(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!

Strange Tid Bit

I hope to get to the longer posts soon…but just a quick thing I discovered. I’ve been investigating some of the wilderness areas in and around Las Vegas, since flights to Vegas are among the cheapest in the country. Might be a fun adventure sometime in the future.

In any case, in light of the recent news that documents about Area 51 have been declassified, I decided to do a little research. It looks like one of Nevada’s highest peaks, Bald Mountain, is located within the boundaries of the area, although off to the northeast edge.  See the Google map here.

So I did a little more research, and found this page among people who collect peaks, called peakbaggers, with the following description of this peak:

“This summit is located in the infamous “Area 51” section of Nellis Air Force base, a top secret military installation and former nuclear test site. Public access is strictly forbidden, and the perimeter is actively patrolled by guards. If you cross the military reservation boundary and try to “stealth” this peak, you will be caught, arrested, and fined, best case. The guards are authorized to use deadly force, and you can be sent to prison, too.

“This makes Bald Mountain the most prominent peak in the United States that is completely inacessible to peakbaggers.”

If you want to check out some pictures from other bloggers as well as some interesting experiences travelling around that part of the world, check out these two that came up from a Google Image search:



(disclaimer: I link to these pages for the sake of the pictures; the commentary is their own)

Your Kit (Follow Up)

This is an important follow up to Twelve Outdoor Essentials and some of the questions that came up in the com-box.

I mentioned there that I prefer a “systems based” approach to your kit than a simple list of items to bring on every trip. I want to explain a bit more what that means. In the past we would just have a canonical list of items you had to bring on every trip — items like “compass” and “pocketknife.” In recent times, however, there has been a move to emphasizing systems — instead of “map and compass” we now put “navigation” on the list. This is for several reasons, but two in particular.

First, items given on detailed lists are neither always necessary nor always sufficient. On *on some trips* a map and compass (for instance) will not be enough. Beyond a map and compass, I often find that having a watch is an essential tool for keeping track of how long and how far I’ve hiked (Skurka also considers a watch under the heading of “navigation” in his book). Even more importantly, hikers often find themselves using altimeters and more advanced navigation technology like GPS units in more remote areas. While I don’t own a GPS unit (beyond my cell phone’s limited capabilities), I wouldn’t want to rule the item out as “inessential” for every trip. Alternatively *on other trips* a map and compass might be too much or wholly unnecessary, perhaps in a well-traveled park with well-blazed trails.

“Item based” lists also downplay the varying range of item types. “The list says I need a compass, but do I need an emergency button compass, a baseplate compass, or a tricked out orienteering model?” You might ask the same questions for varying degrees of map detail: “will the park map suffice or should I supplement with USGS quadrangles?” “Items based” lists do not offer easy answers questions like this, while “systems based” approaches force you to decide what items to bring each time you go out. One way to think about it is that “items based” lists offer cheap and superficial preparedness, the bad kind (like in the video below). The style, location and circumstances of each and every trip should determine what particular items you bring, while on every trip you should have each of the “essential systems” covered.

Second, lists which are “item based” downplay the most essential thing: your mind. Tools are useless if you can’t use them. “Items based” lists give us a false sense of comfort — “I have my compass, I can’t get lost!” This is silly. The mere having of a map or compass guarantees nothing, and this goes for most items in your kit. They are tools that you must put to use, and if you lack the necessary skills they become dead weight and offer a false sense of security. Imagine carrying bear spray, coming upon a bear, and only then fumbling to read the instructions.

Furthermore, if you are in a park that you know well, or have studied the map ahead of time, you may not need one in the field. If you don’t expect difficult navigation, and you learn basic compass-less navigation skills ahead of time, you can use the sun or other cues to figure out which way is which. Your navigation system, in some limited cases, can be limited entirely to what is in between your ears.

(not willing to pay for this image)

In my view, then, “systems based” approaches are far superior since they force us to develop our kits to be trip-specific and user-specific.

Previously I posted a detailed list with specific items given, and I should explain that. This list is designed for 3-season conditions in Eastern forests and fields for day hikes (not including an overnight stay). Ideally you evaluate every item for every trip, but as I’ve posted on before you don’t want preparation to get in the way of action. It’s helpful to have a ready kit in your trunk or garage to go for a quick 3 hour excursion into the woods, and not have to worry about whether you can start a fire, heal a wound, repel bugs, or signal for help if you get into a bind.

packs differ

Five different kits, five different purposes.

Everyone’s kit is going to be different based on what you plan to do, and for any substantial trip you should revisit what items you take. While everyone will prepare and have some kind of navigation system, not everyone will carry a compass or a GPS unit.

