A topographic map is a type of map characterized by large-scale detail and quantitative representation of relief, usually using contour lines in modern mapping, but historically using a variety of methods. Traditional definitions require a topographic map to show both natural and man-made features.
The Canadian Centre for Topographic Information provides this definition of a topographic map:
A topographic map is a detailed and accurate graphic representation of cultural and natural features on the ground.
Other authors define topographic maps by contrasting them with another type of map; they are distinguished from smaller-scale "chorographic maps" that cover large regions, "planimetric maps" that do not show elevations, and "thematic maps" that focus on specific topics.
However, in the vernacular and day to day world, the representation of relief (contours) is popularly held to define the genre, such that even small-scale maps showing relief are commonly (and erroneously, in the technical sense) called "topographic".
Topographic maps are based on topographical surveys. Performed at large scales, these surveys are called topographical in the old sense of topography, showing a variety of elevations and landforms. This is in contrast to older cadastral surveys, which primarily show property and governmental boundaries. The first multi-sheet topographic map series of an entire country, the Carte géométrique de la France, was completed in 1789. Topographic surveys were prepared by the military to assist in planning for battle and for defensive emplacements (thus the name and history of the United Kingdom's Ordnance Survey). As such, elevation information was of vital importance.
As they evolved, topographic map series became a national resource in modern nations in planning infrastructure and resource exploitation. In the United States, the national map-making function which had been shared by both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior migrated to the newly created United States Geological Survey in 1879, where it has remained since. 
Topographic maps have multiple uses in the present day: any type of geographic planning or large-scale architecture; earth sciences and many other geographic disciplines; mining and other earth-based endeavours; and recreational uses such as hiking or, in particular, orienteering, which uses highly detailed maps in its standard requirements.
The various features shown on the map are represented by conventional signs or symbols. For example, colors can be used to indicate a classification of roads. These signs are usually explained in the margin of the map, or on a separately published characteristic sheet.
Topographic maps are also commonly called contour maps or topo maps. In the United States, where the primary national series is organized by a strict 7.5 minute grid, they are often called topo quads or quadrangles.
Topographic maps conventionally show topography, or land contours, by means of contour lines. Contour lines are curves that connect contiguous points of the same altitude (isohypse). In other words, every point on the marked line of 100 m elevation is 100 m above mean sea level.
These maps usually show not only the contours, but also any significant streams or other bodies of water, forest cover, built-up areas or individual buildings (depending on scale), and other features and points of interest.
Today, topographic maps are prepared using photogrammetric interpretation of aerial photography, LIDAR and other Remote sensing techniques. Older topographic maps were prepared using traditional surveying instruments.
Most countries have some sort of national mapping program. Those listed below are only a small selection. Several commercial vendors supply international topographic map sets.
The National Mapping Information Group of Geoscience Australia is the Australian Government's national mapping agency. It provides topographic maps and data to meet the needs of the sustainable development of the nation. The Office of Spatial Data Management provides an online free map service MapConnect. These topographic maps of scales 1:250,000 and 1:100,000 are available in printed form from the Sales Centre. 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 maps are produced in conjunction with the Department of Defence .
The Centre for Topographic Information produces topographic maps of Canada at scales of 1:50,000 and 1:250,000. They are known as the National Topographic System (NTS). A government proposal to discontinue publishing of all hardcopy or paper topographic maps in favor of digital-only mapping data was shelved in 2006 after intense public opposition.
The National Land Survey of Finland produces the Topographic Database (accuracy 1:5000-1:10 000) and publishes topographic maps of Finland at 1:25,000 and 1:50,000. In addition topographics maps can be viewed by using a free map service MapSite
In principle, each federal state (Bundesland) is in charge of producing the official topographic maps. In fact, the maps between 1:5,000 and 1:100,000 are produced and published by the land surveying offices of each federal state, the maps between 1:200,000 and 1:1,000,000 by a federal office - the Bundesamt für Kartographie und Geodäsie (BKG) in Frankfurt am Main.
Topographic maps for general use are available at 1:50,000 and 1:100,000 from the Hellenic Military Geographical Service (HMGS) . They use a national projection system called EGSA'87, which is a Transverse Mercatorial Projection mapping Greece in one zone. A few areas are also available at 1:25,000. Some private firms sell topographic maps of national parks based on HMGS topography.
Land Information New Zealand is the government agency responsible for providing up-to-date topographic mapping. LINZ topographic maps cover all of New Zealand, offshore islands, some Pacific Islands and the Ross Sea Region. Vector data  from the New Zealand Topographic Database (NZTopo) is also available. NZTopoOnline is a publicly accessible, free online service.
