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18 Types of Terrain You Need to Know

How many types of terrain do you know? And, how do you think a terrain can affect the habitat type? Well, let’s take a deep dive and learn more together.

A terrain is defined as a parcel of land with distinct features. It comes from the word “terra,” which means earth. Terrains are typically the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the land surface.

Understanding the different types of terrain is vital to determining the habitats that are fit for settlement and how they affect plant and animal life.

When humans understand the landscape, they can choose areas that are fit for agricultural purposes and those that support soil conservation efforts. They can also understand the area’s drainage system, watershed boundaries, and water movement to allow the prediction of water quality.

Sounds all complicated, right? Nature might be complex, but understanding it can make life easier. For instance, understanding the earth’s terrain is crucial in creating military tactics. The armed forces can identify areas to take and hold off and where to move their troops and materials. It helps them create an offensive and defensive strategy.

The study of terrain has also significantly impacted the understanding of weather patterns and aviation maneuvers. To cut to the chase, all terrain types on Earth have different features and support various terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. 

TerrainThe shape, features, and elevation of land surfaces, both horizontally and vertically.
ReliefThe difference in elevation between the highest and lowest points in an area.
BathymetryThe study of underwater terrain.
HypsometryThe measurement of land elevation relative to sea level.
LandformsPhysical features on the earth’s surface, such as hills, valleys, and plateaus.
ImportanceTerrain affects human settlement, agriculture, hydrology, military strategy, and weather patterns.
GeomorphologyThe study of the origin and evolution of terrain.
Erosional ProcessesPhysical features on the earth’s surface include hills, valleys, and plateaus.
Tectonic ProcessesProcesses that shape terrain by removing soil and rock, such as water and wind erosion.
Digital Terrain Model (DTM)A 3D representation of terrain used in planning, GIS, and other applications.

Main Types of Terrain on Earth

Types of Terrain Illustration

1. Canyon

Dawn on the S rim of the Grand Canyon
Image by [ Murray Foubister ] used under CC BY-SA 2.0

First on our list of terrain types is a canyon. Most people know or have heard about the famous Grand Canyon. Well, what is a canyon, and how do they form?

A canyon forms when a river cuts through rocks, creating a deep V-shaped valley. It is typically a gorge or a ravine in the ground, found between cliffs or mountain peaks, and forms due to erosion from the river, wind, and other weather elements.

The canyons form from the erosion of less resistant rocks like shale from the river banks and beds. The water flows through the crevices and cracks of rocks, and during winter, it freezes, forming ice crystals that expand, pushing the rocks apart, and a chunk of them breaks down. Sandstone and granite are harder rock strata that form the canyon walls as they are more resistant to this weathering process.

Canyons are found in areas of limestone rocks because limestone is dissolved to a certain level. River distributaries initially carve out a deep cave system in the limestone bed. Ultimately, the very smooth walls of the cave and its ceiling collapse, forming a canyon.

There are multiple types of canyons. They include box canyons, slot canyons, mountain-type, and submarine canyons. You can find canyons in different places across the globe, including South and North America, Asia, Africa, and throughout Europe.

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2. Karst

Karst Topography at Kami-shima Island
Image by [ 松岡明芳 ] used under CC BY-SA 4.0

Typically, a karst landscape occurs when lots of waterfalls on the surface interact with and enter the subsurface through extensive land tracts, cracks, and holes dissolved into the base or bedrock. It is a type of terrain that results from the dissolving action of soluble rocks like gypsum, limestone, and dolomite. 

This landscape comprises underground systems of caves and sinkholes. Some karst comprises underground features, where superimposed insoluble rock strata cover the dissolved river bed.

But does karst only form on soft rocks? Which other kinds of rock types produce karst terrain?

Aside from limestone and other soluble rocks, karst terrain has also been recorded in harder and more insoluble rocks like quartzite. The only difference between the formation of the two is that they require different conditions. Even weather-resistant rocks can dissolve to form karst under the right conditions.

