Basemaps Defined

Caitlin Dempsey


What is a basemap?  The term basemap is see often in GIS and refers to a collection of GIS data and/or orthorectified imagery that form the background setting for a map.  The function of the basemap is to provide background detail necessary to orient the location of the map.  Basemaps also add to the aesthetic appeal of a map.

Typical GIS data and imagery that make up the layers for a basemap: streets, parcels, boundaries (country, county, city boundaries), shaded relief of a digital elevation model, waterways, and aerial or satellite imagery.  Depending on the type of map, any combination of those layers can be used. For example, for a map showing foreclosed properties, the basemap would consist of GIS data such as streets (with labels) and parcel lines . A map showing hiking trails would benefit from a basemap containing a digital elevation model or topo lines that shows elevation, thus allow viewers to understand the rise and fall of a trail’s path.

Map of the central regions of Ancient Greece.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Map of the central regions of Ancient Greece. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the example above showing the regions of Ancient Greece, the basemap used is comprised of a shaded relief showing the land areas, waterways and ocean layers.  The foreground data showing the regions makes up the actual subject data of the map.

Basemaps are also pre-authored datasets that can be pulled from online sources.  Esri’s ArcGIS online offers a selection of predefined basemaps that can be used for creating online maps or that can be pulled into ArcGIS for use as a basemap when using the desktop mapping software.

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Select of basemaps from Esri's ArcGIS Online.
Select of basemaps from Esri's ArcGIS Online.
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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.