Cartography Study - Learning how to survey and make maps


The following information was compiled to organize a study for learning about maps and how to make them (Cartography). The topics are for upper elementary or middle level. Students should have previously learned beginning map skills and concepts of relative position and motion. The information includes activities and questions to review map skills and moves into learning different strategies for mapping places and making maps.


  1. Real life application
  2. Useful to locate places and objects
  3. Increase visual and spatial reasoning
  4. Provides information about places
  5. Inexpensive to acquire
  6. Develop reasoning and problem solving
  7. Develop math and science concepts and skills
  8. Devleop logic, critical thinking, and problem solving

Concepts, generalizations and subconcepts

1. Distance can be measured by pacing

2. The position of an object can be located from a baseline if the distance along the baseline, from a benchmark/ datum, is known and the distance to a point at a 90-degree angle from the baseline.

3. Positions of objects or features can be located to a benchmark/ datum, by triangulation.

4. Positions of objects can be located from a benchmark/ datum with a direction (azimuth) and distance.

5. Contours can be mapped by measuring distance from a baseline.

6. The height of a tree, flagpole, building or some other object can be measured with a grade/slope/angle/ and a known distance.

7. The grade/slope/angle of a surface can be measured with a clinometer or slope measuring device as in the diagram below.

Slope measuring device clinometer


Azimuth, the distance in degrees (angular) from a fixed direction (north) baseline is a straight line from a benchmark.

Baseline is used to measure contours. It can be made by extending a cord over the contour so that it is level with the Earth, measuring intervals of distances from a benchmark/ datum/ (start of the baseline) along the cord and then measuring the distance from the points on the cord of each interval distance to the point on the contour directly below (perpendicular to) the cord/baseline.

Benchmark is a known location, see datum

Clinometer is an instrument used to measure vertical angles. Directions to make a clinometer.

Datum is a point, line, or surface used as a reference point.

Declination is a deviation from a specific direction or standard.

Degree is a unit of longitude or latitude. Which is 1/360th the circumference of the Earth or a circle.

Grade is the degree of inclination/ slope of a road or other surface.

Gradient is the rate of inclination/ slope of a road or other surface

Pace is the distance of a step a) a stride or step, about 30 inches. b) a point measured from where the heel of one foot lifts off the ground to the point where it is put down again after the step of the other foot, or five Roman feet or 58.1 inches.

Transit is an instrument to measure horizontal and vertical angles.

Traverse is the line or web of lines created by sighting and measuring when surveying a tract of land.

Triangulation is a procedure used to locate positions by dividing a region into a series of triangular pieces based on lines of known length that intersect at an unknown point with the other ends joining at the base of a triangle of known length between a benchmark and another known point (selected benchmark/ auxiliary datum)

Vocabulary and activities to review background information

Background knowledge and vocabulary

  1. Antarctic Circle
  2. angle
  3. Arctic Circle
  4. clinometer
  5. cm
  6. contour
  7. compass - directional
  8. compass - circle drawing implement
  9. degree
  10. direction
  11. equator
  12. grid
  13. key - map
  14. km
  15. line
  16. line segment
  17. m
  18. mm
  19. map
  20. parallel
  21. perpendicular
  22. point
  23. proportion
  24. protractor
  25. ratio
  26. relative position
  27. scale
  28. transit
  29. triangle
  30. Tropic of Cancer
  31. Tropic of Capricorn

Skills and other things to know

  1. Identify geographical aspects of the land (mountains, deserts, plains, swamps, lakes, rivers, oceans
  2. Locate positions on a map
  3. How to locate points using one distance and one direction
  4. How to calculate Earth distances from a scale on a map
  5. How to locate points using two distances
  6. Determine direction from a map
  7. How to locate points using two directions
  8. How to draw Earth distances to scale on a map.
  9. How to use a contour map

Types of maps

Review of maps and map reading Investigation


Get a local map or a state map. In groups of alone, explore it. Use the following form, to write questions, answer them, exchange yours with another student or group, complete each set, exchange back and discuss.

  1. Find points of interest. Find and identify points of interest and estimate how many are on the map: cities, people, towns, lakes, rivers, camping areas, parks, capitals, museums, schools, …
    • Find and make a list of your top ten points of interest.
    • Make a graph of cities by their first letter.
    • Make a graph of cities according to the number of syllables they have.
    • Make a graph by how many cities in each county.
    • Which city has the most letters, vowels, consonants, …
    • Locate cities by coordinate pairs (15 K) use colored yarn to show (red, yellow)
    • Locate positions by latitude and longitude
    • What is the higest elevation?
    • What is the higest lowest?
    • How many time zones?
  2. Write and answer, How far ... How from x to y, by highway, by air, by river, between airports, across Lakes …
  3. How big is a city, county, state, country. How wide is the …. How long is …  What is the area of ... What does wide and long mean? Can there be more than one answer? How does it compare to area?
  4. How many counties? largest? smallest? (area?, population?)
  5. What kinds of highways are there. Where do the meet, intersect, interchange. How many interstates? How many exits on interstate ……. ?
  6. Measure distance. What is the average between exits? Where could you travel on a tank of gas? Chart the lengths of ___ rivers. If there are historical trails or routes, how long are they?
  7. Directions. Choose a town at random, give directions on how to get there from here. Turn around and give directions in reverse. How are they different? How are they the same?
  8. Distance and direction. Plan a trip from a city that starts with the letter A to a city that starts with the letter B to … letter Z ? In a state. How far would the trip be? What directions and distances can be given to another person travel from start to finish. If you traveled from …………. to ………………. what alternative routes woult give different distance? Check with Google map, WAZE, or other GPS service. Why do these services give two different types of directions?

