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14 Different Types of Terrain

Mountain tops covered in trees.

Terrain comes from the word “terra” which means Earth and refers to the study of the Earth’s horizontal and vertical surfaces. By identifying the different types of terrain, we’re able to determine the most suitable habitats for mankind.

We also use this understanding for agricultural purposes and soil conservation efforts. As history has shown, the study of terrain has its impact on military tactics, aviation, and weather patterns.


Morning view of the Grand Canyon National Park.

A canyon is a big hole or gorge in the ground that is found between things such as cliffs, and the reason they are there is due to erosion from the river and various other weather conditions. Rivers are commonly found moving through the lower surfaces of a canyon, which can wash away rock layers over time.

If the estuaries and headwaters of the river have very different elevations, the erosion and weather conditions that result can form a canyon.

Canyons can be found between two mountain peaks and can be open on only one side. If they are open on one side and are found between mountains, they are called box canyons, while slot canyons are extremely narrow and have very smooth walls.

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There are other types of canyons, and they can be found almost anywhere in the world, including places such as North and South America, Africa, and throughout Asia and Europe.


A caravan in Sahara desert.

When you think of the word “desert,” you likely conjure up an image in your head of what a desert looks like, but it may not be completely accurate.

A desert is a large piece of land with little or no vegetation, mostly because of factors that include lack of water, salt poisoning, or soil that is extreme. Although most deserts are very hot, many of them are not.

In fact, there are places in areas such as Poland and the Arctic that have deserts which stay rather chilly or in moderate temperatures all year long. Deserts can also get some rainfall every now and then, and they are not always sandy. Many deserts, in fact, contain miles and miles of hard-baked earth and even bare rocks.

Above all else, a desert is a land that is uninhabited and deserted, because since most of them get so little water, it is difficult for people to live in deserts unless they are close to a water source.

Some deserts have oil springs and some vegetation, and deserts can even expand, shrink, and move, which is something a lot of people don’t know about deserts. There are two main types of deserts:

  • Dune: a small hill of loose material that usually consists of sand.
  • Salt flat: a small area of flat land that is covered in salt.


A forest full of tall and slim trees.

In the English language, the term “forest” has several meanings. The first one is an area of land that is almost completely covered with trees, and they are usually located in colder or more temperate climates.

The second one refers to an area of land that is reserved by special laws. This definition is the most common one in areas such as Great Britain, and the forests there are used as both national parks and as areas for game-hunting for the king and his peers.

Forests are almost always settled sparsely; however, that doesn’t mean that villages and towns cannot be found there, because often they are. In many cases, forests are managed by a professional forester of some type, which is usually paid for by the government. Forests are broken down into types, including:

  • Jungle: essentially impossible to get through, jungles are rainforests that are dense and tangled.
  • Seasonal dry forest: these get their name due to the fact that they go through very long spells of being very dry.
  • Temperate forest: experiencing four distinct seasons, a temperate forest is found between the polar and tropic regions of the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
  • Temperate rainforest: these are forests that receive heavy rainfalls and are usually either broadleaf or coniferous.

For a more detailed guide into this type of terrain, check out our article “3 Types of Forests and why they’re so Important”


Glacier Bay Cruise located in Alaska.

A glacier is a very large mass of ice that stays that way consistently, and it usually survives over many, many years. Greenland, Antarctic, and certain points in the higher parts of the Arctic have the most instances of glaciers.

Similar to lava flows or rivers, glaciers flow continuously, although at a much slower pace than those do. Most glaciers can sometimes produce glacial earthquakes, which have been increasing in past years.

Many people contribute these scenarios with climate change, but no one knows for sure why or how they occur.


Green Hills in Kazakhstan.

Hills are pieces of land that rise to a peak and are above sea level. They are similar to mountains except they are lower and not nearly as steep. Hills are formed when sediment is deposited there or erodes, and they can be covered in trees, very grassy, or even vegetation-free like a desert.

Hills can be found in areas that segue from flatter plains to larger mountains, and sometimes even geographers cannot tell whether a certain structure is a hill or a mountain. Because of their height and the fact that they make hiding so easy, many armies have constructed fortresses located on top of hills.

When agriculture meets hilly areas, some challenges do occur, and these include erosion of the soil, drainage problems, and plowing difficulties. Fortunately, most of these challenges have been overcome in one way or another.

In fact, in some instances, grapes being a perfect example, crops grow and thrive much better on hills than they do on flat land. There is a lot of information regarding these challenges, so anyone who is considering planting any type of crop in a hilly area can easily find the information they need to decide if this is for them. Hills consist of:

  • Butte: an isolated hill that has steep sides that are usually very vertical; their tops are small and flat.
  • Mesa: these are similar to buttes but are often found in landscapes that have horizontal strata.
  • Mima mounds: areas of several small mounds that can get up to 6.5-feet in height and to a diameter of over 29 feet.


