What are the Key Symbols of a Map Legend?


Maps are essential tools for navigation, understanding geographic features, and conveying information about a specific area. One crucial component of a map is the legend, which provides a key to understanding the symbols and colors used on the map. In this article, we will explore the main symbols commonly found in a map legend, their meanings, and how they contribute to the overall understanding of the map.

1. Introduction to Map Legends

Before diving into the specific symbols, it is important to understand the purpose of a map legend. A map legend, also known as a map key, is a graphic representation of the symbols used on a map to represent various features, such as roads, landmarks, bodies of water, and more. The legend helps users decipher the map and interpret its information accurately.

2. Symbols for Natural Features

Natural features on a map include rivers, lakes, mountains, forests, and other geographical elements. The symbols used to represent these features in a map legend are often intuitive and easy to understand. For example, a wavy line represents a river, while a cluster of triangles signifies a mountain range. Different shades of green may be used to depict forests, with darker shades indicating denser vegetation.

2.1 Rivers

Rivers are vital natural features depicted on maps, and their symbols vary depending on their size and importance. A thin, wavy blue line is commonly used to represent rivers, while thicker lines may indicate larger rivers or those of significant importance. The legend may also include additional symbols to represent river tributaries or dams.

2.2 Lakes

Lakes are another essential natural feature found on maps. They are usually represented by a solid blue or light blue color, often in the shape of an irregular polygon or circle. The size of the symbol corresponds to the size of the lake.

2.3 Mountains

Mountains are often depicted using triangular symbols or shaded areas with contour lines. The triangles may vary in size and orientation, with larger triangles representing taller peaks. The use of contour lines helps convey the elevation and shape of the mountain.

2.4 Forests

Forests are commonly represented by shades of green, ranging from light green for sparse vegetation to dark green for dense forests. The use of different shades helps users understand the density and extent of the forested areas on the map.

3. Symbols for Human-Made Features

Human-made features on a map include roads, buildings, airports, and other infrastructure. These symbols are designed to provide users with information about man-made elements in a specific area. Let’s explore some common symbols used for human-made features in a map legend.

3.1 Roads

Roads and highways are essential for navigation purposes and are represented by various symbols in a map legend. Different types of roads, such as highways, primary roads, secondary roads, and streets, may be depicted using different line styles, widths, and colors. For example, a thick, red line may represent a highway, while thinner black lines can indicate secondary roads or streets.

3.2 Buildings

Buildings, such as houses, schools, and commercial structures, are often represented by simple square or rectangular symbols. The size of the symbols may vary depending on the importance or size of the building. Some maps may use different colors or icons to differentiate between residential, commercial, or public buildings.

3.3 Airports

Airports are crucial landmarks for travelers and are depicted using specific symbols in a map legend. The symbol for an airport typically resembles an airplane, with variations to indicate the size or type of airport. International airports may have a different symbol than regional or local airports.

3.4 Parks and Recreation Areas

Parks, recreational areas, and other points of interest are often included on maps to help users locate places for leisure and enjoyment. These areas are typically represented by symbols that resemble trees, picnic tables, or other relevant icons. The legend may provide additional information about the facilities available in these areas.

4. Symbols for Cultural Features

Cultural features on a map include landmarks, borders, and other elements related to human culture and history. These symbols help users understand the cultural significance of a particular area. Let’s explore some common symbols used for cultural features in a map legend.

4.1 Landmarks

Landmarks, such as monuments, statues, or historical sites, are depicted using specific symbols that represent their shape or purpose. For example, a symbol resembling a statue may indicate a famous monument, while a small building icon may represent a historical site.

4.2 Borders

Borders between countries, states, or regions are essential for understanding the political and administrative divisions on a map. Different line styles, colors, or patterns are used to represent borders, with each type indicating a specific administrative division.

4.3 Points of Interest

Points of interest, such as museums, theaters, or tourist attractions, are often included on maps to help users locate interesting and significant places. These symbols can vary depending on the type of attraction, with icons representing museums, theaters, or other attractions.

5. Symbols for Transportation

Transportation symbols on a map help users identify and navigate through different modes of transportation, such as airports, train stations, bus stops, and more. These symbols are especially useful for travelers and commuters. Let’s explore some common symbols used for transportation features in a map legend.

5.1 Airports

Airports are crucial transportation hubs, and their symbols were discussed earlier under the human-made features section. These symbols help users locate airports and plan their travel routes accordingly.

