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Essential backpacking topo maps: types, sources & formats

Chip studies his 7.5-min topos from Lonely Lake Pass (aka Horn Col) during a 15-mile off-trail segment during which we crossed just one trail.

Chip studies his 7.5-min topos from Lonely Lake Pass (aka Horn Col) during a 15-mile off-trail segment during which we crossed just one trail.

When I mostly only followed established backpacking trails or routes, I relied heavily on existing resources — topographic map sets, route descriptions, databooks, and now digital trail apps — under the assumption that they were sufficient, which they normally were. But when my trips became more of the choose-your-own-adventure variety, I had to develop these resources from scratch, which forced me to think harder about them and which gave me the opportunity to experiment with different systems and methods.

In this post I want to focus specifically on topographic maps, since they are the single most important navigational resource. That is to say, it’d be difficult — if not impossible — to hike a unique route without topographic maps, while doing it without a route description, databook, or digital app is quite plausible.


Overview

I normally carry three types of topographic maps:

  1. Paper overview maps
  2. Paper detailed maps
  3. Digital maps on a GPS unit

On most trips, I use exclusively the printed maps. My GPS unit and the digital maps stored in its memory are purely for backup. There are many reasons I prefer paper maps over digital ones:

  • Huge viewing window: 187 square inches of topographic detail on an 11×17 sheet, versus 10 square inches on a 5-inch digital screen;
  • Writeable surface, so that I can make notes about the route;
  • Will not break if dropped or smashed;
  • If exposed to water, laser prints are fully recoverable by drying them out; and,
  • Do not require batteries or recharging.

The considerations of cost and weight are trip-dependent. For example, a handheld GPS unit is an expensive purchase for an occasional backpacker, whereas it would help an avid backpacker avoid hundreds of dollars in map-printing expenses. And a single printed map for a short weekend trip will be lighter than an electronic device, whereas a set of printed maps for a 2-week trip could be heavier.

Normally I embrace technology and I’m far from a Luddite, but I think that being “old school” is generally better in the backcountry, which lacks the infrastructure to support a technology-dependent existence, e.g. outlets and connectivity.


Several examples of overview maps. Commercial recreation maps are best since they are updated regularly and include more than just topographic data. When unavailable, I custom print USGS 30- x 60-minute or 250k map series on 11x17 paper (upper right).

Several examples of overview maps. Commercial recreation maps are best since they are updated regularly and include more than just topographic data. When unavailable, I custom print USGS 30- x 60-minute or 250k map series on 11×17 paper (upper right).

1. Paper overview maps

This map type is most useful when planning a trip. I use it to lay out my general route, take note of alternates, identify resupply options, and work through logistics like travel and permits.

In the field, overview maps are useful for pinpointing distant landmarks, having mid-trip planning discussions, and bailing off the intended route. On their own, they may be sufficient for itineraries with on-trail travel only.

A closeup reveals how much topographic detail is compressed onto these maps. The upper map of Utah is at a scale of 1:75,000, or more than 1 mile per inch; the lower map is 1:250,000, or nearly 4 miles per inch. These maps are most useful when planning a trip, and may be sufficient in the field only for on-trail itineraries.

A closeup reveals how much topographic detail is compressed onto these maps. The upper map of Utah is at a scale of 1:75,000, or more than 1 mile per inch; the lower map is 1:250,000, or nearly 4 miles per inch. These maps are most useful when planning a trip, and may be sufficient in the field only for on-trail itineraries.

Overview maps can be purchased or custom-made. For many of my favorite backpacking destinations, I use a recreation map from National Geographic Trails Illustrated. The Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park Map (#205), for example, covers the entire park on a 37.5 x 25.5 inch double-sided sheet at 1:80,000 scale with 100-foot contour intervals. Other popular recreational map-makers include Delorme, Tom Harrison, Earthwalk Press, and Green Trail Maps. Because these commercial maps are revised regularly, I can be reasonably confident that they are accurate.