Bird's eye view of a tidal marsh.

Marshes are considered wetlands and are inundated by plant species that are herbaceous instead of woody.

They are often located at the edges of bodies of water, such as streams and lakes, and there they can form a transition between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. They can consist mostly of grasses, reeds, or rushes, not to mention low-lying shrubs.

There are different types of marshes, and they are generally classified by their salinity and their specific location.

The amount of plant and animal life found in marshes is greatly affected by these two factors, and the three main types of marshes are salt marshes, which are found mostly in mid- to high latitudes; freshwater marshes, which are very common in North America; and tidal marshes, which are greatly affected by the nearby ocean tides.

Of course, there are also other types of marshes, including those that are found on the edges of very large rivers, and those that are perfect habitats for animals such as certain types of waterfowl.

Marshes can be found almost anywhere in the world; although nearly 90% of all wetlands have been destroyed in some areas, either intentionally or unintentionally.


Breathtaking view of the mountains.

A mountain is essentially the same thing as a hill except it is much higher in elevation. In fact, the minimum height to be considered a mountain is 2,000 feet.

The Denali mountain, located in Alaska, is the tallest mountain in North America at over 20,000 feet, and the tallest mountain in the world is Mount Everest, which is over 29,000 feet in height.

Of course, there are various ways of measuring mountains. Some experts measure how high they are above sea level, while others measure them from the very bottom to the top of the summit.

Although technically there are no differences between hills and mountains, there are a few things that make each of them unique. These include:

  • Hills are easier to climb than mountains.
  • Hills are usually considered those fixtures which are 2,000 feet or less.
  • Mountains are both higher and steeper than hills.
  • Mountains are usually formed through volcanoes.


A beautiful crescent oasis in the middle of a desert.

An oasis is an area in the desert that is quite isolated, and it is usually surrounded by a water source, such as a pond, small lake, or a spring. These fixtures can be inhabited by animals and sometimes humans, depending on the size of the oasis.

Oases are very fertile and range in size from 2.5 acres to areas so large that you can support a farm with them. Rain showers can sustain natural oases, and the water is used by migrating birds and other animals as a way to sustain themselves.


An aerial view of the pacific ocean and the Palau Islands.

Oceans are very large bodies of saline water which compose a large portion of the planet. Although some people use the word “sea” interchangeably with “ocean,” there is a difference between the two. Technically, a sea has saline water but has landed on most or all of its sides.

Roughly 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with oceans, which also contain 97% of the water used on the earth. Oceans are crucial to life and can influence various weather patterns and even the earth’s climate. Over 230,000 known species live in the world’s oceans, but oceans are still largely unexplored, so the number could be much higher.

Extraterrestrial oceans are often made of water and various compounds and elements. There are many hypotheses that have tried to explain exactly how oceans were formed and even when they were formed, and it is believed that extraterrestrial oceans also include many natural satellites and dwarf planets.

It is possible that oceans exist in other places within the solar system, but since there is so much exploration that is needed when it comes to oceans, no one really knows for sure, which means all they can do for certain is speculate.


A nice view of a clear grassland.

Open terrains are also called an open country or even open ground, and they are flat areas of land that are free of trees, buildings, and anything else that can obstruct a person’s view.

Examples include grassland and farmland, as well as the areas near airports that were specially cleared for that purpose. Open terrains are important because they are used for important functions such as military maneuvers, which are especially easy to perform.


A zigzag river that flows between green valleys.

Rivers are permanent bodies of water and can come in various sizes. Different from a canal, rivers also include bodies of water that only run seasonally, which should not, in a technical sense, be called rivers in the first place. The fact that it is permanent means that even if an engineering company comes in and diverts certain river miles and miles away, it is still a river.

A river often begins at a spring or some other type of standing water and has a lot of smaller tributaries that keep feeding into it until it ends in a much larger body of water, including maybe another river.

Some rivers end in a wetland of some type or even go underground where you can no longer see them, but these underground rivers are poorly understood and rarely studied.

One of the biggest advantages of rivers is that they have been relied on since the beginning of time as water and irrigation sources. In fact, rivers have brought many societies into the modern age, and today, cities of all sizes and locations have rivers they count on for various uses.

For more detail about rivers and some essential facts surrounding them, check out our article “9 Different Types of Rivers”


A swamp surrounded by grass and trees.

A swamp is an area that contains both shallow bodies of water and solid land. Swamps move slowly and are usually covered by many different types of vegetation. There are always animals living in swamps, including a lot of mosquitoes and even leeches.

Unless you have a flat boat, swamps are very difficult to navigate through, although they can thrive in almost any suitable climate. Depending on where they are located, swamps can contain tall grasses, small trees, trees that protrude out of the water, and even sedges and reeds, heather and myrtles.

Unfortunately, with the exception of rice, few edible crops can survive in a swamp, although people have used the reeds for making crafts items and have fished successfully in many swamps.