5.2 Train Stations

Train stations are important transportation landmarks, especially in urban areas with rail networks. Train station symbols often resemble a square or rectangular shape with additional markings to indicate the type of station or rail lines available.

5.3 Bus Stops

Bus stops are essential for public transportation users, and their symbols typically represent a small square or circle with additional markings to indicate the type of bus stop or routes available.

5.4 Ports and Harbors

Ports and harbors are significant for maritime transportation, and their symbols help users locate these areas along coastlines or bodies of water. The symbols may include depictions of ships, anchor icons, or other relevant maritime symbols.

6. Symbols for Geographical Phenomena

Geographical phenomena, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, or glaciers, are crucial to understanding the physical characteristics of a particular area. These symbols help users identify and study these phenomena. Let’s explore some common symbols used for geographical phenomena in a map legend.

6.1 Earthquakes

Earthquakes are natural disasters that can have a significant impact on an area. Earthquake symbols in a map legend typically resemble concentric circles, with variations in size or color to represent the magnitude or depth of the earthquake.

6.2 Volcanoes

Volcanoes are represented by unique symbols in a map legend, often resembling a triangular shape with additional markings to indicate the type or status of the volcano. The symbols may vary depending on whether the volcano is active, dormant, or extinct.

6.3 Glaciers

Glaciers are massive bodies of ice and play a crucial role in shaping the landscape. Glacier symbols in a map legend often resemble irregular shapes with a light blue color, representing the ice mass.

7. Symbols for Environmental Features

Environmental features on a map include wetlands, deserts, or protected areas. These symbols help users understand the ecological importance of specific regions and the need for conservation efforts. Let’s explore some common symbols used for environmental features in a map legend.

7.1 Wetlands

Wetlands, such as swamps, marshes, or bogs, are represented by specific symbols in a map legend. These symbols often resemble clusters of lines or shapes that indicate the presence of water and vegetation.

7.2 Deserts

Deserts, characterized by arid conditions and sparse vegetation, are depicted using symbols that indicate the absence of water and limited plant cover. These symbols may vary depending on the size and type of desert.

7.3 Protected Areas

Protected areas, such as national parks or wildlife reserves, are important for biodiversity conservation. Symbols for protected areas in a map legend often resemble a square or rectangular shape with additional markings to indicate the level of protection or specific regulations in place.

8. Conclusion

In conclusion, map legends play a crucial role in helping users interpret and understand the information conveyed on a map. By providing a key to the symbols, colors, and patterns used, a map legend enables users to navigate, identify landmarks, and interpret geographical, cultural, and environmental features accurately. Understanding the various symbols used in a map legend enhances our ability to read and interpret maps effectively.


Q1: Why are map legends important?

A1: Map legends are important because they provide a key to understanding the symbols and colors used on a map. They help users decipher the map and interpret its information accurately.

Q2: How do I read a map legend?

A2: To read a map legend, look for the symbols or colors used on the map and refer to the corresponding explanations in the legend. The legend will provide information on what each symbol represents.

Q3: Can symbols in a map legend vary?

A3: Yes, symbols in a map legend can vary depending on the map’s purpose, style, and geographic region. Different mapmakers may use slightly different symbols to represent the same features.

Q4: Are map legends standardized?

A4: While there are some standard symbols used in map legends, they can vary depending on the mapmaker or organization creating the map. However, there are widely recognized symbols that are commonly used in cartography.

Q5: Can I create my own map legend?

A5: Yes, if you are creating a custom map, you can create your own map legend. However, it is important to ensure that the symbols and their meanings are clear and intuitive for the map’s intended audience.

Q6: Are map legends only used for paper maps?

A6: No, map legends are used for both paper maps and digital maps. In digital maps, the legend is often displayed as an interactive overlay or accessed through a menu.

Q7: Can a map legend change over time?

A7: Yes, map legends can change over time as new symbols are introduced, or existing symbols are modified to better represent features on the map. It is important to refer to the most up-to-date legend when using a map.


In conclusion, understanding the symbols used in a map legend is essential for effectively reading and interpreting maps. By familiarizing ourselves with the various symbols for natural features, human-made features, cultural features, transportation, geographical phenomena, and environmental features, we can navigate maps with confidence and gain a deeper understanding of the world around us. Whether we are exploring new territories, planning a trip, or studying geographic information, the map legend serves as our key to unlocking the wealth of information contained within maps.

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