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3. Valley

U-Shaped Valley, Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Montana
Image by [ Ken Lund ] used under CC BY-SA 2.0

Another common type of earth terrain is a valley. A valley, also called depression or dale, is a ridge area – between hills and mountains. Often, rivers run through valleys.

Some are U-shaped valleys, and others are V-shaped. Still, some others fall somewhere in between – not V or U-shaped. Some of the common types of valleys include:

  • Hollows- These refer to small valleys or merely a dry river bed.
  • Box valleys: These types of valley terrains have steep sides. Their floors are wide and relatively level.
  • Hanging valleys: These valleys are U-shaped, and they are tributary valleys that are much higher than the main valley.
  • Glacial valleys: These valleys have been influenced by a glacial process.
  • Rift valleys: Results from some surface tectonic activity on the earth’s surface.
  • Tunnel valleys: These are U-shaped and form by sub-glacial erosion of waters. Tunnel valleys can go up to 62 miles in length.

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4. Desert Terrain


A desert is a sandy and arid ground with little or no vegetation due to lack of water, salt poisoning, or extreme soil. Most deserts contain miles of bare rocks and other miles of half-baked earth.

A desert terrain typically means an inhabitable area or a deserted place. Since most of them receive very little water, most become inhabitable unless the location is close to a constant water source.

While most deserts are scorching, not all of them are. Others are extremely cold.

There are four major types of deserts:

  • Arid deserts are also called Hot and Dry Deserts. Temperatures in these deserts are warm and dry all year long. Typical examples of flat deserts located in Africa are the Sahara Desert and the Mojave Desert in the Southwest of the US.
  • Semi-arid deserts – These are a bit cooler than the arid ones. They experience long and dry summers but also have winters and a bit of rainfall.
  • Coastal Deserts – These are more humid than all other types of deserts. Rainfall is rare, but heavy fogs blow on the desert from the coast. A classic example is the Atacama Desert of Chile in South America.
  • Cold Deserts – These deserts are also dry, but unlike other desert types, they have low temperatures. A good example is the Antarctic desert. Some places have deserts that remain chilly and moderate temperatures all year, in areas like the Arctic and Poland. These deserts receive rainfall once in a while.

Some deserts have oil springs, and others are covered in salt. Drilling oil springs and mining salt are some of the most lucrative ventures for people living in those areas.

Dunes are also prevalent in some types of deserts. These are small hills of loosely laying materials, usually sand. An interesting fact unknown to most people is that deserts can shrink, expand, or move.

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5. Open Terrain

Open land under a blue sky

Open terrain is one of the most common types of terrain on Earth. They cover flat land, open country, and open ground, free from buildings, trees, or any other obstructing structures to a person’s view.

Typical examples of open terrain include farmland and grassland. It also represents the areas cleared near airports and airstrips purposes.

Some open terrains are used during official functions such as military maneuvers as they are bare and easy to perform.

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6. Glacier

A tidewater glacier on the Antarctic coast with a sharply peaked mountain behind
Image by [ Jason Auch ] used under CC BY 2.0

Glaciers are huge masses of ice. They stay that way throughout and can survive like that for years. You can find glaciers in the Antarctic, Greenland, and some areas in the higher regions of the Arctic.

Glaciers flow consistently, albeit at a slower pace than rivers or lava.

And glaciers can produce glacial earthquakes. Nobody knows why these earthquakes occur, but it’s believed these incidences persisted in recent years due to adverse climate change.

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7. Hills

Chocolate Hills overview in Bohol, Philippines
Image by [ P199 ] used under CC BY-SA 3.0

A hill is a gently rising land to a peak or above sea level. They look similar to mountains but are not as steep and lower.

Two distinct features of hills include:

  • They are not as steep as mountains and are easier to climb
  • They are considered to have 2000 feet or less

Hills form when sediments are deposited there or eroded, covered in grass trees, and others have little to no vegetation.

