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Chapter 1  Contouring | 1

Chapter 1

1.1 Definition-Contour interval, Horizontal equivalent,

general contours, Index contour
1.2 Criteria for selection of contour interval
1.3 Characteristics of contours
1.4 Methods of control for contour survey
1.4.1 Direct method
1.4.2 Indirect method i.e. grid method, cross section
method and radial method
1.5 Methods of interpolation of contours
1.6 Uses of contour maps
1.7 Contour Gradient
1.8 Contour of some natural features
2 | Textbook of Surveying for Diploma in Engineering II Year I Part (CTEVT)


1.1.1 Contour
The line of intersection of a level surface with the ground surface is
known as the contour line or simply the contour. It can also be defined
as an imaginary line on the ground, joining the points of equal
elevation above the assumed datum. It is a plan projection of the
plane passing through the points of equal heights on the surface of the
earth. A map showing only the contour lines of an area is called a
contour map.
For example, a contour of 100 m indicates that all the points on this line
have an RL of 100 m. Similarly, in a contour of 99 m, all points have an
RL of 99 m, and so on (Fig1.1).

Fig 1.1: Contours of a lake

Concept of contour can be made clear by surveying the boundary of

still water in a pond. If the level of the water surface is 100 m, then
periphery of water represents a counter of 100 meters. Now, suppose
that water level is reduced by 1 m, the new outside boundary of water
will then represent a contour of 99 m, (fig 1.1).


The vertical distance between any two consecutive contours is known
as a contour interval. The contour interval is kept constant on a map
to depict correct topography of the terrain. Suppose a map includes
contour lines of 100 m, 98 m. 96 m and so on. The contour interval
Chapter 1  Contouring | 3

here is 2 m.The contour interval is an even space that represents an

increase in elevation.


The horizontal distance between any two consecutive contours is
known as horizonta1 equivalent. It is not constant. It varies according
to the steepness of the ground. For steep slopes, the contour lines run
Close together and for flatter slopes they are widely spaced.


Topographic maps may have many contour lines. It is not possible to
label the elevation of each contour line. To make the map easier to read every
fifth contour line vertically is an index contour .Index contours are shown by darker
brown lines on the map. These are the contour lines that are usually labeled. The map
below is a section of a topographic map. The thin lines are the normal contours or
general contours. The thick lines are the index contours. Notice that elevations are
only marked on the thick lines. Because we only have a piece of the topographic map
we cannot look at the margin to find the contour interval.
But since we know the elevation of the two index contours we can calculate the
interval ourselves.

Fig. 1.2: Index contour


The vertical distance between consecutive contour is termed as
contour interval. It is desirable to have a constant contour interval
throughout the map. In special cases, a variable contour interval may
also be provided. A variable contour interval is, as far as possible
avoided since it gives a false impression of the relative steepness of
4 | Textbook of Surveying for Diploma in Engineering II Year I Part (CTEVT)

the ground in different parts of the map. Generally contour intervals

are taken as 1 to 15 m .The smaller the contour interval, the more
precisely the terrain relief is predicted on the plan. The contour
interval depends upon the following factors
i) Scale of the map
ii) Purpose of the map
iii) Nature of the Country
iv) Time
v) Funds
1. Scale of the Map: The contour interval is kept inversely
proportional to the scale of the map. If scale of the map is small,
the contour interval is kept large so that there is no overcrowding
of the contours. On the other hand, if the scale of the map is
large, the contour interval can be kept small.
2. Purpose of the Map: The contour interval on a map also depends
upon the purpose for which map is prepared. If the map is
prepared for accurate earthwork calculations, small contour
interval is to be used for accurate work. In the case of location
surveys, setting out for drainage, reservoir and road, where
extent of the survey is large, a large contour interval is to be
3. The nature of the Ground: The contour interval depends upon
the general topography of the terrain. For a flat ground, the
contour interval is small, but for a steep slope, the contour
interval a large. If the ground is broken, the contour interval is
kept large so that the contours do not come too close to each
4. Time: Contour interval is kept large when time is less.
5. Funds: Contour interval is kept large when funds as less.
The following table suggests some suitable value of contour
interval based on the nature of the terrain and scale of the map

Table of punmia page 252

For general topographical maps, the contour interval may be decided

from the following formula:
Contour interval = in meters
Number of centimeters per kilometer
= in Feet
Number of inches to a mile
Chapter 1  Contouring | 5

Determine suitable C.I. on a map on scale of 1 : 25000.
Given scale of the map is 1 : 25000
25000 m in field = 1 meter in map = 100 cm
For 25000 = 100 cm
For 1 km= × 1000 cm = 4 cm
Contour interval= in meteres = 5 meters


1. Two contours of different elevation do not cross each other
except in the case of contours of a overhanging cliff or cave.
2. Contours of different elevations do not combine or unite to each
other except in the case of contours of a vertical cliff.

