Online Sources for PDF Topo Maps

If you venture outdoors, especially in more rugged and remote locations, you really need to carry a good topographic map and a compass and take the time to learn how to use them both.  For anyone old enough to remember the days of ordering paper copies of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) 7.5 minute (7.5’) quadrangle topographic maps, quads for short, and waiting for these prized treasures to arrive via snail mail, or hoping you could find an outfitter nearby that had your needed maps in stock, the digital world of the 21st century is an amazing place!

There is a plethora of online sources for maps, guides, and reviews of hiking and backpacking destinations both popular and obscure.  Not only can you access this information in mere minutes from the comfort of home, you can also download high quality digital versions of many documents legally and for FREE!  We are not talking about bootleg copies created on a home scanner by some computer savvy geek with cheese-puff-dust encrusted fingers here; no, we are talking about direct access to the most accurate and finest cartographic sources on the planet beamed directly to an electronic device near you!

While there are many sources out there, I have chosen the three I use most frequently to review in this article.  All these sources provide downloadable USGS 7.5’ quads in PDF format.  For each source I have provided the link to locate and download maps, another link to a representative map (Slade, KY Quadrangle which encompasses part of the Red River Gorge Geological Area in the Daniel Boone National Forest) to use for your own comparison purposes, a list of what I see as the pros and cons for each one, and finally some tips for printing and using these maps.

In my quality assessments I used common sections of a map printed with a Canon PIXMA MX892 inkjet printer on plain paper at the standard print quality setting.  I focused on printed maps for two key reasons.  First, and foremost, I believe you should always carry a hard copy map (and compass) when in the backcountry because electronic devices can and will fail you in critical situations!  And second, the onscreen display quality is equally good for all three of these sources, so I have no reason to comment individually on this aspect.

National Geographic Maps

  • Link:  http://www.natgeomaps.com/trail-maps/pdf-quads
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):  http://pdf.quad.download.s3.amazonaws.com/37083g6.pdf
  • Approximate file size:  5-6 MB
  • Note:  While these downloadable quads are free, National Geographic also offers a number of hard copy trail and travel maps and guides for sale, a number of which are waterproof.  These are well worth looking into if you are planning a big trip to one of the areas covered.
  • Pros:
    • This is an easy to use website with an interactive map to locate and select specific maps followed by a simple download process
    • The PDF files are formatted for printing on standard 8.5″ x 11″ letter size paper
      • Page 1 is a 1:100,000 scale index map of the quad
      • Pages 2-5 are standard 1:24,000, 7.5’ quads divided into four equally sized map sections formatted to fit a standard printed page
    • Shaded relief makes it easy to visualize the general topography of an area
    • Includes official hiking trails and other facilities in quads that cover national forests and national parks (at least for the ones I’ve looked at)
  • Cons:
    • Maps are based on older USGS quads, ranging from late 1970s to late 1990s vintage for the maps I have downloaded
    • The shaded relief feature is a pro from an overview perspective, but makes it more difficult to read map details like individual contour lines, roads, trails, and text on the printed maps
    • These maps are copyrighted material which is not an issue for personal use; however, they cannot be distributed freely, nor can you use the map images for blog posts or other such purposes without permission.  This should not be a problem for most people, but it is why I have not included an image of one of these maps in this post.

United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service (FSTopo Map Products)

  • Link:  https://data.fs.usda.gov/geodata/rastergateway/states-regions/states.php
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):  https://data.fs.usda.gov/geodata/rastergateway/data/37083/fstopo…
  • Approximate file size:  4-5 MB
  • Pros:
    • Easy to use website with an interactive map to locate and select specific maps followed by a simple download process
    • Includes significant detail of national forest facilities, hiking trails, etc. not found on the standard USGS topo maps
    • Because these maps are produced by a US government agency, they are considered public domain and can be reproduced and distributed freely.  If you do include a section of a map in a blog post, or another document you should still cite the source as common literary courtesy, though.
  • Cons:
    • Only includes lands managed by the US Forest Service
    • Contour lines are faint and very difficult to read when printed (at least that is the case on my home inkjet printer)
    • Map must be pieced together when printed full size on standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper (see tips for printing and using maps below)

