Online Sources for PDF Topo Maps

If you venture outdoors, especially in more rugged and remote locations, you really need to take time to learn how to read a topographic map and use a compass to navigate, then make sure you carry them both when you go into the backcountry!  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!

You might ask, “Why download and print a hard copy map when there are a number of excellent digital mapping programs and phone apps that make use of the GPS capability on your phone, as well as handheld GPS devices?” These are certainly great tools and something to make use of. Personally I do carry a handheld GPS, and occasionally use my phone for navigation; however, I still prefer a hard copy map for navigating as it is easier to read than a small screen and allows you to get a broader perspective of an area. In addition, batteries run out, devices get damaged, and GPS satellite signals are easily degraded or completely blocked by weather, terrain, and tree cover. When adventuring in more remote and rugged locations I never go without a good set of maps and my compass!

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 (this model is retired, but mine still works great so I am not ready to upgrade yet) on plain paper at the standard print quality setting.  I focused on printed maps for two key reasons.  First, and foremost, as I have already stated, I believe you should always carry a hard copy map (and compass) when in the backcountry because electronic devices can and do fail in critical situations!  And second, the onscreen display quality is equally good for all three sources, so I have no reason to comment individually on this aspect.

National Geographic Maps

  • Website 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 with each page containing grid markings and scale information in the margins which is the biggest benefit of these maps
      • 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 for 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 printed maps
    • These maps are copyrighted which is not an issue for personal use; however, they cannot be distributed freely, nor can you use the map images for blog posts and other 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)

  • Website link:  https://data.fs.usda.gov/geodata/rastergateway/states-regions/states.php
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):  https://data.fs.usda.gov/geodata/rastergateway/data3/37083/fstopo/Slade_374508337_FSTopo.pdf
  • 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 and hiking trails, not always found on standard USGS topo maps, though I am finding more of these details in the newer versions of USGS quads
    • 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 printed in multiple sections to be printed full scale on standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper (see tips for printing and using maps below)

United States Geological Survey (The National Map Download Client)

  • Website link:  https://viewer.nationalmap.gov/basic/
  • Sample map (Slade, KY Quadrangle):  https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/5cd16ac0e4b09b8c0b7a2df8
  • Approximate file size:  30-70 MB
  • 2022 update: From the USGS website, “A new USGS web application enables the public to create custom topographic maps on demand. The online application is called topoBuilder and the output maps are known as OnDemand Topos.” This application allows the user to center their quadrangles on a desired location, rather than being constrained by the existing, fixed quadrangles to which most are accustomed. With this latest improvement you can significantly reduce the number of maps needed for a particluar area. For example, the Red River Gorge Geological area can now be captured by downloading two custom quads rather than four fixed quads (Frenchburg, Scranton, Slade, and Pomeroyton). These customized quads can take up to a few days to be generated and are then downloaded from a link emailed to the user. I have used this service several times and the email with the download link has typically been emailed within 24 hours.
  • Pros:
    • These are the most current US topo maps available and they are regularly updated. The most recent update to the Slade quadrangle was 2019, but other nearby quads were udated in 2022.
    • Highest resolution, best quality downloadable maps available (these are straight from the ultimate source)
    • These PDF files also include satellite imagery, shaded relief, countour lines, and many other layers that you can turn on and off as desired, this feature is available in the current version of Adobe Reader.
    • 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: Are USGS topographic maps copyrighted?
    • Historical topo maps dating back several decades to over a century are also available from the USGS website. 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
  • 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: US Topo Map Users Guide
    • Some maps I have downloaded do not include all the hiking trails and facilities in national forests and national parks, although I am finding newer versions of the USGS maps do included this information.
    • Maps must be pieced together when printed full size on standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper (see tips for printing and using maps below)
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Comparison 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.

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. It is important to ensure you capture a screen shot of the map scale at the same zoom magnification as your other map images 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 usually do, which is to print them on normal paper and seal them in a zip-top bag, to ensure they remain dry and readable while on the trail.

An example of one of the customized maps I created for our 2018 backpacking trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This 42 mile trip required twelve 8.5″ x 11″ landscape oriented pages to get the desired level of detail and readability. Having maps with customized details like campsites, daily mileage, and much more was quite valuable on this multi-day adventure.