3. When contours are drawn closer to each other, it shows a steep

slope on the ground, when they are far apart it shows the gentle
slope on the ground, when contours are equally spaced they
represent a uniform slope and when they are parallel straight
and equivalent they represent a plane surface.

Bc punmia

4. A contour is perpendicular to a line of the steepest slope.

5. A contour must form a close loop itself in the map or must go out
of the boundaries of the map.
6. A set of ring contours with higher values of contour inside and
lower values outside represents a hill and if the higher values are
6 | Textbook of Surveying for Diploma in Engineering II Year I Part (CTEVT)

outside and lower values inside then it represents a depression

like a pond.
7. Contour lines cross a watershed or ridge lines at right angle. they
form U-shape curve with the concave side of the curve towards
the higher ground level.
8. Contour lines a valley lines at right angles.They form sharp V-
shape curve across it with convex side with the convex side of the
curve towards the higher ground.

9. Contours do not have sharp turning.

10. Contours do not pass through permanent structures such as
11. Depression between summit are called saddle or pass.


The method of establishing/plotting contours in a plan or map is
known as contouring. Contouring consists of finding elevations of
various points in the area surveyed. At the same time the horizontal
positions of those points should also be found. Thus, it needs vertical
control and horizontal control in the work. For vertical control levels.
Theodolite or clinometers may be used while for horizontal controls
chain, compass, plane table or theodolite are used. Based on the
instruments used, there can be different methods of surveying.
However, broadly speaking there are two methods of surveying:
i) Direct methods ii) Indirect methods
Chapter 1  Contouring | 7


In the direct method, the contour to be plotted is actually traced on
the ground. In the direct method, two survey parties are generally
work simultaneously, one locating the points on the contours and the
other surveying those points. Points which happen to fall on a desired
contour are only surveyed, plotted and finally joined to obtain the
particular contour. This method is slow and tedious and thus used for
large scale maps, small contour interval and at high degree of
precision. Direct method of contouring can be employed using Level
and Staff and plane table as follows:
Vertical control
In this method, first of all, a benchmark is require to be fixed in the
project area.
 The level is set up on any commanding position and back sight is
taken on the bench mark. Let the back sight reading on the bench
mark be 1.485 m.
 If the reduced level of the bench mark is 100 m, the height of
instrument would be = 100 + 1.485 = 101.485 m.
 To locate the contour of 100.5 m value, the staff man is directed to
occupy the position on the ground where the staff reading is
=101.485 -100.500 = 0.985 m.
 Mark all such positions on the ground where the staff reading
would be 0.985 m by inserting pegs.
 Similarly, for 101 m contour locate the points where the staff
reading would be 101.485 -101 = 0.485 m
The contour of 101.5 m cannot be set from this setting of the
instrument because the height of instrument for this setting of the
instrument is only 101.485 m. Therefore, locating contours of higher
value, the instrument has to be shifted to some other suitable position.
Establish a forward station on a firm ground and take fore sight on it.
This point acts as a point of known elevation, for shifting the position
of the instrument to another position, from where the work proceeds
in the similar manner till the entire area is contoured.
Horizontal Control
For horizontal control for that point is usually exercised with plane
table survey. Then staff man is directed to another point on the same
contour. After locating few points. Plane table person draws each
contour line. Simultaneously 2-4 contour lines are traced in the area
levelling instrument can command. Then instrument station is shifted
8 | Textbook of Surveying for Diploma in Engineering II Year I Part (CTEVT)

by taking change point. Shifting of leveling and plane table need not
be simultaneous. For getting speed in leveling, sometime hand level
or on Abney level are used. In this method, after locating a first point
on a contour line say 90 in contour line the surveyor stands on that
point with hand level suspended at a convenient height. Forevery
point selected horizontal control is exercised and plotted. For large
scale works theodolite or compass traverse may be adopted.

