How a Map Key Works

Updated November 24, 2020
map key example
    map key example
    hofred / iStock / Getty Images Plus

When reading a map, it’s important to know what all those little symbols mean. That’s why you need a map key – and why you need to know how to read a map key. Discover how a map key works and to see examples of symbols you may see in a key.

Map Key Defined

A map key helps a reader understand how to read a map. Typically, it lists symbols that can be found on the map along with what they mean. A blue square may indicate a type of building, while a green triangle may represent a forest. The map key also includes the map’s scale; for example, one inch on the map may actually be one mile in the real world.

Map Key vs. Map Legend

Some maps differentiate between a map key and a map legend. These terms are typically used interchangeably, but sometimes a map includes both a key and legend. In these cases, the key contains the list of symbols used on the map, and the legend includes the scale, abbreviations, and compass rose to show the cardinal directions.


Common Symbols on a Map Key

While most maps are different from each other, some symbols can be commonly found in the same kind of map. City maps tend to use similar symbols, for example, while those same symbols on a topographic map may mean something else. Check out these common symbols and see how many you can recognize.

Building and Road Symbols

When navigating a city, you’ll want to know the difference between roads, highways, and other parts of the town. A good map key can help you find your way around any city, even when you don’t know the exact location. Some common symbols found on a city map include:

  • Large square or rectangle – large building
  • Small square – house
  • Square with a flag on top – school (sch: elementary, HS: high school, Univ: University)
  • Square with a cross on top – church
  • Square with crosses inside – cemetery
  • Square with an M inside – museum
  • Square with an X on top – windmill
  • Filled-in circles – tanks
  • Picnic bench – campsite or picnic area
building and road map symbols
    building and road map symbols
    Copyright YourDictionary / Owned by YourDictionary

Road Map Symbols

You may see all of the above on a road map. However, when you’re driving, you’ll often want to look for features on a map that provide food, gas, lodging, or a restroom. You may see these symbols on a road map:

  • Solid line – road
  • Double solid line – highway or freeway
  • Line with dashes – railroad
  • Dotted line – trail or unimproved road
  • Blue box with an H – hospital
  • Black box with a P – parking
  • Black box with a fork and knife – restaurant
  • Black box with a man and woman symbol – restroom
  • Black box with a gas pump – gas station
  • Box with a bed – hotel or lodging
  • Airplane – airport
road map symbols
    road map symbols
    reklamlar / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images, hofred / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Political Map Symbols

Examples of political maps can be found in an atlas. These maps often include differently colored countries, border lines, and basic geological features. Here are some symbols that you’re likely to see on a political map:

  • Solid line – border between countries
  • Dotted line – border between states or provinces
  • Star – capital city
  • Large black dot – major cities
  • Small black dot – smaller cities
  • Blue lines – rivers
  • Jagged lines – mountain ranges
political map symbols
    political map symbols
    Copyright YourDictionary / Owned by YourDictionary

Topographic Maps

Topographic maps depict an area’s terrain or elevation. Land developers and outdoors enthusiasts alike depend on topographic maps to show where potential hazards can be. Some features found on a topographic map key include:

  • Contoured lines – elevation (indicated in scale)
  • Concentric circles – land depression
  • Collection of triangles or circles – groups of trees; forests
  • Circle with a dot in the middle – landmark (fixed point)
  • Circle with perpendicular lines – observation spot
  • Diamond with a dot in the middle – international boundary monument
  • Dash-dot-dash line – pipeline
  • Array of dashes or circles – crops or farms
  • Array of straight lines – vineyard
  • Lighter colors – land has lower elevation (closer to sea level)
  • Darker colors – land has higher elevation
topographic map symbols
    topographic map symbols
    Copyright YourDictionary / Owned by YourDictionary, topographic rings: Dencake / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Topographic maps also use universal abbreviations to indicate different features. Some of these topographic abbreviations include:

  • B – bay
  • Bld – boulder
  • C – cove
  • Cl – clay
  • Cr – creek
  • G – gulf
  • I – island
  • Is – islands
  • L – lake
  • La – lava
  • P – port (or pebbles on land)
  • Pen – peninsula
  • M – mud
  • Mt – mountain
  • R – river
  • Rk – rocks
  • Rge – range
  • S – sand
  • Sw – swamp
  • V – Volcano

The Value of Travel

Now that you know how to read a map key, increase your map-reading skills further by learning the different parts of a map. Then there’s nothing standing between you and your next travel adventure! Traveling not only helps you practice your map navigation skills, but it can also open your mind to the world around you. Get inspired by these thoughtful quotes about traveling.