Represented by different colors and shapes, map symbols are used to indicate certain terrain features or important locations in a specified area. The reduced representation of a map is rendered useless without the symbols displayed in its key.
Map symbols represent the physical features of land and help the map's reader gain an acute awareness of his surroundings. Chemeketa Community College faculty affirm that the most common map symbols include contour lines, buildings, water features, and forests and clearings. Contour lines are indicators of elevation and are usually brown. Each contour line has a number beside it that indicates "feet above sea level". Buildings, and all other man-made features, are black and have different shapes for inhabited and uninhabited buildings. The color blue easily distinguishes water features, such as streams or lakes. Forests are indicated by the color green. The density of the tree cover depends on the shade of green. Clearings are shown as white, curvy blotches surrounded by green. Faculty at the University of Wisconsin add map symbols such as two pickaxes forming an "x". This indicates a quarry or a mine. Waterfalls are also shown and mark small waterways with a notch, while large rivers are marked with ripples.