When recreational maps are unavailable, I create custom small-scale maps based on the USGS 30- x 60-minute or 250k series, using online platforms discussed below. These maps are not updated regularly (many are 25+ years old) and they do not include all the details that the commercial maps usually do, like official trails, designated campsite locations, and visitor services.


Left: An original USGS 7.5-minute quadrangle. Right: A custom map based on the same map series, digitally annotated and exported to a print-ready 11x17 PDF using CalTopo.

Left: An original USGS 7.5-minute quadrangle. Right: A custom map based on the same map series, digitally annotated and exported to a print-ready 11×17 PDF using CalTopo.

2. Paper detailed maps

To navigate off-trail, or even just to precisely follow my location when on-trail, maps depicting the landscape in greater detail are useful, if not necessary. In the US, the gold standard for topographic maps is the 7.5-minute quadrangles (“quads”) produced by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Each quad — of which there are about 55,000 — represents 7.5 minutes of latitude and 7.5 minutes of longitude. (In this instance, “minutes” are not in reference to time. There are 360 degrees of longitude and latitude. Within each degree, there are 60 minutes of lat and long, and within each minute there are 60 seconds.) This equates to about 8.5 miles of latitude (map height) and about 5.5-7.5 miles of longitude (map width), since the physical distance between lines of longitude decreases towards the poles.

The 7.5-minute quads are printed at a 1:24,000 scale, meaning that one unit on the map (e.g. one inch) equals 24,000 units in real life. For context, there are 63,360 inches in one mile (5280 feet per mile, 12 inches per mile) so one inch on the 7.5-minute maps equals 0.3788 miles. The standard contour interval is 40 feet.

The USGS was not always consistent in its units or contour intervals, however. For example, some maps of the High Sierra are metric: meters instead of feet, and 20-meter contours (66 feet) instead of 40-foot contours. Elsewhere, maps of Wyoming’s Tetons have 80-foot contours and maps of Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains have 5-foot contours.

The natural scale of 7.5-min quads is 1:24,000, so topographic detail is much clearer. This series is the gold standard for topographic maps in the US, and ideal for precise navigating.

The natural scale of 7.5-min quads is 1:24,000, so topographic detail is much clearer. This series is the gold standard for topographic maps in the US, and ideal for precise navigating.

Pre-digital, printed USGS quads were available directly from the USGS and through local retailers. At a specialty outdoor retailer, you may still find a wooden bureau with short drawers filled with paper maps of local areas. Now, we fortunately have online mapping platforms like CalTopo (my favorite) and AllTrails (also very useful), which offer multiple topographic layers (e.g. 7.5-min USGS, Landsat, Trails Illustrated), plotting tools, GPS integration, and custom mapset exporting.

To be field-ready, digital maps must be exported and printed. Read my tips.


With some additional software, a smartphone makes a superb GPS unit. Here, it helped to explain why we were confused about our location: according to the map, we should been standing at the lip of a huge glacier, but instead the glacier appeared to be another mile or two upstream. When we looked at the Landsat imagery, which had been downloaded before we left, it showed how outdated our maps had become in the last 40 years.

With some additional software, a smartphone makes a superb GPS unit. Here, it helped to explain why we were confused about our location: according to the map, we should been standing at the lip of a huge glacier, but instead the glacier appeared to be another mile or two upstream. When we looked at the Landsat imagery, which had been downloaded before we left, it showed how outdated our maps had become in the last 40 years.

3. Digital maps on a GPS unit

With very few exceptions, I have managed perfectly well with paper overview maps and paper detailed maps. These exceptions, however, can be in fairly dire circumstances. For example, last summer in Sequoia-Kings I led a nighttime descent off Lucy’s Foot West to Lake Reflection, which is 2,500 vertical feet of sustained Class 2/3 terrain. Last spring I spent three weeks in the canyons of southern Utah, many of which have precise access points. And on one of my first guided trips, we bailed out of the Alaska Range and ended up over 100 miles away from our intended exit point.