Detailed “items based” lists are always derived from more general “systems based” lists PLUS certain specific conditions, goals, and circumstances. Items based lists are NOT, and can never be, one-size-fits-all.

In the coming weeks I’m going to provide detailed posts on each of the “systems” and offer some of the principles I use in choosing which particular items to bring.

Here they are again:

  1. Knife, Tools & Repair Kit
  2. Navigation
  3. Fire & Ignition
  4. Illumination
  5. First Aid
  6. Signaling
  7. Sun Protection
  8. Insect Protection
  9. Insulation
  10. Shelter
  11. Nutrition
  12. Hydration

The Twelve Outdoor Essentials

[NOTE: this post has a sequel]

Where should I begin developing my outdoor kit?  What do I need to bring on every trip outdoors?

Perhaps you’re just getting started and need to know what to bring for your first substantial day-hike in a state forest.  Maybe it’s been a long time since you hiked and you’re just getting back into it, and you want to be sure to be prepared and not forget anything as you dig through all your old gear.  And maybe you’re a parent of a new boy or girl scout and you want to make sure they’re ready for the outdoors.

As usual, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel here.  The scouts and outdoor organizations have often made lists of “outdoor essentials,” usually of 10 key items that you shouldn’t leave home without.  Unfortunately, these lists don’t exactly match up.

scout outdoor essentials

Boy Scouts (also here)

Mountaineers (the original list)

REI (includes a cheesy video)

What I’ve found is that the newer “system” based lists are helpful, as opposed to the older “item” based ones, but they tend to miss two key “systems.”

So here is the Jon Trails 12 Essentials, including the following 12 systems, very clearly inspired by the above sources but including the missing two.

  1. Knife, Tools & Repair Kit
  2. Navigation
  3. Fire & Ignition
  4. Illumination
  5. First Aid
  6. Signaling
  7. Sun Protection
  8. Insect Protection
  9. Insulation
  10. Shelter
  11. Nutrition
  12. Hydration

I have added Signaling and Insect Protection, for obvious reasons, I think.

I find it easy to memorize the list in pairs, as listed: knife and compass, fire and flashlight, sun and insect protection, etc.  This can help if you’re throwing together a pack for a trip.  I keep my daypack in the trunk of my car at all times with these items, plus other non-essentials like binoculars and a notepad.  Water bottles are kept full.  The idea is to have a kind of “go bag” so that I’m always ready to hike around if the opportunity presents itself.  The only difficulty I’ve found is with food — you don’t want to leave food in a hot trunk.  I must admit, though, that I’ve been caught more than once wishing I had some trail mix back there!

my pack

I keep really essential items in the top zipper so that if I don’t need to carry the whole pack or I can quickly grab what I need (knife, compass, whistle, lighter, small flashlight).

There are also these helpful lists from REI:

Day Hiking List

Backpacking List

My Gear Lists, Or Why Excel is Indispensable

Things are about to get serious…no pictures of cute kids in this post!

As promised, here are my gear lists.  I have a “semi-ideal gear list” and an “actual gear list.”  They are in pdf format for internet use.  Please contact me if you’re interested in my excel spreadsheet for your own use (it’s not too hard to program yourself).  As usual, the organization is very much inspired by the gear lists in Skurka’s very helpful book, although I’ve tweaked some things for myself.

The list is organized in 6 sections: items worn or carried, clothing packed, sleeping system, cooking system, small essentials, and pack system.  The math works out as below:

gear list totals

Some detailed info:

“Base weight” refers to the weight of one’s kid not including items worn or consumed.  You can see that my actual kit has a 50% heavier base weight than my semi-ideal kit, coming in at 16+ lbs.  This is because my semi-ideal kit lists the weights of two of the “big three” which I have not yet upgraded: my pack and my sleeping bag.

Backpackers often talk about the “big three” as the three most significant sources of weight: sleep system, shelter, and the pack itself.  While my shelter system is pretty light at 22.4 oz (not including trekking poles), my sleeping bag is very heavy at 51 oz. and my pack is very substantial at almost 6 lbs.  I don’t mind the heavy pack: my Gregory Baltoro is indestructible and very comfortable, but I hope to upgrade the sleeping bag soon.  What I have is perfect for car camping, but not ideal for backpacking (more on this in future posts).

All of the other ways to cut unnecessary weight are relatively cheap, and often involves eliminating redundancies (more on this, too, in future posts).  Upgrading the small stuff is a gradual process you can do over time: the lines marked with orange in my lists are flagged for gradual upgrades of minor items.