Armies mostly use hills for hiding. Due to their height, many military troops construct fortresses on hilltops.

Most hilly places are not fit for agricultural practices, and that’s because of challenges such as drainage problems, soil erosion, or even plowing difficulty.

Luckily, people have found solutions for these challenges, such as contour plowing, which they have been practicing in sloping land.

Some common hill terrain includes Butte, Brae, Drumlin, Kuppe, Mesa, and Mima mounds.

See Related: What is Lake Erosion?

8. Mountain Terrain

Natural landscape containing Mountain, Sky, Tree and Terrain

Mountains are similar to hills but steeply rising ground and have higher elevations. Any land elevation that goes beyond 2000 feet is considered a mountain. Mountain ranges are steeper than hills and usually form through volcanic activities.

Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, with over 29,000 feet in height. The tallest one in North America is Denali Mountain in Alaska, over 20,000 feet tall.

Experts measure the height of the mountains differently. Some estimate how high they are from the bottom to the peak, while others measure their elevation above sea level.

Although there are no fundamental distinctions between hills and mountains, there are several features that distinguish them. These are the following:

  • Hills are easier to climb than mountains.
  • Mountains are defined as covering more than 2,000 feet in elevation.
  • Hills are lower in elevation and have less steep slopes than mountains.
  • Most mountains are produced by volcanic activity.

9. Forest

Autumn Forest

Forests cover a third of the entire earth’s surface. A forest is an area of land almost covered in trees and experiences colder or more temperate climates. It’s among the several types of surrounding terrain on earth that is full of life – from wildlife, humans, and various vegetation.

The national government expressly reserves forests in most countries. Special laws govern these forests, and are used as national parks and reserves. 

Most forests are sparsely settled, and you can even find towns and small villages there. In most cases, government authorities pay professional foresters to manage forests.

There are different types of forests, including jungles or tropical rainforests, seasonally dry forests, temperate forests, and temperate rainforests.

  • Jungles are lush and tangled rainforests that are almost impossible to navigate.
  • The seasonal dry forest comes from the fact that it is very dry for long periods.
  • The temperate forests have four seasons and are found between the polar and tropical regions of the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
  • Temperate rainforests are forests that receive a lot of rain and are either broadleaf or coniferous.

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10. Ocean

Ocean Waves

Oceans form the largest terrain on Earth. Large saline water bodies cover roughly 70% of the earth’s surface. 97% of the earth’s water comes from the oceans.

Some people use the words ‘sea’ and ‘ocean’ interchangeably, but they have a few differences. A sea is smaller than an ocean and has landed on almost all its sides.

Oceans influence the different weather conditions and climates on earth. Over 230,000 known species dwell in the oceans. And since most are still unexplored, that number could go up.

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11. River


A river is a large stream of water that flows in a channel into another river, a lake, or a sea. Permanent streams of water, canals, and seasonal water bodies are all types of rivers.

A river starts as a spring or standing water body and consists of numerous tributaries feeding it until it ends up in a large water body like an ocean or sea. Even human-made and human-engineered tributaries are still rivers.

Some rivers end up in wetlands, or they disappear underground. Rivers have been used since time immemorial for irrigation and drinking water sources.

The Nile River is 6,695 km long and is the longest river in the world. Amazon River is the second-largest and longest at roughly 6,437 km in length.

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12. Swamp

Flamingo on a swamp

Swamps, also called salt marshes or bogs, are wetland terrains. They are areas that have both solid land and shallow water bodies.

Swamps are challenging to navigate unless you have a flatboat. They form in almost any area that receives moderate to excess rainfall.

Swamps move slowly and are commonly covered by different vegetation types. Most contain large grasses, reeds, sedges, heather, myrtles, and small trees protruding from the water. Humans use reeds to craft various items.

