(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!

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