Figgggggggggggg change


In this method, some guide points are selected along a system of
straight lines in the field, generally as corners of well-shaped
geometrical figures such as squares, rectangles, and then spot levels
are determined. Elevations of desired contours are interpolated in
between spot levels and contour lines are drawn by joining points of
equal elevation. While interpolating, it is assumed that the slope
between any two adjacent guide points is uniform .Indirect methods
are less expensive, less time consuming and less tedious as compared
to the direct method. These methods are commonly employed in
small scale surveys of large areas or during mapping of irregular
surface or steep slope. There are three different ways usually
employed for indirect method of contouring:
1. Square or grid method
2. Cross section method
3. Redial method
Chapter 1  Contouring | 9

Square or grid method

In this method, the area to be surveyed is divided into a grid or series
of squares (Figure 0). The square size may vary from 5 m x 5 m to 25
m x 25 m depending upon the nature of the terrain, the contour
interval required and the scale of the map desired. Also, the grids may
not be of the same size throughout but may vary depending upon the
requirement and field conditions. The corners of the squares are
numbered serially, as 1, 2, 3, ........ and so on. A temporary bench-mark
is set up near the site and the level is set up at a suitable position. The
staff readings on the corners of the squares are taken and noted in the
level book maintaining the sequence of the serial numbers of the
corners. The RLs of all the corners are calculated. The skeletons of the
squares are plotted to a suitable scale of the map. The respective RLs
are written on the corners of the square, after which the contour lines
are drawn by interpolation. Special care should be taken to give the
spot levels to the salient features of the ground such as hilltops,
deepest points of the depressions, and their measurements from
respective corners of the grids, for correct depiction of the features.
The method is used for large scale mapping and at average precision.

Fig: Locating contours by method of square

Cross section method

In this method a base line, centre line or profile line is considered.
Cross-sections are taken perpendicular to this line at regular intervals
(say 50 m, 100 m etc.). After this, points are marked along the cross-
sections at a regular intervals (say 5 m, 10 m, etc.). A temporary
bench-mark is set up near the site, Staff readings are taken along the
base line and the cross sections. The readings are entered in the level
hook: the base line and the cross-section should be mentioned. The RL
of each of the points are calculated. The base line and cross sections
are plotted to a suitable scale. Subsequently the RLs of the respective
10 | Textbook of Surveying for Diploma in Engineering II Year I Part (CTEVT)

points are noted on the map, after which the required contour line is
drawn by interpolation. This method is suitable for route survey,
where cross-sections are taken transverse to the longitudinal section.

Fig: Cross section method of contouring

Radial Method
Radial method is also known as tacheometric method. In this method
a number of radial lines at known angular interval are drawn on the
ground and position of the points at equal distance are marked. Spot
levels of these points and horizontal distances from instrument station
are determined by taking tacheometric observation and tacheometric
formula. The points are plotted to the scale of the map and spot levels
are entered. The contours of desired values are then located by
interpolation. This method is convenient in hilly terrain where
chaining is difficult, with level stations chosen at high points so as to
command a large area from each.

Fig. bc and agor

Compression between direct and indirect methods of contouring:

S.N. Direct method Indirect method
1 Very accurate method Less accurate method as
compared to direct method
2 Relatively slow and tedious Quicker, less tedious and can
and expensive be carried out at low cost
3 Suitable for contouring of Suitable for hilly area and
C h a p t e r 1  C o n t o u r i n g | 11

small area with low steep slope

4 Points are graphically located Points are interpolated in the
on the ground office
5 Calculations cannot be Calculation can be checked
checked at the end of the work when needed
6 Appropriate for small projects Appropriate for large projects
requiring high accuracy such requiring moderate to low
as, layout of buildings, factory, accuracy such as, layout of
structural foundations etc. highway, railway, drainage
canal etc.


After finding RL of many points on the ground and plotted the
position of those points. Points on contour lines are identified
assuming uniform slope between any two neighboring points is
uniform. This process of drawing contour proportionately between
the plotted ground points or inbetween plotted contour is known as
interpolation of contour.For example. For this purpose any one of the
following three methods may be used.
i) Estimation
ii) Arithmetic calculation
iii) Mechanical or Graphical method.
i) Estimation
In this method the position of the contour points between guide
points are located by estimation and the contours are the drawn
through them. This method is extremely rough and is used for small
scale works only such as topographical map of scale 1:50, 0000.
ii) Arithmetic Calculation
In this method, positions of the contour between two known points
are located by making accurate arithmetic calculations. This is most
accurate method but time consuming.
For example, let A, B, D and C be the guide points plotted on the map,
having elevations of 607.4, 617.3, 612.5 and 604.3 meters respectively
(Fig. 10.12). Let AB BD CD =CA 1 m on the plan and let it be required
to locate the Position of 605,610 and 615 m contours on these lines.
The vertical difference in elevation between A and B is (617.3 - 607.4)
= 9.9 m. Hence the distance of contour points from A will be:
12 | Textbook of Surveying for Diploma in Engineering II Year I Part (CTEVT)