So for additional precision or additional topographic information when my trusty paper maps, magnetic compass, and altimeter watch are insufficient, I carry with me digital maps stored on a GPS unit.

My preferred GPS unit is my smartphone, not a conventional handheld device like the Garmin eTrex 30 GPS. With a mapping app like GaiaGPS (my pick), BackCountry Navigator TOPO GPS, or Backpacker GPS Trails Pro, my smartphone offers all the features you’d expect of a standalone GPS unit like location identification, waypoint marking, point-to-point navigation, and route tracking.

But a smartphone GPS is even better:

  • No extra weight, since I never leave my phone in my car at a trailhead;
  • Little additional expense, since I already own the phone and just need software;
  • A bright and super high-resolution 5-inch touchscreen;
  • Access to topographic map and imagery layers that are far superior to the primitive proprietary layers found on handhelds; and,
  • A huge amount of internal memory so that I can download maps along my route plus adjacent maps, in the event that I get off my printed detailed maps due to a detour or unplanned exit.

The only drawback of using a smartphone as a GPS unit is its inferior battery life. If left in airplane mode and used only occasionally, I can do a one-week trip without needing a recharge. But if used more regularly, for a mid-trip charge I must bring my Anker PowerCore+ mini Portable Charger plus the mini USB charging cable. On Guthook Hikes! I recently read an article about the battery life of phones when used as a GPS unit.

My digital map system: a smartphone with the Gaia GPS app, and on longer trips longer than about a week a portable charger and charging cord.

My digital map system: a smartphone with the Gaia GPS app, and on longer trips longer than about a week a portable charger and charging cord.


Your turn!

What maps and tools do you carry and most heavily rely on when backpacking? Do you have any other map tips to share that were not covered?

41 Responses to Essential backpacking topo maps: types, sources & formats

  1. Daniel April 8, 2015 at 4:00 am #

    During a scrub bash in Tasmania last year, I surprised at how well the iPhone 5 performed using Gps Gaia, I had an Etrex 20 and my friend had the iPhone with a planned route onboard, The iPhone didn’t miss a beat, it was on track for the whole day, great bit of kit.

  2. boilerbugle April 8, 2015 at 9:04 am #

    How many detailed maps do you carry on a week long trip? With the scale of the detailed maps, seems like you could end up having 10-15 of them for a 6 day trip.

    • Andrew Skurka April 8, 2015 at 9:23 am #

      The number of maps I need per time (e.g. day, week) really depends on how miles per day I am hiking and the shape of the route — straight or zig-zagging, and point-to-point, lollypop, or loop.

      Some examples from my guided trips, which are extensively off-trail:
      Low intensity 3-day trips: 1 map
      Moderate intensity 5-day trips: 3 maps:
      High intensity 7-day trips: 6-7 maps
      Very high intensity 7-day trips: 8-9 maps

      And then a personal trip from last year: I burned through 13 maps with two very fit friends on a 5-day trip.

      The question is nearly irrelevant, however. If you need to navigate precisely, you need good maps, i.e. large-scale maps like the 7.5-min series. If you try to save printing expensive or paper weight by using a small-scale map, you will spend the entire trip wondering where the f— you are, because those maps do not have the detail to pinpoint your location.

      • boilerbugle April 8, 2015 at 1:27 pm #

        Thanks for the response. Makes total sense, I asked the question because idea of having 13 or even 7 pieces of paper to keep track of on a trip feels a little overwhelming. But getting lost or not being able to find a way out in an emergency would be much more so, obviously.

        • Andrew Skurka April 8, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

          Quick tip: I store all of the maps that I won’t need today in a separate gallon-sized plastic bag inside my pack. Only the maps I need today are on my person or in the side pocket of my pack.

