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Department of Civil Engineering
CIVL 1101 - Making Contours with ArcGIS
set cell vertical height
Making Contours with ArcGIS

In cartography, a contour line (often just called a "contour") joins points of equal elevation (height) above a given level, such as mean sea level. A contour map is a map illustrated with contour lines, for example a topographic map, which thus shows valleys and hills, and the steepness of slopes. The contour interval of a contour map is the difference in elevation between successive contour lines.


  1. Start ArcGIS by clicking on Start All Programs  ArcGIS 


  2. Click on ArcMap 10 to the the program. It will take a few seconds for the ArcMap to start. You should see the logo while the program in loading.


  3. The main interface for ArcMap should appear as shown below:


  4. To add data to the ArcMap project click on the Add data button at the top of the window. The following window will appear:


  5. If the "Look in" is not My Documents\ArcGIS then click on the pull-down menu and select My Documents\ArcGIS. In general, we used the My Documents\ArcGIS folder to store or work.

    Next, click on the appropriate data for your project. Depending on your site, click on the the appropriate geodatabase file. In this case, we are working a map of Site #1. Click the site1.mdb file and the following window will appear:

    After the data is added, the map will appear as shown below:


  6. From ArcToolbox, expand 3D Analyst and TIN Management. Select Create TIN.


  7. Define output TIN location. Click folder to the right of the output field.


  8. Define input feature class, in this case site1gridpoint. This is the feature class containing elevation data. Check to make sure height field is the field corresponding to elevation data.


  9. Click OK. TIN is created (may take some time). The TIN is added to the current map and an arbitrary color scheme is assigned.


  10. To change the contour interval and the symbology of the contour map Right-Click on TIN (in table of contents) and select properties and click Symbology tab.


  11. Click Classify button and change Method to Defined Interval.

  12. Click OK on error message.


  13. Change Interval Size to desired contour interval (in this case, 1 foot) and click OK and then OK again; the following map should appear.


  14. To change from a color-code surface map to a contour map, Right-Click again on TIN (in table of contents) and select properties and click Symbology tab, then click the Add button on the lower-left-hand side of the window.

    On the Add Renderer menu, select Contour with the same symbol, then click Add, and then close the Add Renderer window.


  15. Click on the Contour item box in the Show window in the upper-left-hand of the Layer Properties menu and unclick the Elevation box. Change the Reference contour height to 100.0, the Contour interval to 1.0, the Index contour factor to 5, and also change the line colors of both the Contour symbol and the Index contour symbol (in this example I have changed the contour line to light blue and the index line to a darker blue with both lines having a line weight of 1.0) and then click OK.

    You now have 1-foot contour line geo-referenced to your site map.


  16. To finish your map you should insert labels for the contour index lines, add a North arrow, add a scale, and add labels for mahor streets and buildings.


This website was originally developed by Charles Camp for CIVL 1101.
This site is maintained by the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Memphis.
Your comments and questions are welcomed.

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Department of Civil Engineering| 104 Engineering Science Bldg. |Memphis, TN 38152 | Phone: 901/678-2746 | Fax: 901/678-3026 | Last updated: 01/22/2021