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2017-2022.

Hiking Devils Garden – Arches National Park

Arches National Park is a treasure trove of incredible landscapes and amazing geological features. According to the National Park Service website, “the park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks.” The Devils Garden Trail includes all of this and offers the most challenging hike in the park, even for a seasoned hiker.

Arches is not considered a backcountry park, other than a few outlying areas accessible only in a high clearance vehicle, but this trail is your best chance of getting away from the crowds, even if it is only for short periods of time. This is the longest trail in Arches National Park. The NPS brochure for this hike places the total distance at 7.2 miles, including all of the side trails to the various arches and the primitive trail. It also includes some reasonably challenging rock scrambles, several steep climbs/descents, and narrow sections of trail with significant drop offs. If you reach a point where you do not feel comfortable traversing the terrain, I recommend you turn around and return via the primary trail. We encountered a number of hikers who did just this on the day we were there.

For your own safety and the protection of the sensitive desert landscape, stay on the trails! The sandstone fins are an amazing feature in the Devils Garden landscape, but they also present some interesting challenges to navigation. Pay close attention to the cairns that mark the way, especially on the primitive portion of the loop. Generally, the cairns are not too difficult to find, but make sure you locate the next cairn before you proceed, and backtrack to the last marker you observed if you are unable to find your way forward

At one point on the primitive trail it is possible you will encounter a pool of water that you will need to cross depending on the season (it was waist deep when we visited in mid-May). You will either need to drop into and wade through the water or scramble over the steep rock to one side. We chose the rock scramble which proved quite a challenge. It could easily have resulted in a dip in the pool we were attempting to avoid, but we successfully navigated the obstacle and remained dry in the process.

If you plan to do the full loop, I recommend following the primary trail out to Double O Arch and Dark Angel first and returning via the Primitive Trail. This allows you to visit most of the major landscape features first, just in case you encounter a section of the trail where you are not comfortable proceeding due to difficult conditions or your own skill level.

Don’t forget to pack plenty of water and enjoy the hike!

The first two arches you will encounter are Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch both of which are accessible down a side trail that adds 0.5 miles to the total hike. Even though this is a short and easy trail, I suggest visiting these arches on the outbound trip as you may be inclined to bypass them if you are too tired on the return trip.

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Tunnel Arch

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Pine Tree Arch

The next landmark you will encounter is Landscape Arch one of the best known arches in the park. Now at this point in the trail you will likely be thinking, “this is easy!” You may also be wondering if it is possible to escape the crowds, especially during busier times of the year. Not to worry, keep hiking because there is plenty of great scenery ahead, and the farther you go, the more likely you are to escape the crowd.

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Landscape Arch

Just past Landscape arch you will encounter the first obstacle that will cause some to turn back…we witnessed this when one member of a party decided they would rather return to the trailhead than continue on. At this point on the trail this is a perfectly safe thing to do, even for an individual person. The scramble up the relatively steep face of this sandstone fin is not really that difficult; however, if you have a fear of falling or a poor sense of balance it can be rather intimidating.

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Climbing a steep fin…the first major challenge

Shortly after reaching the top of this fin you will encounter a side trail that leads to Partition Arch and Navajo Arch. This trail adds an additional 0.8 miles to the hike and like the other side trails is worth the effort.

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Partition Arch

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Navajo Arch

On the next section of trail, you traverse the top of a narrow fin with a serious drop off on both sides. For anyone with a fear of heights this will be a challenging section of trail, but the views are worth it! Descending off the fin also takes a bit of strategy so keep an eye out for markers that indicate the way down, as it is not the easiest route to find.

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Traversing the top of a narrow fin

 A little further along you will encounter Double O Arch. The area under the arch was closed off when we visited due to a large chunk of rock breaking off and falling away from the arch a few weeks earlier during a period of significant rain…just part of the ever changing landscape.

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Double O Arch

The next landmark to visit is Dark Angel, a towering pinnacle, that requires an out and back side trail of 0.8 miles round trip, though I highly recommend not skipping this as the sweeping views at the end of the trail are well worth it!

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Dark Angel

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The amazing view looking back from the end of the Dark Angel trail

After backtracking on the Dark Angel trail, you have the option to return to the trailhead via the primary trail by which you came, or you can complete the loop on the Primitive Trail. If you found the main trail was intimidating and pushed your limits, then I do not recommend taking the Primitive Trail. If you are up to the challenge the effort is worth it, and make sure you don’t miss the only side trail out to Private Arch.