          Also, I should have added something to my last response. The size of the landscape has a big effect on the usefulness of a map. In a place like Alaska, where gravel-filled valleys can be several miles wide and where there is huge topographic relief (the second highest peak in North America, Mt St Elias, is just 12 miles from the ocean), a 7.5-min map with 40-foot contours isn’t very useful because it’s actually too detailed. The most detailed series up there is the 15-min maps, which are 1:62,500 scale and have 100-foot contours. In the lower 48, a big landscape like the High Sierra is also well served by 15-min maps, though this series was discontinued a long time ago; but the Appalachian Mountains really need 7.5-min maps because there are lots of smaller ridges and valleys.

          • Dogwood September 10, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

            Plastic sheet protectors enclosed on three sides with a rigid 1/4″ top flap work well for keeping maps. They come in the 8.5″ X 1″ and 11″ X 17″ size and different wts.

            So many great navigation tips. Thx to all, most of all Andrew for communicating clearly his knowledge.

  3. Andrew April 8, 2015 at 11:13 am #

    Do you think there should be a wider use of the metric system for mapping in the United States? As I read your piece about how many inches and feet in a mile, I became concerned that I would never be able to do these calculations and conversions on the fly while navigating a route. Granted, inches and miles were not what I grew up with, so I have a harder time working with them. But for those of us who are less mathematically-inclined, I feel the metric system is easier to work with, especially with maps, which could make the difference between becoming lost or remaining “found.” On a recent trip in the mountains of California, I encountered several locals who were struggling with the conversions from map distance to ground distance. They kept having to remind themselves “how many inches in a mile?” And so on. Thoughts?

    • Andrew Skurka April 8, 2015 at 11:22 am #

      I think that most people would agree that metric is much more intuitive than imperial. But conversion is pretty disruptive — think about how many Mile Marker posts there are on US highways, and how many 5/16-inch bolts there are in an American car.

      So let’s assume that imperial is here to stay.

      To measure distances on the map, you can use the scale that is printed at its bottom (unless you cut that off in order to save weight), or you can use the scale-adjusted ruler on your compass. I wonder why exactly the backpackers you saw you struggling: Was it because they were inexperienced navigators, or because they were struggling with imperial units? I suspect it’s probably more the former than the latter, since measuring distances on imperial maps becomes second-nature for anyone who has done it a bit.

  4. Outtherekids April 8, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

    How about printing on tyvek? Have you ever considered this option? Water- and tear proof, tyvek maps are excellent imho!

    • Andrew Skurka April 8, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

      If you want really durable maps, I suppose this would be an option. However:

      1. Does Tyvek have a fibrous texture? If so, would this adversely affect the printing solution?
      2. My local FedEx does not offer Tyvek paper, as far as I know.
      3. I don’t need waterproof or durable maps. I protect them in a gallons-sized plastic bag, which works really well. And on personal trips I burn through a few maps a day, and 24-lb laser paper is plenty fine for this.

      • Outtherekids April 12, 2015 at 1:55 pm #

        1. Well, yes Tyvek is fibrous, but there is a special Tyvek paper that is designed for being printed on and it has a smooth texture. (Another option is Xerox Nevertear, and there are several others.) The tyvek maps we own all have perfect resolution.

        3. I get your point. Nonetheless, there are application areas where Tyvek (or similar) maps might be very useful to many people. I really like not having another plastic layer between my eyes and the map. The tyvek maps we use are all overview maps at 1:50,000 or 1:100,000, covering areas that we keep coming back to, so it is quite useful to us that they can take a lot of abuse.

  5. Dirk April 8, 2015 at 9:13 pm #

    I really wish the National Geographic Topo! series was still being made and distributed on DVD. I really enjoyed that software and printing maps at home. There are other tools online that do similar things, I just found the National Geographic interface to be pretty easy to use and helpful.

    • Andrew Skurka April 8, 2015 at 10:45 pm #

      CalTopo does everything that TOPO! did plus much more, and it is always improving. I never use TOPO! anymore, never.

