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A Quick Guide To Relief Maps for Beginners

A relief map is a variety of maps that uses the elevation of the land to create the attributes of a landscape. It is distinct from a normal map because you will see how everything is on top of each other and how steep or flat everything is. 

In this way, it’s easier to comprehend how everything fits into its surroundings on a relief map than on a regular one.

Usually, relief maps are from satellite images or aerial photographs. But they can also be made from other data types, such as topographic maps. 

How Did Relief Maps Begin And Evolve Throughout The Years?

One of the world’s oldest surviving maps is the Imago Mundi, or the Babylonian Map of the World, dating back to 700 and 500 BC. 

Found in what would have been ancient Mesopotamia, the map is carved into stone, depicting Babylon at the center with surrounding geographical features. 

The map attempts to portray mountain relief as small rounded domes. This representational technique, known as “hill profiles, ” is used by many civilizations during early mapping experiments, leading to more advanced approaches to showing relief.

China was also one of the earliest civilizations experimenting with making raised-relief maps. They created sculptural models from various materials, such as rice, wax, wood, or clay, to replicate the terrain they mapped. 

There have been historical accounts of finding these raised-relief maps back to the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE). 

People also found other accounts of raised-relief maps throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Many early printed maps need to be more accurate. But despite the apparent inaccuracies, many vintage world and national park maps are pretty detailed and scientifically rigorous.

Printed mapmaking, in general, dates at least to Gutenberg’s creation of the printing press in the 15th century. 

Although there were maps before then, this was the first time maps could be mass printed for general use. Maps of this time quickly combined everything the mapmakers knew about the world, plus information from explorers like Columbus and Magellan returning from their journeys.  

One map created by John Speed in 1627 shows California as an island and leaves the northwest of the United States completely blank. Still, local maps of the time were highly accurate.

The first vintage national park maps and national parks were created and established in the late 1800s. For example, Yellowstone National Park, designated in 1872, was the first national park created in the world. 

Government mapping often begins with the mapping during the discovery and exploration phase. These early maps often omitted important physical features but got the general orientations correct. 

A map of Mount Desert Island in Maine in 1887 is one of the earliest national park maps. It is a relatively accurate representation of the area that became the home of Acadia National Park. 

National park maps continued to grow and improve as they included unique physical features, geological attributes, and historical and cultural artifacts. 

The most current national park maps are created for highly accurate park brochures, showing roads, trails, campsites, and other amenities, and this is what Muir Way bases its national park designs on.

Related Read: Why is the United States Map is Shaped That Way?

Methods of Creating Relief Maps

You can make relief maps by using several methods, and these including the following:

Shaded relief

These are created by shading areas based on elevation above or below sea level. The darker color indicates a more significant elevation, while lighter colors indicate a lower height.

You can also call this type of map a hillshade map because it shows the tops of high points, such as mountains, and bottoms of low points, like valleys.

At Muir Way, they create relief maps by combining US Geological Survey (USGS) digital elevation data, with carefully overlaid hillshade relief, for a unique effect. 

This method gives their maps the illusion of a real-world, three-dimensional quality while maintaining the positives of a more detailed, easy-to-use two-dimensional map. 

You can see their unique relief map techniques in their popular Elevation Maps, Vintage Relief Maps, Relief Series Maps, and many more.

Contour lines

People draw them along lines representing equal elevations above or below sea level, which helps people understand how steep a slope is and how far they must climb if they want to go from one place to another at a certain altitude. 

The higher your altitude, the further away from each other you draw those contour lines.

People often use contour lines in topographic maps made from aerial photographs taken from above by satellites or aircraft and then processed into digital images that you can print on paper or display on computers or other devices.

Isometric projections

Isometric projection is a type of three-dimensional map projection. An object is projected onto a plane from numerous angles simultaneously, constructing an image that looks three-dimensional when viewed from above but has no depth from the side or below.

This projection style is commonly used for maps of mountainous areas because it allows observers to see both sides of mountain ridges simultaneously, giving them a better idea of how mountains look from multiple perspectives.

They’re often used for world maps because they preserve relative sizes at different latitudes.

Stereographic projections

The stereographic projection has several advantages over other types of map projections. Unlike other map projections, one advantage is that it has no inherent distortion along lines parallel to the equator. 

Another advantage is that it can efficiently show how features on opposite sides of the globe connect regarding relative distance and direction. This can make it easier to comprehend how things relate to diverse parts of the planet, like North America vs. Africa.

Final Thoughts

Nowadays, people can use relief maps for many different purposes. 

First, they can guide people on what topography to expect when journeying, especially if they go fishing or hunting. 

In addition, geologists and other scientists who study how the Earth works use them to understand better how the world changes over time and what conditions exist inside it.

Today, these maps use extremely accurate scientific data to reflect Earth’s dynamic structure. Thus, they are fundamental in cartography and geography. 

Relief maps realistically represent the physical world, enhancing navigation, improving communication, generating tools for planning, revealing unfamiliar territories, and documenting history.


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