United States Geological Survey (The National Map Download Client)

  • Link:  https://viewer.nationalmap.gov/basic/
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):  https://prd-tnm.s3.amazonaws.com/StagedProducts/Maps/USTopo/1/22777/7595171.pdf
  • Approximate file size:  30+ MB
  • Pros:
    • These are the most current US topo maps available (all of the ones I have recently downloaded were updated in 2016)
    • Highest resolution, best quality downloadable maps available (these are straight from the ultimate source)
    • These PDF files also include a satellite imagery layer you can turn on and off if your PDF reader has the requisite functionality (I am currently using Adobe Reader XI, Version 11.0.13)
    • Of the three sources discussed here, the individual contour lines on these maps are the easiest to read when printed (see photo below for a comparison of US Forest Service and USGS maps)
    • Generally these maps are public domain with no copyright restrictions; there are a couple minor exceptions but, “even those that include commercial data, may be reproduced freely and used for any purpose, provided copyright notices…are retained.”  Full details can be found here:  https://www2.usgs.gov/faq/categories/9797/3588
    • Historical topo maps dating back several decades are also available from the USGS
      • I find these maps useful for locating features no longer marked on newer maps such as old logging roads, that can make off-trail navigation and travel easier, and abandoned structures, that make interesting sites for adventure and exploration
      • You can also find historical topo maps dating back well over a century in the USGS National Map Download client
  • Cons:
    • More complicated website, the process to locate and download maps is not as intuitive as the other two sources (if needed instructions can be found here:  https://nationalmap.gov/ustopo/quickstart.pdf)
    • These maps do not include hiking trails and other facilities (at least not in the national forest and national park areas I have viewed or downloaded, though some of the historical maps that I have looked at do show trails)
    • Map must be pieced together when printed full size on standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper (see tips for printing and using maps below)

Tips for Printing and Using Maps

Note:  this method assumes a moderate level of computer literacy and skills using Microsoft PowerPoint or some similar software application.  Describing the computer and software application skills needed is beyond the scope this article.

  1. Set the zoom magnification to at least 100% in your PDF reader (personally I find the 100% zoom setting provides the best mix of area coverage and detail)
  2. Center the screen view on the area of the map you want to print and capture a screen shot of that section
    • If the area of interest will not fit on a single screen you can use a lesser zoom magnification or you can capture multiple screen shots and print your map on multiple pages
    • I typically create multiple detailed pages at the 100% zoom magnification, and then print a smaller scale overview map of the larger area that fits on a single page
  3. Paste the screen shot into PowerPoint where you can crop, size, and format it properly for printing, as well as add your own information such as campsites, emergency phone numbers, and other details you might find useful on the trail
  4. Make sure you also capture screen shots of important margin information such as legends, scales, and magnetic north declination at the same zoom magnification as your maps so you can incorporate it in your customized printed version (note:  if you enlarge a map within your graphics software be sure to enlarge any scale dependent information at the same time to keep the two scaled identically)
  5. Finally, you can print out your maps on waterproof map paper, purchase a waterproof map case, or do what I do, and seal them in a zip lock bag, to ensure they remain dry and readable while on the trail.

img_6960Comparison of a printed section of the 7.5′ Pomeroyton, KY Quadrangle maps from the US Forest Service (left) and USGS (right).  The US Forest Service map includes details on trails and facilities, while the USGS map has much more readable contour lines.

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2017.

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2 thoughts on “Online Sources for PDF Topo Maps

  1. I remember the days of obtaining the maps through the Natural Resources in my country of Canada.

    You have given excellent information on links Todd as well as tips for printing and using the maps. And the good news other the printing and paper is that they are free! 🙂

    Thank you for sharing!

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