    • Herb May 13, 2015 at 3:45 am #

      I purchased a pack of the NatGeo adventure paper and print a thome using Alltrails.com. Theyve had a recent update and the selectable layers is pretty fantastic. The website is a great planning tool as well.

      For most of my use, i’ve found you cant beat the TrailsIllustrated maps when available.

      • Andrew Skurka May 13, 2015 at 6:13 am #

        Can you define, “for my use”? I find that TI maps are adequate for trail hiking only, and even then it is often difficult to determine a precise location or to be confident in the small details of your immediate surroundings.

  6. Cameron N. April 8, 2015 at 10:05 pm #

    I recently discovered hillmap.com. I was trying to print some maps out at the library and couldn’t quite get the specs right, but that could be that the library printers are pretty archaic. It seems like a pretty decent tool though.

    • James Taylor April 9, 2015 at 11:22 am #

      +1 for Hillmap.com. It’s not quite as useful for printing as Caltopo, but it has one very useful feature: the ability to split the screen between two different views of the same area (think satellite imagery right next to topo imagery). As you scroll one view, the other follows right along. Advance use of this site can prevent the type of uncertainty Andrew mentioned with the glacier being mapped incorrectly, as you can quickly compare your chosen topo data with more up-to-date satellite imagery for key navigational points on the route. It’s also useful to easily envision what the terrain will look like as you trace along your route on the topo.

  7. Brett Hinton April 9, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    I have used the Trimble Outdoors Navigator App which uses maps from MyTopo (I think they use the USGS 7.5 minute maps). Have you ever looked at that app versus Gaia? They also allow custom printing maps from them at home (so it would be compatible with printing from FedEx). The interface seems to be nicer than Caltopo (which I had never heard of), but probably not as flexible.

    • Andrew Skurka April 9, 2015 at 12:14 pm #

      I have not done a comparative analysis on mapping apps. Since I use Gaia as a backup-only resource and since it does everything that I need it to, I stopped my search there.

    • Andrew Johnson April 13, 2016 at 9:20 pm #

      @brett hinton, the Trimble apps were all “sunset” a couple of weeks ago: http://support.trimbleoutdoors.com/knowledgebase/articles/848493-trimble-outdoors-sunset-announcement. We’ve been fielding all sorts of happy converts/refugees, who like the app a lot. I’m one of the Gaia GPS founders/developers.

      Once upon a time we used the MyTopo apps in Gaia GPS too, but I think the CalTopo compilation is the best USGS topo set, maybe ever created? You can compare the CalTopo maps on gaiagps.com/map to your old Trimble app, and see what you think.

  8. Dave F April 9, 2015 at 1:23 pm #

    If you spend a lot of time in one park or area, it can be useful to see if there are any apps dedicated to that particular park. Obviously that’s not as scalable as having an app that can download USGS maps for any location, but it can have the advantage of more frequent map updates than what you get through USGS. Since Shenandoah National Park is only a 2 hour drive for me, most of my shorter weekend trips are there. The PATC Shenandoah app (listed under “International Mapping” in the iTunes store) is great and not only has the more detailed park maps (i.e. with shelters, trail names, points of interest, etc) but has the ability to create routes and access a lot of the park-specific information you typically find on the back of those maps. The same company has one for Yosemite (called “Tom Harrison: Yosemite High Country 2012”) which was really useful when hiking off trail between Mt. Lyell and Ireland lake.

    I think that for extensive off-trail travel over longer distances, the more generic apps are better suited since they’re not constrained to things like park boundaries, but if you’re spending a week hiking around a specific trail system (especially within the confines of a park) I think the park-specific apps are pretty handy, and they’re usually cheap.

    The tradeoff is that since people use National Parks for other things besides backpacking, there are apps out there that are park-specific but worthless for that pursuit. National Geographic has an app called “Park Guides” which lets you “buy” individual parks, but the maps are nothing more than generic Google earth images. So, it can be hit or miss.

