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:
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):
  • 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:
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):…
  • 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:
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):
  • 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:
    • 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:
    • 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 (I typically use something between the 100% and 150% zoom setting depending depending on whether I want more area coverage on a page or clearer details).
  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 a higher 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 overlaying your own information such as campsites, emergency phone numbers, and other details you might find useful on the trail.
  4. Make sure you capture a screen shot of the map scale at the same zoom magnification as your maps so you can incorporate it in your customized printed version, and be aware that if you enlarge or shrink your map images you also need to enlarge or shrink the map scale image at the same time to ensure they remain scaled identically.
  5. I also recommend capturing an image of the UTM grid coordinates around the margin unless your map image already includes the edges with this information. I usually trying to maximize area coverage on my maps so I just grab a quick screen shot of the margins that I can use for reference and then I actually overlay my own text so I can position it for minimal interference with the actual map.
  6. You should also capture other marginal information such as legends, magnetic north declination, and the UTM zone designation to incorporate in your map, but the scale of this information is not critical and can be sized to fit as desired.
  7. 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.


New Page: Red River Gorge – Off-Trail

I have added a new page to Todd the Hiker titled “Red River Gorge – Off-Trail”. If you want to explore the backcountry of Red River Gorge this page will give you some tips to get started:

Take a look:  Red River Gorge – Off-Trail.

NOTE:  This article is also featured as a guest post on’s Campstake Journal blog (  After browsing for a while here at Todd the Hiker, you may want to go over and check them out!


© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2014

New Web Page: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

I have added a new page to featuring many new photos of Kentucky’s Red River Gorge along with trail descriptions, maps to trailheads, and a list of resources including recommended books and maps.  This is not intended to be a complete guide to the area, just a sample to whet your appetite.

New Page:  Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

2013-11-20 - The Hills Before You Shall Break Forth Into Singing (IMG_2886)Autumn colors along Auxier Ridge Looking Out to Courthouse Rock, Red River Gorge, Slade, Kentucky.

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2013.

An Interesting Read


“Principles for Churchmen” by J. C. Ryle

Internet Archive download:

One of the more useful secular resources that I have found in my perusal of the internet is the Internet Archive digital library.  This website has millions of old books that are no longer under copyright restrictions and which they have now made available for free download in electronic format (pdf, e-reader, etc.).  I have personally downloaded pdf versions of dozens of books, including Christian classics by the likes of Calvin, Luther, Hodge, and many, many others.

One book that I discovered, thanks to a reference in one of Tim Challies’ blog posts, is “Principles for Churchmen” by J. C. Ryle, a late 19th century Anglican bishop.  And, even though this book was published in 1900, much of what Ryle wrote is still highly relevant to today’s Christians.  In a few places the book gets bogged down in the politics and squabbles of the late 19th century Anglican church; but, that said, the positives far outweigh the negatives, and I highly recommend this as a good read.

One of my favorite quotes (page 36):  “A Church which is a mere boneless body, like a jelly-fish, a colourless, bloodless, creedless Pantheon, in which every one is right and nobody is wrong who is in earnest, and in which it does not matter a jot what is preached and taught, so long as the preachers are sincere,—such a Church is an unpractical absurdity, and the baseless fabric of a dream.  The Church which abandons all “limits,” and will not proclaim to mankind what it believes, or would have its members believe, may do very well for Cloudland or Utopia; but it will never do for a world where there are tears and crosses, troubles and sorrows, sickness and death.”

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2013.

A Few of My Favorite Internet Resources

With all of the frivolous material and garbage you find on the world-wide web these days, I thought it might be helpful to provide a list of some of the better internet resources I have discovered over time, and that I personally find useful in my Christian walk.  I know there are other good, even great, websites that I have not included in this list; however, time and space constraints limit what I can reasonably present here.  Many of these other resources will be found referenced in the websites listed below:

  • This is a great website with numerous online translations of the Bible in English as well as many of other languages.  They have a helpful search capability that allows you to search scripture using keywords, phrases or specific passage references, and then compare the results between different translations.  In addition, they have several translations available in audio format which allows you to listen to scripture passages read out loud…I find this feature particularly useful in learning how to pronounce some of the more difficult names of places and people found throughout the Bible.
  • If you are looking for ways to grow in your personal Bible study habits and dig deeper into God’s word, either on your own or through some of the daily devotionals and Bible reading plans they provide, you will not be disappointed.  This is a wonderful resource!!!

  • This is a Bible study software package that you can download for free from the website.  I was skeptical at first—I usually am with “free” software downloads—but boy was I wrong!  I have found this to be a very well designed, “user-friendly” software package that has more features than I could possibly enumerate here, although I will point out a few.  I find this to be an indispensable tool for my own Bible study and research endeavors.
  • Some Bible translations, including the ESV, KJV, ASV, and several more, can be downloaded for free, but other popular translations, such as the NIV, NKJV, NASB, and RSV, must be purchased.  Personally I do not find this limiting as the ESV is the primary translation I use.
  • There are also Bible commentaries, Bible dictionaries, devotions, graphics (maps, charts, etc.), and reference books that can be downloaded, many for free, some for purchase.
  • I know there are purchased software packages used by professional ministers that probably run circles around this, but for the layman who cannot afford to spend that kind of money this is a great way to go.  I cannot say enough good things about this software!
  • To learn more about Rick Meyers, the creator of e-Sword, and the history of his “software” ministry go here:

The Gospel Coalition (TGC):

  • The Gospel Coalition was founded by D. A. Carson and Tim Keller, two big names in current reformed, evangelical circles.  The TGC website contains a plethora of resources, videos, blogs, and book reviews that are helpful, thought-provoking, timely, and relevant, all firmly rooted in biblical truth.
  • Other names frequently found on the pages of TGC include Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor, Trevin Wax, and many more.
  • There is so much useful material here it is impossible to cover it all in a short description.  If you want to learn more about TGC, you can find their  confessional statement and theological vision of ministry at this link:

  • This is another website, much like TGC, that contains an incredible wealth of materials, all rooted in sound reformed, evangelical theology.  You will find many of the same names appearing here as you do on the TGC website.
  • To learn more about read their “About” page at this link: (a blog by Tim Challies):

  • The tagline for Tim’s blog is “…Informing the Reforming” which sums things up quite nicely.  Again, this is a site well rooted in reformed, evangelical theology—perhaps you are seeing a trend here?  Tim’s blog posts frequently challenge me to look at my own Christian walk and help me to see my own shortcomings.  I find his book reviews very helpful when I am in the market for new reading material to add to my library.  His writing style is quite witty and often humorous which makes reading this blog entertaining, as well as informative.
  • I think the focus of this blog is best summed up by Tim’s own description found on his About this Blog page:  This is a blog (or weblog)–a kind of online journal…[it is] a compendium of articles, information and book reviews. If the blog has a primary focus, it may be best summarized as “commentary on the contemporary church and its interaction with the culture around us.”

  • From the Sportsmen’s Devotional website:  “We provide the Christian outdoorsman a daily email Bible study that Sportsmen can relate to. Our study is short, to the point, and has a new photograph and outdoor tip each day. Our study is devoted to all that love the great outdoors.”
  • If you enjoy hunting, fishing, hiking, and the outdoors their daily e-mail Bible study is a quick, easy read that you can use to get you started in developing a daily devotional routine or add to an already existing routine, without being overwhelmed.

Note:  I plan to continue adding more resources and filling in more descriptions on this existing list over time.

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2013.