is one of the first resorts no matter what kind of traveling they are doing.

Google has another facility called Google Earth that helps people see roads, views, and satellite images in one interface. Google Earth is a free tool that can be installed onto computers, and you can easily view everything using this software.

Zip Code Maps

Zip code map of France

The purpose of a zip code map is to show the approximate limit of where area zip codes can be used. These zip codes are usually written over a base map that shows the different streets and roads.

The United States Postal Service is known to assign zip codes to every street, or collection of streets, a structure, post office boxes, an establishment, or an area that only has one post office so that mail can be delivered accurately.

Instead of having many geographical locations, a zip code is related to the different routes for mail delivery. Areas that are not highly populated can be assigned with only one zip code, and it can cover large areas.

However, cluttered and highly populated cities can have a different zip code assigned to a single building, for example.

Time Zone Maps

Start time zone map of the world

A time zone is a region of the world that allows people to set a specific time on their clocks that ticks as the day goes on. Having a synchronized time provides benefits in terms of navigation. An international agreement has stated that there are 24 times zones in the world.

Therefore, the purpose of the time zone map is to show the 24 time zones of the Earth. In every time zone, noon happens during the solar midday.

When comparing solar activity from the east to the west, everyone knows that it occurs in the east earlier. The changes in time zones occur due to the rotation of the Earth.

Time zone maps are most commonly used by people to tell the time in different areas around the globe. For example, if there is a person in India that wants to talk to someone in Canada, he or she can refer to a time zone map and see the difference.

A time zone map can allow people to avoid calling or expecting anything during certain hours, even if the time seems suitable for them.

Geologic Maps

 Illustration of a geologic map

The purpose of a geologic map is to show the types of sediments or rocks immediately present under the surface of a specific geographic location. The sediment levels are shown with different shades of yellow, and the rock levels are distinguished with a variety of different colors, but the shade is determined by their lithology.

Geologic maps contain important information, and they are a reliable data source to do a lot of different kinds of work. There are certain types of rocks that are needed for construction, and with the help of a geologic map, it is possible to pinpoint their precise location.

There are certain types of rocks that have precious minerals in them, and a geologic map can help people obtain these valuable resources.

Geographical locations that are near volcanoes might have lava flows, pyroclastic flows, lahar deposits, or other volcano-related things under the surface. Luckily, a geologic map can make sure that you can assess an area for any volcanic hazard before undertaking any activity in the area.

A geologic map can help in identifying where the highest quality materials in large quantities are. This is extremely useful when it comes to construction, where only high-quality materials are required for the job.

Also, a stable source of these materials is required so that the project doesn’t run out before it is completed.

Geologic maps are created by geologists who specialize in the identifying, measuring, and sampling of different kinds of rocks. Since rocks are not exposed in many locations, including areas that have heavy vegetation, they are based on fragmentary information.

This information is utilized during landslides, construction projects, steam erosions, and other such events. This is why, as new information starts to surface, geologic maps need to be refined and updated from time to time.

Types of Thematic Maps

Weather Maps

Weather map with weather warnings

Many people around the world use weather maps. The purpose of a weather map is to show predicted temperature, wind direction and speed, storm warnings, frost predictions, snow accumulation, the chance of precipitation, types of precipitation, and all other things related to weather.

Weather maps need to be updated continuously as new and current information related to the weather comes in. These maps are the most consulted thematic maps all over the world.

Weather maps are printed in newspapers, and they are viewed on television. These maps can also be accessed online, which allows many people around the world to gain insight into the weather across the globe.

There are many weather maps that have been animated as they show the changes in weather as time passes. A weather map is very useful for people that need to know about the weather and how the weather can affect their day.

Income Maps

A common and popularly used type of thematic map is an income map. This map shows the different income levels in a geographical location. An income map is a great way to see the different income medians across a country as the rural areas definitely have lesser income compared to the urban locations.

In urban locations, income fluctuates because of the number of people in a certain area. Understanding an income map is a little tricky, but once you get the hang of it, it can be quite easy.

Resource Maps

Resource map made with spices

One reason why thematic maps were created was to communicate the different natural resources in different parts of the world. A resource map shows what country has the largest production of diamonds or what location has the richest gas or oil fields.

Resource maps are helpful for governments as they aid in understanding their natural resource assets and the natural resource assets of their enemies or allies. These maps help mining companies as well because they show them where their target exploration should be conducted. 

In simpler words, these maps show how rich a country is in natural resources and how it can fully maximize these resources.

Parts of a Map

Every map has essential parts. Here are a few that are common in (almost) every map:

  • A data frame is the part of the map that shows all the important data. It is the central focus of the map.
  • The legend, also known as the key of the map is the “decoder” that gives a brief explanation of each symbol on the map. In a political map, a legend plays an important role as it shows what each symbol means in different areas of the map. Without a legend, reading a map can be almost impossible.
  • The title of the map is important because it immediately tells the viewer what he or she is looking at.
  • The north arrow is put on a map to show the orientation of a map. It allows the viewer to see what the right direction of the map is. Most of the time, the north arrow is placed to show the top of the page, but this is not always the case.
  • A scale is supposed to explain the distance in real life. The scale gives a brief idea of the distance between one location and another. Again, understanding the map scale can be difficult, but once it is understood, reading the map becomes easier.
  • The citation part of the map is the metadata of a map. This is where you will find all the explanation of data resources and other related things. This area allows viewers to determine what their reason for using a map is.

Now that you have a thorough understanding of the different types of maps available and the purpose of each type, make sure you use them in a way that benefits you the most. Whether you are resorting to an old-school flip paper map or Google Maps, a map will allow you to get from one place to another successfully.