More math and geography investigations or projects

  1. What is the cost to build a mile of interstate, other road…
  2. How much did interstate …………. cost?
  3. Highway …….. cost?
  4. What percent of each border is land? water? bordering state ……………  , state ………...
  5. If you left at ………. and traveled to  …………. about what time would you arrive (not breaking any speed limits now).
  6. If the Mormons left Omaha on ………. and traveled ………… miles a day where would they be on ……………
  7. If a person left on the Oregon trail and traveled ____ miles a day, when would they arrive in Oregon?

Moving beyond using maps to Making Maps - Cartography

Camp Map investigation

Locate the Camp ground map and use it to answer these questions:

Questions for Camp Map

  1. If you were at the pump which of the following could you see better?  
    • a. ball field  
    • b. head of the woods trail  
    • c. the flag pole
    •  d. the dock
  2. What direction is cabin F from cabin B?
  3. Using the pump and flagpole as a base line locate the cave.
  4. Starting at the flagpole use one direction (azimuth) and distance to locate the cave.
  5. How many meters long is the sidewalk from the parking lot to the lodge?
  6. What direction is the ball field from the lodge?
  7. What are the dimensions of the lodge?
  8. Use an azimuth (direction from north) and direction to locate the meteorite.
  9. What cabin is directly east of C?
  10. What cabin is west of F?
  11. Why can’t you locate the ball field?
  12. What is located on the lake?
  13. What is the scale of this map?
  14. Where does the needle of a compass point?
  15. One cm on the scale is how many meters?
  16. In real life 1 m =          cm 
  17. In real life 1 km =         m
  18. In real life 1 m =           mm

Bonus Question 1 inch on the map is equal to how many inches on the Earth?

Another Map investigation - Yard Map Investigation

Locate the House and yard map map and use it to answer these questions:

  1. What direction is point B from point A?
  2. Using points A and B as a baseline locate point C.
  3. Starting at point C use one direction and one distance to locate point D.
  4. How many meters from C to E?
  5. Use an azimuth and a direction to locate point C from point B.
  6. What point is south of B?
  7. What point is west of B?
  8. What direction is D from C?
  9. What direction is A from C?
  10. What direction is C from A?
  11. What direction is C from E?
  12. What are the dimensions of the house?

Bonus: Which two of the following are in the Northern Hemisphere?

Arctic Circle, Antarctica Circle, Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn

Review some Cartography vocabulary

Match the word on the left to the symbol or definition on the right.

Note symbols for some of the answers change depending on the browser...

1. angle a. device to measure angles on paper
2. parallel b. device to sight angles on Earth (flat sort of)
3. ray c. device to sight angles generated from earth up
4. line d. ⊾
5. triangle e. 1 cm = 1 km
6. protractor f. ⊥
7. key g. north
8.perpendicular h. .
9. clinometer i. instrument that ponts to magnetic north
10. transit j. ∆
11. equator k. a small unit of angular measure
12. scale l. Ð
13. compass m. -
14. point n. //
15. line segment o. this tells what the symbols on a map stand for
16. degree p. an imaginary line that cuts the Earth in half north to south
17. direction q. ↔

Study Investigation for making maps (Cartography)

Materials: String or cord to make a measuring cord that is at least 50 meters long and something to wind it up on. Magnetic compass, clinometer or protractor, straw, string, and washer to make one. Transit or materials to make one wood or cardboard 10 inches square, 360 degree polar coordinate, nail, pointer.

Plan to make a photo log to document your drawings, maps, notes, and photographs.

Use the following activities to solve problems with maps, measure, make maps, and use maps for finding points of interest or orienteering. Document your investigations in a photo log with drawings, notes and photographs.

Suggested activity sequence

  1. Measuring steps - Step investigation to determine step spans
  2. Pace measuring places
  3. Use points of interest as benchmarks, baselines, and points to locate objects and points of interest with: two distances, one distance and direction or angle and distance, and  two directions
  4. How to use a compass
  5. Make a transit
  6. How to use a transit
  7. How to draw to scale
  8. Map an area by triangulation
  9. How to make a map
  10. What is orienteering? And how to orienteer.
  11. Measuring height of different objects: basketball hoop, one story building, flag pole, multi-story building, trees, water tower, communication tower
  12. How to read a contour map. Sample topographic map of Greenland.
  13. Make a profile or contour map. Select a place like: slope of a surface ditch, side of a drainage basin, or a steep hill. Measure and make a map for it.

Enjoy doing activities outdoors? Then, see more activities to do outdoors.


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
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