Distance of 610 m contour points = × 2.6 = 0.26 m and
Distance of 615 m contour point = × 7.6 = 0.76 m
These two contour points may be located on AB.
Similarly, the position of the contour points on the lines AC, CD, BD
and also on AD and BC may be located. Contour lines may then be
drawn through appropriate contour points as shown in Fig. 1 0. 12.

iii) Mechanical or Graphical method

In the graphical method, the interpolation is done with the help of a
tracing paper or a terracing cloth. There are two methods:
Method 1: Parallel Lines Method
On a tracing sheet several parallel lines are drawn at regular interval.
Every fifth or tenth line is made dark for easy counting. If RL of A is
98. 4 m and that of B is 100.2 m and also assume bottom most dark
line represents 98 in RL and every parallel line is at 0.2 in intervals.
Then hold a point on second parallel line on A. Rotate tracing sheet so
that 100.2th parallel line passes through point B. then intersection of
dark lines on AB represents the points on 99 mm and 100 m contours.
Similarly, contour points along any line connecting two-level points
can be obtained and contour lines interpolated and pricked. This
method maintains the accuracy of arithmetic calculations, at the same
time is fast also.
C h a p t e r 1  C o n t o u r i n g | 13

Method II: Radial Lines Method

In this method a line PQ is drawn on a tracing sheet from the
midpoint of PQ say R, a perpendicular line RO is drawn. O" is
selected at any convenient distance. PQ is divided into a number of
equal parts, say 20 parts. Then the radial lines from 'O' to these
equally spaced points are drawn. A number of guide lines l-l, 2-2, etc.
are drawn parallel to PQ. To interpolate between two points A and B
on drawing sheet, tracing sheet is held with its guide lines parallel to
AB. OQ is assigned a contour line point just below that of RL of A. Of
dark lines are at every 5 ray interval, and contours are required at
every 1 mm interval, the interval between two consecutive rays is 0.2
m. Appropriate ray is made to appear on A and tracing sheet is
rotated till the ray corresponding to B coincides with B. Then the
contour points on AB correspond to the dark lines intersection with
AB. These points are produced and the contour points on line AB are
obtained. Thus, in this case also exact interpolation is made

Fig: Parallel line method Fig: Radial line method

Drawing Contours
After locating contour points between a networks of guide points,
smooth contour lines are drawn connecting corresponding points. For
drawing contour lines French curves should be used. A surveyor
should not lose the sight of characteristics of the contours. Brown
color is preferred to draw the contours so that they can be easily
distinguished from other features: Every fifth contour is made thicker
for easy readability. On every contour line its elevation is written
either above, below or by breaking the line. If map size is large, it is
written at the ends also. However, in writing these elevations
uniformity should be maintained.
14 | Textbook of Surveying for Diploma in Engineering II Year I Part (CTEVT)


Contours provide valuable information about the nature of terrain.
This is very important for selection of sites, determination of
catchment area of a drainage basin, to find inter-visibility between
stations etc. Some of the salient uses of contours are described below.
1. To Determine Nature of Ground
From a given contour plan, the section along any given direction can
be drawn to know the general shape of the ground or to use it for
earth calculations for a given communication line in the direction of'
the section. Thus, let it be required to draw the section along the line
xy through the contour map (Figure 18.3). The intersection points
between the line and contours are projected at different elevations of
the contours are projected and joined by smooth curve. The smooth
curve depicts the nature of the ground surface along XY.

2. To Locate Route
Contour map provides useful information for locating a route at a
given gradient such as highway, canal, sewer line etc. Let it be
required to locate a route from P to Q at an upward gradient of 1 in
100. The contour map of the area is available at a contour interval of 5
meter at a scale of 1 : 10000. The horizontal equivalent will therefore
be equal to 100 meter. Then with centre at P with a radius of 2 cm
draw an arc to cut the next higher contour, say at q. With q as centre,
mark the next higher contour by an arc of radius 2 cm say at r.
Similarly, other points such as s, t, u, ......... etc. are obtained and
joining the points provides the location of route. (Figure 18.2)
C h a p t e r 1  C o n t o u r i n g | 15

3. Intervisibility between Stations

When the intervisibility between two points cannot be ascertained by
inspection of the area, it can be determined using contour map. The
intervisibility is determined by drawing a line joining the
stations/points say AB and plot the elevations of the points and
contours intersected by AB as shown in Figure 18.3. If the intervening
ground is found to be above A'B' line, the intervisibility is obstructed.
In the figure, the ground is obstructing the line of sight.