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Private Arch

Even though you won’t completely escape the crowds, especially on the easier portions of the trail, this hike is a must do for any serious hiker visiting Arches National Park. You can hike nearly all of the shorter trails in the park in the span of a single day, but make sure you carve out at least half a day (more if you are a photography buff) to do the entire Devil’s Garden Trail, including the Primitive Trail if you are up for the challenge!

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View from the back side of the Primitive Trail, looking up at the fin we crossed earlier in the hike…those are hikers up there!

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2016.

Enter by the Narrow Gate

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” ~Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV)

IMG_6480Private Arch, Arches National Park, Moab, Utah.

Private Arch is located on a side trail off the Devil’s Garden Primitive Loop in Arches National Park.  As the name Devil’s Garden suggests, this trail traverses a fairly harsh landscape and the primitive loop is an even more challenging trail that fewer visitors to Arches NP actually hike.  On the day we visited, private is exactly what we got.  Though the parking lot at the trailhead was bustling with visitors, and the easier sections of the Devil’s Garden trail were filled with a continuous stream of hikers, because we chose to take “the road less travelled,” we really had an opportunity to spend a little extra time enjoying the beauty and solitude of this hidden little corner of God’s creation.

Like the passage from Matthew’s gospel suggests, good things don’t always come easy.  Whether it is enjoying the beauty and solitude of a remote, less visited place in a busy national park, or the eternal life offered by following our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the best destinations often require us to travel a more difficult path.

If you want to find your way to the less visited, scenic corners of our amazing national parks you either need to hire a guide who knows the trails or have a good map and the skills to read and follow it.

In our Christian walk we are equipped with the best map available, the Bible.  But more than that we have the Master guide himself, who has gone before us, paying the price for our sins, and who through His mercy and grace is ready to show us the way.

Christ is the narrow gate through which we enter, and though the path may at times be hard, the reward of this challenging journey is nothing less than eternal life with our Master in His glorious kingdom!

Yours in Christ,
Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.

Air Travel Tips for Hikers & Backpackers

IMG_20150511_065141If you have flown anywhere in recent years you likely know the list of items you cannot bring along in your checked or carry-on luggage is rather extensive. For the average business or vacation traveler the challenge of packing is complicated enough; however, for those of us who like to spend our vacation time tromping through remote wilderness locations with a backpack full of gear, the challenge is even greater!

In this article I will focus on domestic air travel in the US, not to exclude anyone, but rather because the rules and regulations of international air travel include not only the safety and security concerns of our own US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) but also those of similar agencies in other nations. Keep in mind that customs and immigration laws unrelated to air travel safety will also apply, so even if an item can be transported in a carry-on bag, it may not be legal to bring that item through customs; for example many countries, including the US, ban the import of certain food items. My only recommendation, if you are planning an international trip, is to start your research early.

Do I Need to Check Baggage?

The short answer is yes! If you are flying and bringing your own gear it is safe to assume you will need at least one checked bag for your gear if you are day hiking, and likely one checked bag per person if you are backpacking. You need to research the checked baggage policies and fees when booking your flights as checked baggage fees can add up quickly, often $30 or more, per bag each way depending on the airline. Some carriers like Southwest Airlines still offer two checked bags per ticketed passenger at no extra charge. With their already low prices for airfare and the bonus of not having to pay extra for checked bags they are my personal favorite for our adventure travels whenever routes and schedules allow!

IMG_20150511_072601On the ground at Denver International Airport

Other Gear Transport Options

There are other options such as shipping your gear via a land based carrier, though, based on what I have paid to send Christmas gifts through various shippers in the recent years, the costs are significant, and restrictions still apply. In addition to the cost, there are many logistical and timing issues you will need to work through if you go this route. Another option I will mention is working with an outfitter who rents gear at, or will ship it to, your destination. I have done a cursory look around the internet and know there are a number of companies who do this, but cannot comment on the cost or availability of these services, which I expect vary significantly depending on where your adventures take you and what time of year you travel. Even if you use one of these options there are still items you will need to purchase at your destination, so planning and research are always a must.