In general, swamps can be dangerous places, not only because of some of the animals found there but also because a lot of them have quicksand and similar fixtures that make drowning a distinct possibility. Swamps can even cause some people who are not used to them to have skin problems, in part because they are constantly wet.

Most people consider swamps bodies of water they wish to see, but they have no desire to get up close. This doesn’t mean that swamps can’t be beautiful; they can. It just means you need to learn about them and be careful before you visit one for the first time. Swamps are also considered a type of wetland, and they can be called bogs and even saltmarshes.


Autumn Tundra with lakes and mountains in the background.

A tundra is a type of biome consisting of short growing seasons and low temperatures, which tends to hinder the area’s growth of trees. The term “tundra” is derived from a Russian word that means “treeless mountain track.”

Most of the vegetation found in a tundra consists of sedges and grasses, lichens, mosses, and dwarf shrubs, although there are also some trees that are scattered in the area and grow quite well.

There is an ecological boundary region called an ecotone, and it lies between the tundra and the forest. This ecotone is also called a timberline or tree line. There are three different types of tundra, which include:

  • Arctic tundra: this type of tundra is found mostly in northern Alaska and Canada, and it has a climate that is similar to that of the desert.
  • Alpine tundra: this type of tundra is usually found in high altitudes, and, therefore, it is too cold and windy to support any type of tree growth.
  • Antarctic tundra: this one is very similar to the Arctic tundra but is located in Antarctica and is surrounded by various islands, including the Falkland Islands.


Green, landscape view of the Douro Valley.

A valley is found between mountains or hills and often includes a river that runs through it. Also called a dale or a depression, a valley is bigger in length than it is in its width. Some valleys are V-shaped, while others are U-shaped, although there are valleys that fall somewhere in between these two. The various types of valleys include:

  • Box valleys: these valleys have steep sides, floors that are relatively level, and very wide floors as well.
  • Glacial valleys: this term refers to any valley that has been affected by the glacial activity.
  • Hanging valleys: mostly associated with U-shaped valleys, hanging valleys are tributary valleys that are much higher than the main valley.
  • Hollows: this term is only used in certain parts of the country, and it refers to a small valley or a dry stream bed.
  • Meltwater valleys: located in northern Central Europe, they were formed by glacial meltwaters.
  • Rift valleys: these are formed when the earth’s surface expands due to some type of below-surface tectonic activity.
  • Tunnel valleys: tunnel valleys are U-shaped valleys and are formed by subglacial erosion of waters; they can get up to 62 miles in length.

Glossary of Terms

Active Volcano: A volcano that is currently erupting or has erupted in the past 10,000 years.

Altitude: This term refers to the height of a particular object, but only the parts above sea level are counted and measured.

Antarctic: This is what refers to the area located south of the Antarctic Circle.

Antarctic Circle: This is the southernmost point between the earth’s two polar circles of latitude.

Arctic: This refers to the area located north of the Antarctic Circle.

Arctic Circle: The northernmost point between the earth’s two polar circles of latitude.

Badlands: Irregular topography that has been damaged by water and wind erosion of sedimentary rock.

Cape: A large promontory or headland that extends into a body of water, usually an ocean or a sea.

Caprock: Usually consisting of limestone, it consists of sedimentary rock that isn’t affected by erosion and which forms the top layers of both mesas and buttes.

Cave: A cave is a naturally occurring underground space that is hollow in nature and large enough for a person to fit in. There are dozens of well-known caves throughout the world that people enjoy visiting each year.

Cay: An island that is small, low in elevation, and sandy. It is located in a coral reef that is otherwise submerged. It is also a type of coral island.

Channel: Also called a strait, a channel is a waterway that separates two landmasses close together.

Delta: A landform that is found at the mouth of a river.

Emergent Coastline: This is a shoreline which results from a land that rises in elevation relative to sea level.

Fault: This is a fracture in the crust of the earth usually involving some type of displacement on one side of the fracture.

Glacier: A mass of thick ice which results from compacted snow that forms when there is more snow falling than there is melting.

Inlet: An inlet is an indentation in the shoreline leading to an enclosed body of saltwater. It is usually very long and narrow.

Latitude: The measurement either north or south of the Equator.

Natural Landscape: This is a landscape that is in its natural state before humans inhabited it.

Outwash: Surface materials of items such as rock and sand which is deposited by the melted water from a glacier.

Permafrost: Refers to a layer of soil that is permanently frozen; usually found at high altitudes and high latitudes.

Rainforest: Any area with almost consistent rainfall, very dense vegetation, and which are found in tropic and temperate areas.

Shield: A very broad area made up of rocks that are very old; it is above sea level and usually consists of soil that is poor and thin.

Tributary: Also known as an affluent, a tributary is a river or stream that flows into a larger body of water such as a lake, but not something as large as a sea or ocean.