Both lists are suited for 3 season hiking in Eastern forests, since that’s where I live.  If I were planning a trip elsewhere, these lists would look very different.  But here, when hiking from spring to fall, what I take is influenced by several factors:

  • temperatures from the 40s at nighttime to 90s during the daytime
  • high humidity and a fair amount of precipitation
  • relatively low elevations, rarely getting over a “mile high”
  • sunlight from 12 to 16 hours a day
  • generally soft ground terrain, with rare rocky bits
  • generally good coverage from the sun, with rare exposed sections
  • abundant water sources
  • bears are usually not a problem, depending where you go; insects can be
  • it’s hard to get really remote in the Eastern US, so civilization isn’t far

I hope to share more in the future, but for now, I hope you enjoy my lists!

What outdoor gear would you like to acquire or replace?

The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide

gg_coverThis book has changed the way I think about backpacking.

Released last spring, Andrew Skurka provides an exceptional introduction to backpacking, or “ultimate hiking,” in a relatively short book.  Those who subscribe to Nat Geo might remember him as the Adventurer of the Year a few years back, for his 4680 mile expedition through Alaska and the Yukon, by ski, by foot, and by pack-raft.  He has clocked well over 30,000 miles as a hiker in the last 11 years (I am 6 years younger than him, but began backpacking in 2002 as well…I have clocked just short of 500 miles in my 11 years…).  I hope to post more about this guy, because I draw a significant amount of inspiration from him, and while I’ll probably never be able to disappear for 5 months and traipse around Alaska, and I’ll probably never be this awesome (profanity warning) in the face of a grizzly bear, I still hope to get out into the true wilderness for at least a couple of days sometime soon.


Back to the book: he divides things up into three sections.  First, he gives some basic principles behind what he calls “ultimate hiking.”  The idea is that hiking is the main purpose of one’s outing, not camping or birding or photography.  For an ultimate hiker the principal aim is getting from A to B, and so you want to pack light and avoid unnecessary weight.  I had thought for years that so-called “ultralight” backpackers were crazy, having read articles and books by a few of them.  Skurka is unique in being able to make the case in a convincing way to a skeptic, in part because he deliberately avoids using the term “ultralight” (more on this here).  In this section he also goes over some key questions whose answers will differ for each trip: hours of daylight, terrain, climate, etc.  These questions, not rigid weight measures, should determine what you bring, according to Skurka.  I’m inclined to trust his judgment!

In the second section (the bulk of the book) Skurka details the various parts of your kit: clothing, shelter, footwear, navigation, cooking systems, food, etc.  In each section he gives the gear alternatives and the conditions under which each variation might be useful.  At the end of each sub-section he gives his gear recommendations.  One concern about the book, perhaps my only reservation, is that his specific gear recommendations will become dated very quickly.

Finally, he gives sample gear lists.  This is a big selling point of the book in terms of practicality.  The gear lists are not just checklists of items to bring on any given trip — no, these gear lists are very trip specific, giving seasons and locations for which the list would be applicable as well as precise weights for each item.  He offers five samples: Eastern Forest (summer), Mountain West (early fall), Desert Southwest Packrafting (early summer), Northern Winter, and Philmont Scout Ranch.   The Philmont list makes this a particularly good resource for scouts, since his list conforms to the Boy Scouts’ minimum gear requirements for the reservation.

skurka scouting magazine

Andrew Skurka does not neglect the scouts!

Once you finish reading the book, you realize three things very quickly:

(1) I need to plan a trip soon.  Where will I go and when?  So you’ll spend some time putzing around for maps and eventually you’ll be at the FedEx printing off your own USGS quadrangles etc.  In short, you’ll be encouraged to develop your own itineraries and work with your own navigation tools…in Excel.

(2) I need to update (or start developing) my gear kit. His sample lists offer a great starting point for developing one’s own gear lists…in Excel…especially once you’ve caught the “ultralight” bug and want to track the weight of items in your kit. I’ll be sharing my own gear lists in a future post!

And finally (3) I need to be much more deliberate about food.  One advantage to the book is that it gives you principles and tools, but not necessarily all the answers.  I originally thought this was a drawback, particularly in the food chapter, but then I realized that even Skurka can’t do this work for me.  People’s caloric needs and tastes differ, and from trip to trip food types can vary for lots of reasons (temperatures, whether you bring a stove, water availability, etc).  I haven’t gone crazy with extensive planning on this front yet, but my old friend here, God rest his soul, knows just what I need to get the job done!


Looks like you’re planning an adventure…may I open a new Excel spreadsheet?

All in all, this is a great introduction to ultralight backpacking, even for those who are skeptical.  Practicality is the author’s main concern, and he delivers.  It is well worth taking a look!