4. To Determine Catchment Area or Drainage Area

The catchment area of a river is determined by using contour map.
The watershed line which indicates the drainage basin of a river
passes through the ridges and saddles of the terrain around the river.
Thus, it is always perpendicular to the contour lines. The catchment
area contained between the water shed line and the river outlet is then
measured with a planimeter (Figure 18.4).
16 | Textbook of Surveying for Diploma in Engineering II Year I Part (CTEVT)

5. Storage capacity of a Reservoir

The storage capacity of a reservoir is determined from contour map.
The contour line indicating the full reservoir level (F.R.L) is drawn on
the contour map. The are aenclosed between successive contours are
measured by planimeter (Figure 18.5). The volume of water between
F.R.L and the river bed is finally estimated by using either
Trapezoidal formula or Prismoidal formula.

Thus, if A1, A2, .........., An are the areas enclosed by various contours
and h is contour interval, the reservoir capacity will be given by
V =  (A1 + A2) by trapezpidal formula
and V =  (A1 + 4A2 + A3) by primoidal formula
6. Selection of a Canal Alignment
Suppose a reservoir is to be constructed at R across a river. An
irrigation canal RL is required to be constructed to irrigate the areas of
C h a p t e r 1  C o n t o u r i n g | 17

two villages Rampur and Shyampur located on opposite slopes of the

ridge. We know that water in canals flows under gravity. From the
contour map (Fig. 7.24) it may be noted that the elevation of the
reservoir site R is 547 m approx. The canal alignment should therefore
be kept below this level.


The imaginary Iino lying throughout on the surface of the earth and
preserving a constant inclination to the horizontal, is known as
contour gradient. The inclination of a contour gradient is generally
given either as rising gradient or falling gradient and is expressed as
the ratio of the vertical height in a specified horizontal distance.
Suppose the bed of a canal is lowered by one meter in a length of 100
meters, then, the gradient is 1 in 100. If we know the inclination of the
contour gradient, its direction may be easily located on the ground by
using one of the following surveying instruments.
i) Clinometer
ii) Theodolite
iii) Level
iv) Ghat tracer
Location of contour gradient:
Suppose it is required to locate the centre line of a road in a hilly area
with a ruling gradient of 1 in 20. Let the starting point A be on a 94.00
m contour line (Fig. 6.16). Since the contour interval is 2 m and
gradient 1 in 20, the horizontal distance between A and the point on
the next contour (96 m) is 2 x 20 = 40 m. With the centre at A and
18 | Textbook of Surveying for Diploma in Engineering II Year I Part (CTEVT)

radius equal to 40 m (taken on the same scale), an arc is drawn cutting

the contour line of 96.00 at point B. Taking B as the centre and with
the same radius, another arc is drawn to get the next point C. The
other points are located in a similar manner.

Fig: Contour gradient


1. By Abney level
The Abney level (Fig. 6.17) is nothing but an improved type of
clinometer. It consists of a telescope and spirit bubble. A mirror is
provided over the bubble at an angle of 45° to help observe the image
of the bubble. The bubble tube is attached to the vernier arm which
can be rotated by a worm-and- wheel arrangement. To fix the contour
gradient, the index of the vernier is set to the angle corresponding to
the given gradient. The Abney level is held over the starting station A
against a pole at a suitable height C. A mark D is made on another
pole at the same height. This pole is held over the next point of
gradient. It is made to move up or down along the hill slope until the
mark D is bisected at point B; at the same time the bubble should be at
the centre of its run. Now the line joining the station point A to the
point B is practically parallel to the line of sight and therefore on the
given gradient. The points A and B are marked on the ground with
pegs. The Abney level is then shifted and held on the point D. The
next point of the gradient is fixed according to the previous
procedure. The other points are fixed on the gradient in similar
C h a p t e r 1  C o n t o u r i n g | 19

2. By levelling Instrument
In this method, the RL of the starting point is first determined with
reference to the permanent bench-mark. Then the level is set up at a
suitable position and a BS reading is taken on the starting point. Thus
the HI is calculated for this setting. Then, by knowing the gradient
and the peg interval, the RLs of the successive pegs are calculated.
After this, the required staff readings on the pegs are determined. The
locations corresponding to the calculated staff readings are identified
and the points marked on the ground with pegs.