National Topographic System Maps

Topographic map coverage of Canada is based on the National Topographic System (NTS). These maps depict in detail ground relief (landforms and terrain), drainage (lakes and rivers), forest cover, administrative areas, populated areas, transportation routes and facilities (including roads and railways), and other man-made features.

1:50 000 National Topographic System map sample - 031G05 Ottawa, Ontario


A 1:50 000 scale topographic map is ideal for recreational activities such as cycling, canoeing, snowmobiling, fishing, camping and hiking. Accurately shown are hills, valleys, lakes, rivers, streams, rapids, portages, trails, wooded areas, major, secondary and side roads including all man-made features such as buildings, power lines, dams and cut lines. A 1:50 000 scale map covers an area approximately 1,000 square kilometres.

Maps at this scale are used by all levels of government and industry for flood control, forest fire control, real estate planning, development of natural resources, environmental issues, right-of-way, highway planning, and depiction of crop areas. In fact, maps at the 1:50 000 scale can be used for almost any conceivable requirement.

A 1:250 000 scale topographic map is considered to be a reconnaissance-type map. It covers the same area of land as sixteen 1:50 000 scale maps. This scale is popular not only as a detailed overview of a large area, but also as a detailed road map for use when travelling on back roads and side roads. A full 1:250 000 scale map shows an area approximately the size of Prince Edward Island.

1:250 000 National Topographic System map sample - 031G Ottawa, Ontario


Representation of the feature types on a polychrome topographic map.

  • BLACK shows cultural features such as buildings, railways and power transmission lines. It is also used to show geographical names (toponymy), certain symbols, geographic coordinates, precise elevations, border information, and surround information.
  • RED is used for paved roads, highway numbers, interchange exit numbers, certain symbols as well as for names of major transportation routes. A red tint is used to show urban development.
  • ORANGE indicates unpaved roads and unclassified roads and streets.
  • BROWN shows contour lines, contour elevations, spot elevations, sand and eskers.
  • BLUE represents water features such as lakes, streams, falls, rapids, swamps and marshes. The names of bodies of water and water courses are also shown in blue, as are magnetic declination and UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) grid information.
  • GREEN indicates wooded areas, orchards, and vineyards.
  • GREY is used on the back of the map where the different symbols, a glossary of terms, and abbreviations can be found.

Note: PURPLE can be used to show information added over the original map detail (updates).

Meanwhile, vast sections of Canada's northern regions are sparsely populated, if at all. Monochrome (black and white) maps have been produced for many of these areas. The 1:50 000 scale monochrome map provides the same detailed depiction of the landmass as the 1:50 000 scale polychrome (colour) map.

1:50 000 National Topographic System map sample - 058F11 Resolute, Nunavut


Further Reading: Find out more about The basics, UTM Projection, and Map Datum used on topographic maps. You will also find Tips and Hints helping to use topographic maps.