(Almost) Free Topo Maps

I may post in the future about how to read and use topographical maps, but for now how to acquire them for cheap in three steps:

(1) Visit the USGS Topo Map Downloading Site

The site can be slow and a bit difficult to use, but you can get electronic copies of any USGS map for free. Navigate either with the search bar or by zooming in with the “Navigate” cursor selected. Once you’ve found the desired spot, change the cursor selection from “Navigate” to “Mark Points,” with buttons located to the right of the map. Once you’ve marked your points, click on the red pins to see what maps are available for that spot and add the ones you want to your cart. It can be fussy, so don’t don’t add more than 10 maps to the cart at a time before downloading. Click “Download,” and there you have it, an electronic copy of the map(s) you want.

usgs site

(2) Re-Size the Image

Now that you have a pdf of the topo map, you’ll want to re-size and format the image, saving as another pdf suitable for printing on a single 11×17 sheet. That’s the perfect size for these maps and you can easily print front and back. For this process to work you will need a way to print-to-pdf: I use Adobe Acrobat. This is the most detail oriented part, so I’ll break down the steps with screen shots, using Acrobat as an example.

[2a] Choose Map Features: If you’re working with a recent digital map, choose which map features you would like on your printed copy. I find that land-sat imaging gets in the way and is not as helpful as the old-style topo coloration:

new style topo image

Without images:

new style topo no image

Old styles look like this, and do not include options:

old style topo

[2b] Set the Paper Size: Go into the print options to set the paper size to 11×17.

adobe paper size

[2c] Set the Scale Options: In Acrobat I set it to print as a poster. After that options show up for scaling. I’ve found that usually 77% scale with 0.5 in overlap works well to fit two 11×17 sheets, given the standard size of the topo maps. The 0.5 in overlap is important for ease of use when flipping back-and-forth along the long edge.
adobe print scale

[2d] Print or Save to PDF: And there you have it, a two-page electronic version of the map for 11×17 paper!


(3) Print it Out

I usually take a flash drive with my files on it to FedEx. I go straight to the counter because the self-service copiers usually can’t handle custom options. You can also order online, though I’ve never tried it myself. Here are my specifications:

  • 11 x 17 size paper
  • 32 lb paper for durability
  • Full color (unless I’m trying to save $$$)
  • Double-sided, flipped along the long edge

According to these specs you’ll pay around $3.75 per print out, which is pretty pricey and far from “almost free.” It’s nice to have color when in the field, but if you need several different maps the cost can add up. If you drop the color it brings the cost to around 60 cents per map — not too bad!


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