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Cartography: 5 Types of Maps

Updated on June 11, 2012
Distribution maps illustrate the distribution of population, rainfall and the like.
Distribution maps illustrate the distribution of population, rainfall and the like. | Source
Historical maps show the locations of historical events and list the dates they occurred.
Historical maps show the locations of historical events and list the dates they occurred. | Source
Physical maps show geological landforms and geographical data.
Physical maps show geological landforms and geographical data. | Source
Political maps show the boundaries between counties, states, or countries.
Political maps show the boundaries between counties, states, or countries. | Source

BY Joan Whetzel

Cartography, a fancy word for mapmaking, is a way of illustrating the world around us. Professional mapmakers (cartographers) spend many years in school learning their craft before going on to jobs that could use their skills. Three of the places that hire cartographers are the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Rand McNally and National Geographic. Cartographers specialize in creating distribution maps, historical maps, physical maps (and its subspecialty, topographic maps), political maps and road maps. If you want to draw your own maps, check out the "Facts on File" books in local library's reference section. These books include map outlines of states, countries and continents and are meant to be used as teaching aids with pages teachers can copy for use in their geography classes. "Facts on File" database can be found at

Distribution Maps

Distribution maps break down states, countries or continents into regions. Each region illustrates the distribution of: population, rainfall, farms and crops or animals raised there), oil and other natural resources, imports and exports, mining, fishing, shipping, Indian Reservations; just to name a few. To create your own distribution map, decide what your map is going to illustrate. Do your research, finding everything about the area you're mapping and the distribution of the resources you're illustrating. Then color your map with colored pencils and add in your distribution information.

Historical Maps

Historical maps list the locations of important events, also pinpointing a few prominent cities and geological features (mountains, rivers) to help the map reader get a clear picture of how these places and events may have been impacted by their physical surroundings. Dates when the events occurred are frequently also listed; as part of the map's title or caption if not on the map itself. Types of historical maps might include: battles, routes explorers or pioneers took, historical landmarks, Underground Railroad sights, inventors and their inventions and other scientific discoveries, volcanic eruptions, locations and construction dates of dams, etc. To create a historical map, simply identify the location of the event, along with the date and major player(s). Add in major cities as reference points, to see how these events may be related to their proximity to other locations. Geological features need not be applied, unless they directly relate to the event (volcanic eruptions, dams).

Physical Maps

Maps illustrate the Earth's natural features. These maps are all about geography and geographical landforms. These maps show: mountains, rivers and river systems, lakes, mines, oceans, canyons, plains, grasslands, forests, oil deposits, volcanoes, bat caves, continents, dinosaur and fossil dig sites. To draw physical maps, research the region you will be mapping to find the locations of all the geological landforms and geographical features. Use color pencils to illustrate the differences between forests, grasslands, plains and deserts, to locate lakes, rivers and oceans, to pinpoint mountains and hills as well as earthquake epicenters, mines, volcanoes and mines.

Topographic maps, subtopic of physical maps, show the terrain in sort of a 3D format. It's like looking straight down at the region from the sky. A series of lines indicate the changes in elevation. Lines spaced close together indicate steep terrain, while lines spaced far apart suggest gently sloping terrain. A few cities, mountains, rivers and forests are usually identified on topographic maps to help the map readers orient themselves to their surroundings.

Political Maps

Political maps show the borders between counties, states and countries as well as showing time zone demarcations. They generally include the locations of major cities, capital cities, and major highways as well as a few geographical features like mountain ranges, rivers and oceans, especially to identify those features that the states and countries share (Atlantic and Pacific Coastlines, Nile River, Alps and Andes Mountains). To create political maps, use different colored pencils for each state or country, trying to make sure, countries or states that touch or border each other are of different colors. Be sure to identify prominent geographical features.

Road Maps

Everyone knows what road maps are. How many of us have Googled a map from MapQuest? They show all the roads into and out of a region. For country and state maps, only the major roads are shown. For city maps, or Key Maps, even the minor roads may be shown. Most people don't create their own road map except to provide friends and family with directions from one location to another. In this case, drawing a few simple lines indicating which roads are to be taken, and which direction to turn, is generally enough. Be sure to indicate North, South, East, and West, to help orient your map readers.

With a little color and a bit of imagination, becoming an amateur cartographer can be fun. Just remember that, when drawing your maps, you should include a map key to define what your map markers mean (mountains, rivers, forests).

Check out these map sites:

1) National Geographic Maps

2) Google Earth

3) World Atlas

4) Map Quest Maps (roadmaps of the world)


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