  9. Mercedes Clemens April 9, 2015 at 9:06 pm #

    Great idea re printing out on tabloid paper at FedEx, thank you! Also, I was able to find a 30% off coupon at RetailMeNot (I googled “Fedex office coupon”), which really dropped the price. I’m looking forward to picking up my maps tomorrow! Looks like there are often coupons for online printing at FedEx.

  10. Vadim Fedorovsky April 13, 2015 at 2:06 pm #

    Andrew thank you for an amazing post which really clarified a lot for me. I finally fully understand the importance/significance of 7.5 minute maps now!

    One suggestion. You write: “The 7.5-minute quads are printed at a 1:24,000 scale, meaning that one unit on the map (e.g. one inch) equals 24,000 units in real life. For context, there are 63,360 inches in one mile (5280 feet per mile, 12 inches per mile) so one inch on the 7.5-minute maps equals 0.3788 miles.”

    I understood what you were saying but it was confusing at first because of your use of the word ‘units’ after 24,000. Saying “…equals 24,000 INCHES in real life. For context, there are 63,360 inches…” would be clearer.

    Is not a big deal but I think this correction would make what you are saying easier to understand quickly.

    • Jim Cushing August 6, 2015 at 9:13 pm #

      Vadim,

      It doesn’t matter which units you use, the scale is still 1:24,000. One inch on the map equals 24,000 inches in real life. Likewise, one centimeter on the map equals 24,000 centimeters in real life. Whatever the unit—inches, centimeter, feet, etc.—this ratio holds true.

  11. PaulW April 14, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

    Very helpful article. Thanks!
    Can you recommend any specific models of phones that work well for backcountry GPS? The cheapo phone I use requires a cell signal for any location reporting.

  12. Neal Watson April 16, 2015 at 10:53 am #

    What I have been using is a GIS program called ArcMap by ESRI. It’s likely too expensive to be used solely for this purpose, but I have access to it through work. (There is a cheaper version, I believe.) It has nearly limitless options for mapmaking, and has a free USGS plugin that seamlessly stitches together all of the latest USGS topo maps. It also makes it easy to do any custom scale, and I add a scale bar to my maps to make it particularly easy.

    I hadn’t thought of getting them printed at FedEx. I’ve just been printing them on my inkjet, and keeping them sealed in freezer bags. I’ll definitely take the fedex route for my next trip.

  13. Jason Weddle April 17, 2015 at 2:48 am #

    Andrew, Thank you very much for posting this. This is very helpful. I’m always trying to find maps and I was not aware of CalTopo. Awesome, awesome. Thank you.

  14. Sam H April 17, 2015 at 3:58 pm #

    +1 on caltopo, Andy. Just an amazing free/donation resource. Also nice to see a photo of your copy of the Beartooth Publishing maps – such a superb map-maker. My other go-to resources are Google Earth (not for map making, but research), and gpsvisualizer.com which is excellent for converting files to various types.

  15. John K April 28, 2015 at 7:59 pm #

    I was curious about what app you’re using in the photo with the concentric circles measuring distance. The caption says you used it to resolve some confusion about your position near a glacier. The file name for that photo indicates it’s Gaia GPS. But when I looked it up, that appears to be incorrect. It looks like the app in the photo is instead called Topo Maps, by Phil Endecott.

    • Andrew Skurka April 28, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

      I’ll have to ask my assistant guide, Alan Dixon — it is a photo of his phone. I know he is a dedicated Gaia GPS user (we just spent 15 days together in southern UT, and we’re going out in the morning for another 6) and I assumed that was the case here; I’m on Android so I didn’t think much about the difference the tools or UI shown in this photo. But perhaps he was experimenting with other programs when that photo was taken in 2013.

    • Andrew Skurka April 28, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

      I’ll have to ask my assistant guide, Alan Dixon — it is a photo of his phone. I know he is a dedicated Gaia GPS user (we just spent 15 days together in southern UT, and we’re going out in the morning for another 6) and I assumed that was the case here; I’m on Android so I didn’t think much about the difference the tools or UI shown in this photo. But perhaps he was experimenting with other programs when that photo was taken in 2013.