Cypress and hardwood trees sometimes grow in swamps. There are two main types of swamps: saltwater, found in coastal areas, and freshwater swamps, found inland.

A few edible crops can thrive in freshwater swamps, including rice, and some swamps have fish. There are dangerous creatures that live in the swamps, which might make it risky for people to use them. Some of the animals living in swamps include leeches and mosquitoes.

Also, some people develop skin problems when they live in swampy areas.

See Related: Interesting Examples of Habitats

13. Plateau

Colorado Plateau
Image by [ BFS Man ] used under CC BY 2.0

A plateau is a high, level area of land that rises significantly above the surrounding landscape. This increase usually happens on at least one side. Plateaus on all continents cover one-third of the earth’s surface.

Dissected plateaus and volcanic plateaus are the two main types of plateaus. The creation of a dissected plateau arises from the upward motion of the planet’s crust. The continuing collision of plate tectonics causes the uplifting.

14. Playas

Texas Dry Lake Bed
Image by [ Rennett Stowe ] used under CC BY 2.0

Playas, also called dry lake beds, are basins or dips that formerly held vast bodies of water that evaporated due to evaporative processes exceeding refilling. When the bottom of an empty lake is coated with alkaline chemical deposits, an alkali flat forms.

A salt flat is formed when the bottom of a dry lakebed is covered in salt.

Rainwater produces a pool or reservoir whenever it reaches a dry dip in the landscape. If the yearly evaporation rate exceeds the total annual inflow, the dip will likely dry up again, becoming a dry lake. When the water evaporates, the salts that were neutralized in the water remain on the ground, slowly accumulating over time.

You can distinguish a dry lake through a flat clay bed coated with accumulated salts. These minerals have high concentrations of buffeting chemicals such as borax, sodium carbonate, and other salts.

15. Mesa

Edge of Cedar Mesa Terrain
Image by [ Ken Lund ] used under CC BY-SA 2.0

A mesa is a lone, flat-topped ridge that rises steeply above a surrounding plain and is bordered by high cliffs. Mesas can be found all over the planet.

Mesas are made up of horizontally oriented soft rock layers. They are covered by a more durable layer or layers of hard rock, such as silicate minerals covered by sandstones or a combination of the two.

It is highly resistant to erosion and serves as a caprock, forming the flat summit of a mesa. Depending on the type of rock utilized, the caprock can be made up of sandstone and limestone layers, fragmented lava flows, or a deeply eroded duricrust.

In contrast to plateaus – landscapes constructed by horizontal layers of bedrock, such as the Tibetan Plateau, mesas are formed by flat-lying strata. Tablelands, on the other hand, are flat-topped plateaus that are designated as such.

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16. Marsh

Marsh Land with bodies of water
Image by [ Bob Jones ] used under CC BY-SA 2.0

A marsh is a wetland in which herbaceous plants exceed woody plants. You can find wetland areas around the edges of lakes and streams, serving as a buffer zone between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

Grass rushes, and reeds are common foreground plants. If you discover woody plants, they are usually low-growing shrubs known as cars in some circles.

Marshes are separated from swamps by their lack of tree cover, whereas swamps are identified by their profusion of trees, and mires are wetlands that have accumulated acidic peat deposits.

There are various sorts of marshes, which are distinguished by their salinity and specific location. These two factors affect the amount of plant and animal life in marshes.

The three main types of marshes are salt, freshwater, and tidal. Other sorts of marshes exist, such as those located on the banks of big rivers and those that are ideal homes for animals, such as particular types of waterfowl.

Marshes can be found anywhere on the planet, yet approximately 90% of all wetlands have been destroyed purposefully or unintentionally.

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17. Tundra

Greenland Tundra with ice
Image by [ josef knecht ] used under CC BY 3.0

Tundra landscapes are flat, treeless, frigid, and often frozen waste areas. You can find them on mountain peaks, where the temperature is cold and windy, and rainfall is scarce.