Special Considerations

If you have special dietary needs or require special medical equipment, supplies, or medications you need to do your homework regarding air travel restrictions. If there are items you plan to purchase at your destination, I expect most cities large enough to have an airport will also have places to purchase whatever you need, but do not take this for granted, especially in more remote destinations. Spend some time on the internet researching options, and by all means, follow up with a phone call, especially for highly specialized or critical items.

Planning Ahead and Preparing to Pack

Start gathering your gear at least two weeks before your trip. Our dining room becomes a staging area for gear before any backpacking trip, but this is especially true for our trips that include air travel. Waiting until the last minute is a sure way to forget a critical piece of gear or leave something in a carry on bag that causes TSA agents and local police to take unwanted interest in you at the security check point! The later situation is certain to result in confiscation of the overlooked item, like a favorite pocket knife or multi-tool, or still worse, it could turn into a complete search of your person and baggage, a missed flight, and potentially a fine or even arrest, depending on what the item is.

IMG_5815Backpacking gear gathered in our dining room before a trip.

Check all the pockets in your backpacks and clothing to make sure there isn’t a spare lighter, fire starter, knife, or some other restricted item tucked away. And keep in mind that some outdoor clothing lines have hidden pockets and compartments for survival gear built into their clothing, so extra diligence is warranted with these types of items.

Packing Your Bags

The weight limit on checked bags is generally 50 pounds, with additional fees for oversize and overweight bags. As you pack your gear consider the fit as well as weight of each item. Once your bags are packed you should weigh them and make adjustments as needed.

IMG_5817Packed bags ready for weighing.

Having more than one checked bag gives you flexibility as you can shift items between bags to balance the weight and keep them all below the limit. If you check only a single bag you will need to closely watch the weight or just plan to pay the overweight baggage fee.

IMG_5820Hanging the bags on a luggage scale to ensure they are within the weight limits.

Guidelines for Specific Items

The table below is my attempt to cover the some of the most common items hikers and backpackers might carry. Though this is certainly not an exhaustive list, I have tried to make sure I included any gear I personally had questions or concerns about in the past. With a few items I could not find specific TSA guidelines. In those cases I have given my personal interpretation and practices which err on the conservative side, as I prefer the no hassle approach and would rather not risk losing valuable gear. As their website says on practically every page related to security guidelines, “The final decision rests with the TSA officer on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint.”

If you have other items you are concerned about I suggest going to their “What Can I Bring?” page that allows you to search for guidelines on specific items yourself (their MyTSA App also has this feature). They also have an “AskTSA” service that allows you to send a photo of an item and ask questions through Facebook Messenger or Twitter (8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET weekdays; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends/holidays). If you exhaust all these resources and still have questions, I suggest contacting the manufacturer of the item as they are likely to be aware of restrictions that apply to their products.

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At Your Destination

Another practice I recommend is taking time before your trip searching the internet for outfitters, grocery stores, and other vendors where you can purchase supplies once you arrive at your destination. This saves time, allows you to find the stores closest to your road travel route, and gives you an opportunity to call ahead to check hours and make sure any special items you need are available.

We tend to purchase most of our supplies in the cities where our flights take us. Cities with airports tend to be larger so the stores have a better selection and usually cheaper prices. That said, the stores we have patronized in and around the national parks have not had significantly higher prices. And, although the selection of items is usually limited, you should have no problem finding the basics of food, water, and fuel. Taking the time to do a little research in this area will save you time, frustration, and disappointment which is not what any of us want when we are tired from spending hours airports and sitting on a plane!

Final Advice

If you want to avoid hassles, delays, or the confiscation of an important piece of gear, I strongly suggest you err on the conservative side and leave questionable items at home or plan to purchase them at your destination. Consider every item you take, large or small. And, finally, make sure you check and double check your gear to ensure you don’t forget anything critical or leave a restricted item in a carry on or checked bag that will cause problems going through security screening at the airport.

Travel safe, hike safe, and by all means get out there and explore this vast, amazing, and beautiful world that God has blessed us with!

Happy Trails!

Todd the Hiker

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015-2020.

Relevant TSA Website Links:
What Can I Bring?: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring/all
Liquids & Gels: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/liquids-rule
MyTSA App: https://www.tsa.gov/mobile