The Ordnance Survey (OS) produces topographic map series covering the United Kingdom at 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 scales. The 1:25,000 scale is known as the "Explorer" series, and include an "OL" (Outdoor Leisure) sub-series for areas of special interest to hikers and walkers. It replaced the "Pathfinder" series, which was less colourful and covered a smaller area on each map. The 1:50,000 scale is known as the "Landranger" and carries a distinctive pink cover. More detailed mapping as fine as 1:10000 cover some parts of the country. The 1:25K and 1:50K metric scales are easily coordinated with standard romer scales on currently available compasses and plotting tools. The Ordnance Survey maintains a mapping database from which they can print specialist maps at virtually any scale.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS), a civilian Federal agency, produces several national series of topographic maps which vary in scale and extent, with some wide gaps in coverage, notably the complete absence of 1:50,000 scale topographic maps or their equivalent. The largest (both in terms of scale and quantity) and best-known topographic series is the 7.5-minute, 1:24,000 scale, quadrangle, a non-metric scale virtually unique to the United States. Each of these maps covers an area bounded by two lines of latitude and two lines of longitude spaced 7.5 minutes apart. Nearly 57,000 individual maps in this series cover the 48 contiguous states, Hawaii, U. S. territories, and areas of Alaska near Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Prudhoe Bay. The area covered by each map varies with the latitude of its represented location due to convergence of the meridians. At lower latitudes, near 30° north, a 7.5-minute quadrangle contains an area of about 64 square miles (166 km2). At 49° north latitude, 49 square miles (127 km2) are contained within a quadrangle of that size. As a unique non-metric map scale, the 1:24,000 scale naturally requires a separate and specialized romer scale for plotting map positions. In recent years, budget constraints have forced the USGS to rely on donations of time by civilian volunteers in an attempt to update its 7.5-minute topographic map series, and USGS stated outright in 2000 that the program was to be phased out in favor of The National Map (not to be confused with the National Atlas of the United States produced by the Department of the Interior, one of whose bureaus is USGS).
An older series of maps, the 15-minute series, was once used to map the contiguous 48 states at a scale of 1:62,500, but was discontinued some time ago for maps covering the continental U.S. Each map was bounded by two parallels and two meridians spaced 15 minutes apart - the same area covered by four maps in the 7.5-minute series. The 15-minute series, at a scale of 1:63,360 (one inch representing one mile), remains the primary topographic quadrangle for the state of Alaska (and only for that particular state). Nearly 3,000 maps cover 97% of the state. The U.S.A. remains virtually the only developed country in the world without a standardized civilian topographic map series in the standard 1:25,000 or 1:50,000 metric scales, making coordination difficult in border regions (the U.S. military does issue 1:50,000 scale topo maps of the continental U.S., though only for use by members of its defense forces).
The next-smallest topographic series, in terms of scale, is the 1:100,000 series. These maps are bounded by two lines of longitude and two lines of latitude. However, in this series, the lines of latitude are spaced 30 minutes apart and the lines of longitude are spaced 60 minutes, which is the source of another name for these maps; the 30 x 60-minute quadrangle series. Each of these quadrangles covers the area contained within 32 maps in the 7.5-minute series. The 1:100,000 scale series is unusual in that it employs the Metric system primarily. One centimeter on the map represents one kilometer of distance on the ground. Contour intervals, spot elevations, and horizontal distances are also specified in meters.
The final regular quadrangle series produced by the USGS is the 1:250,000 scale topographic series. Each of these quadrangles in the conterminous United States measures 1 degree of latitude by 2 degrees of longitude. This series was produced by the U.S. Army Map Service in the 1950s, prior to the maps in the larger-scale series, and consists of 489 sheets, each covering an area ranging from 8,218 square miles (21,285 km2) at 30° north to 6,222 square miles (16,115 km2) at 49° north. Hawaii is mapped at this scale in quadrangles measuring 1° by 1°.
USGS topographic quadrangle maps are marked with grid lines and tics around the map collar which make it possible to identify locations on the map by several methods, including the graticule measurements of longitude and latitude, the township and section method within the Public Land Survey System, and cartesian coordinates in both the State Plane Coordinate System and the Universal Transverse Mercator coordinate system.
A number of Internet sites have made these maps available on the web for affordable commercial and professional use. Because works of the U.S. Government are in the public domain, it is also possible to find many of these maps for free at various locations on the Internet. Georeferenced map images are available from the USGS as digital raster graphics (DRGs) in addition to digital data sets based on USGS maps, notably Digital Line Graphs (DLGs) and digital elevation models (DEMs).