• 1. Gather supplies.

    You are going to make your own contour map with DOGSTAILS. First, look closely at the map images of contour maps. The closer the lines, the steeper the elevation. Then gather the following supplies: two sheets of drawing paper, a ball of clay, markers of different colors, several feet of fishing line, and a pencil.


    2. Draw orientation lines on the drawing paper.

    Draw orientation lines on the drawing paper. First, draw a straight vertical line and then a straight horizontal line intersecting it to create four equal sections. The peak of the mountain will line up with the intersection, so that your mountain looks like it is divided by a grid.

    3. Make a clay mountain and cut layers out of the mountains.
    Shape your clay into a mountain on the drawing paper and mark its peak with a dot. Line up the dot with the intersection of the two lines, and draw the lines across the clay mountain so it is clearly divided into the four quadrants. Use a pencil to mark three rings in your clay mountain to indicate different elevations. Mark the first ring a quarter of the way down from the peak. Mark the second ring halfway down from the peak. Mark the third ring three-quarters of the way down from the peak. Now hold the fishing line very tight and use it to slice all the way through the clay along the rings. When you finish, you should have four separate layers.

    4. Use the clay layers to draw contour lines.
    Re-draw orientation lines on the second sheet of drawing paper. Place the bottom layer of clay on the second piece of drawing paper and outline it. Then remove the bottom layer of clay and place the next largest layer of clay within the first outline. Outline this layer and repeat the process with the top two layers. You are drawing contour lines for a topographic map.

    5. Complete your contour maps with DOGSTAILS.
    The base of your mountain is at sea level, or 0 feet of elevation. Label the base of the mountain on the contour map with 0 feet and write in elevations for the other levels, using an elevation range of 100 feet per line. Color each layer—the space between each contour line—a different color, and create a map key to show what elevations each color represents. Hint: Use any color but blue, because blue represents water on contour maps. Finally, add any missing DOGSTAILS information:

    Date: when the map was made
    Orientation: direction (north arrow or compass rose)
    Grid: lines that cross to form squares
    Scale: map distance
    Title: what, where, and when
    Author: who made the map

    Index: the part of the grid where specific information can be located

    Legend: what the symbols mean
    Sources: who provided information for the map


    6. Share your contour map and explore contour maps of your local area.
    Share your contour map with a friend or family member and challenge them to read it. If you have time, use Nat Geo's TOPO! Explorer to find and analyze topographic maps of your local area.

    Quiz Yourself!

    1. How does a contour map show steep elevation?

      Lines that are closer together show steeper elevation.

  • Materials You Provide

    • Balls of clay (3" in diameter)
    • Drawing paper
    • Fishing line
    • Markers
    • Pencils

    Required Technology

    • Internet Access: Optional
    • Tech Setup: 1 computer per classroom, Projector

    Recommended Prior Activities

  • Background Information

    Earth’s surface has many different kinds of landforms that vary widely in shape and elevation. Contour maps show the elevations of these surface features, which allows you to look at a 2-dimensional map to visualize the Earth in three dimensions.


    Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    contour map Noun

    representation of an area's elevation points or slopes.

    elevation Noun

    height above or below sea level.

    Encyclopedic Entry: elevation
    landform Noun

    specific natural feature on the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landform
    quadrant Noun

    one of four parts of a grid. Quadrants are divided into northwest, northeast, southeast and southwest.

    relief Noun

    the difference in elevation between areas of a specific region.

    terrain Noun

    topographic features of an area.

    topographic map Noun

    map showing natural and human-made features of the land, and marked by contour lines showing elevation.

  • For Further Exploration