Tundra is unique because it is covered in snow and ice most of the year but can bloom with wildflowers in the summer. Arctic tundra, alpine tundra, and Antarctic tundra are the three regions and forms of tundra.

  • Arctic tundra: You can find this tundra in the extreme north. The majority of the year, it is frozen. Because of the harsh temperature of the Arctic tundra, these areas have witnessed minimal human activity.
  • Alpine tundra: You can find them at high altitudes in mountains worldwide. It is cold and windy, resulting in no tree growth. It differs from arctic tundra because it lacks permafrost, and alpine soils are generally better drained than arctic soils.
  • Antarctic tundra is present in Antarctica and on various Antarctic and subantarctic islands. Unlike the Arctic tundra, the Antarctic tundra lacks a major animal species.

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18. Oasis

Oasis in a desert
Image by [ Larbi Afoutni ] used under CC BY-SA 3.0

An oasis is a flat desert near water. What distinguishes it from other desert landscapes is it is fertilized by a source of fresh water in a dry region.

What’s fascinating about an oasis is that crops can grow and thrive on the land despite being in the desert. Cotton, dates, olives, corn, citrus fruits, wheat, and figs are all common crops that thrive in an oasis.


What is the Importance of Studying Different Terrain Types?

Terrain analysis aids in determining and discovering the best habitats for human habitation and activities such as transportation, tourism, economics, industry, and agriculture.

Terrains also teach us how to maintain soil, and historically, studying terrain types has been critical in recognizing weather patterns across vast geographical tracts.

What effect does terrain have on the ecosystem?

The terrain has a significant impact on both physical and biological circumstances. It influences vegetation distribution by producing microclimates (e.g., surface sunlight, precipitation, and soil moisture levels) or through disturbance regimes (e.g., proneness to the occurrence of landslides and wind throws).

What effect does terrain have on farming?

The terrain affects agriculture since it influences whether one location will be wetter or drier than another and whether a farmer wishes to grow specific crops. The terrain type of a region also affects how easily you can travel around, which influences the types of crops grown locally.

What is the most common cause of a canyon?

Canyons are formed by the flow of rivers, weathering and erosion processes, and tectonic action. The most common type of canyon is the river canyon. A river’s water pressure can cut deep into the river bed. The river bed’s sediments are swept downstream, forming a deep, narrow channel.

Why is the karst endangered?

Due to urban growth, they are threatened by habitat destruction, degradation, and fragmentation. The karst habitats, and the ecosystems on which they rely, evolved over millions of years and cannot be rebuilt once lost.

Why is an oasis vital to desert dwellers?

Oases provide nomads with rest, shade, food, and water as they travel their territory and with other people travel trade routes. Oases have been regarded as sacred by some cultures. An oasis can be both permanent and transitory.

What causes marshy terrain?

Rising sea levels have flooded coastal lowlands, creating vast coastal marshes shielded from waves by barrier islands or reefs. Coastal wetlands emerge as rivers deposit sediment on their way to the sea. Plants take root and stabilize the soil against the effects of tides and waves.

Why is it critical to preserve marshes?

We understand that coastal marshes are critical to the region’s environmental health, filtering nutrients and pollution from the water, safeguarding populations from rising sea levels and harsh storms, supporting commercially vital fish breeding grounds, and providing recreational opportunities. So it’s crucial to preserve and protect these wetlands.

What happens to mesa landforms throughout time?

Severe rains combined with high winds erode the softer sedimentary strata over time. Mesas are tall landforms with steep sides and wide, flat tops due to erosion. The top, more durable layer (known as cap rock) is preserved, while the softer rock around the sides erodes with time.

Are mesas bigger than plateaus?

A mesa is similar, but it is actually a part of a plateau that has been eaten away by water, eliminating the rock and leaving cliffs on all sides. Despite being known as smaller than a plateau, it should be wider overall than it is tall.

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