GEOG 486
Cartography and Visualization

Terrain as a Basemap


Terrain as a Basemap

Though terrain layers can be used to make fun and interesting map designs, terrain is rarely the sole element on a map. USGS topographic maps, for example, depict much more than just contour lines across the landscape—they also include political boundaries, streets, water features, and more. This is particularly challenging in urban areas, as demonstrated by the map in Figure 6.6.1, located in Manhattan, NY.

USGS topographic map of Central Park, New York, see text above
Figure 6.6.1 A USGS Topographic Map of Central Park, NY (1995)
Credit: USGS (click this link: USGS Map of Central Park, 1995 to download a larger version of the map!)

Even when terrain is the main feature of interest, such as in the thematic map in Figure 6.6 2 below, design adjustments must be made to ensure the terrain is visualized appropriately given the map’s projection, level of detail, other visual variables (here, color), and background.

The North America tapestry of Time and Terrain, demonstrating use of color
Figure 6.6.2 “The North America Tapestry of Time and Terrain.”
Credit: USGS  (high resolution PDF available at USGS)

Some types of maps more frequently contain depictions of terrain than others. As designing a good terrain base layer typically involves significant effort—and makes map symbol design more complicated—terrain is typically left off of maps when it is considered irrelevant, such as in thematic maps of political or social data. In some maps however, (e.g., maps of ski trails), terrain visualization is essential. Most maps fall somewhere in between.

Whether or not you decide to depict your location’s terrain—and how detailed that design will be—will depend, as with most design decisions, on your map’s intended audience, medium, and purpose. You will likely also need to take other constraints into consideration (e.g., availability of data and time).

A map of trails near Morgantown, West Virginia
Figure 6.6.3 A map of trails near Morgantown, West Virginia.

Student Reflection

Google maps ( offers users the option of replacing the default Google basemap with a map that visualizes terrain. What use cases can you imagine for routing over such a basemap, rather than the simpler standard map?

Recommended Reading

  • Chapter 2: Basemap Basics. Brewer, Cynthia A. 2015. Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users. Second. Redlands: Esri Press.
  • Chapter 14: Interplay of Elements. Imhof, Eduard. 2007. Cartographic Relief Presentation. Redlands: Esri Press.