By the strictest definition, an elevation map is any map which shows the different elevations of an area. This can be as simple as printing elevations on a road map or as complex as topographical mapping. Most people are actually seeking a simple topographical map when they ask for an elevation map, as they want to see elevation in relationship to geographical features such as rivers, forests, and canyons.
Since any map attempts to represent a three dimensional landscape on a two dimensional surface, the question of how to represent height, or elevation, is always an issue. Topographical maps use contour lines to symbolize areas on a map that are at the same elevation. These lines are usually color-coded for easy of interpretation. Some topographical maps will actually used raised printing techniques so that higher elevations actually rise above the map’s surface and can be felt by the fingers. This is the closest mapping comes to creating a three dimensional representation in a two dimensional map.
A simple elevation map is going to focus on showing color-coded elevation areas and lines. It will include other geographical features such as bodies of water, and types of terrain. There will be minimal indications of roads, and town, city, and state lines. A full topographical map would feature UTM coordinates as well as indicate minute and second divisions around the edges of the map. Users can refer to the map’s legend to get a fuller understanding of what all the lines, symbols, and colors on a given map represent.
The most common use of topographical or elevation maps is navigation. Hikers, hunters, campers, and climbers all rely on topographical maps to make their way through the wilderness. Climbers especially rely on knowing elevations involved in order to plan for supplies, outwear, and even the time involved in climbing specific mountains. Elevation maps also indicate when land drops below sea level, such in canyons and caves, which is vital information for anyone exploring those types of terrain. The revision date of an elevation map easily becomes one of the most important features. Since bodies of water can shift and roads be extended, and new developments can encroach on woods and forests seemingly overnight, having a current elevation or topographical map is essential.