  16. Jim Skidmore May 7, 2015 at 9:56 pm #

    I just want to chime in as well and say thanks for this post. I own your book, but I never followed up on the method described in it because I don’t own TOPO! I’m headed out on a week-long, mostly off-trail trip in Grand Canyon soon, so a couple of weeks ago I followed your instructions here. I’m usually clumsy with these things, so I expected to have trouble. I was pleasantly surprised with how easy CalTopo was to use, and I am impressed with the quality of the color maps. For $4 and change, I have 4 11″ x 17″ maps at 1:24,000 to cover my route (a lollipop). So a huge thanks for this tip!

  17. Maeglin July 4, 2015 at 12:28 am #

    Right in the Rain makes printer paper. I have tried the (white) 8.5×11″ recently, but you are correct, there is too little detail in the printed maps.

    I see that they sell 11×17″ colored pages (tactical).

    http://www.riteintherain.com/search?Dimensions=11-x-17

  18. Brad July 7, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

    I am trying to print 11 x 17 using FedEx online. There is nowhere that indicates paper size. Does the site detect the native size of the file automatically?

    • Andrew Skurka July 17, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

      Yes, it detects paper size.

  19. ilgar August 8, 2015 at 8:18 pm #

    I recently started using my smartphone instead of a GPS.

    My first app is the free Avenza PDF Maps. It takes PDF maps which are specifically designed (GIS/geospatial) to be interactive and lets the user view GPS location, record GPS tracks, add placemarks, and find places.

  20. Bob S. August 23, 2016 at 7:20 pm #

    Hiya Andrew,

    I have to work miles off roads and trails so I routinely include aerial/satellite imagery, hybrid maps, and elevation profiles of routes in my map packet. I also make sure I have digital versions of maps and imagery for my GPS, smartphone and inReach Explorer plus the GPX/KML files loaded onto every device because we all know what can happen sometimes.

    When I’m planning my routes I cross-reference multiple sources and use high resolution imagery because beaver ponds and ephemeral features might not be indicated on a topo map. Looking at multiple sources and historical data could mean the difference between a relatively short workday and an unexpected ‘camping trip’ for me.

    But anyways, I thought I would share this with everyone as it is simple and free. If you follow this link:

    http://www.earthpoint.us/TopoMap.aspx

    Then click on the ‘View On Google Earth’ button at the top of the page you will be prompted to save a KML file. Save the file then open it in Google Earth and you will get a seamless USGS topo map for the entire USA layered over the the aerial imagery. Save the KML file to ‘My Places’ in Google Earth and you can toggle the map on and of or adjust the layer opacity to view the topo map and satellite imagery together. There are instruction and other useful tools on the website as well.

    Hope you found this useful!

  21. Leland October 13, 2016 at 8:04 pm #

    Hi Andrew. Thanks for the information. I’ve been considering replacing my GPS unit by using my new smartphone, and this is helpful, especially the app and battery use information.

    FYI, I notice you’re using the terms “large-scale” and “small-scale” backwards. This is an easy mistake to make, since overview maps cover a large area, so you might think they are larger “scale” than detail maps. But the standard terminology is the reverse – the detail map shows each area of the ground larger, in more detail, and so the detail maps are large-scale; and the overview maps, where features appear smaller, are small-scale. As a reference see this Wikipedia article, which explains it in terms of scale fractions (1/24,000 is a larger fraction than 1/500,000, etc.):

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scale_(map)#Large_scale.2C_medium_scale.2C_small_scale

    • Andrew Skurka October 14, 2016 at 8:05 am #

      Thanks for the edit. I’ve looked this up before for clarification, but must have re-reversed the relationship at some point.

  22. Tim November 10, 2016 at 2:24 am #

    Hey Andrew,

    For some years now, I’ve have taken a GPS on my Grand Canyon backpacking trips. It is more for the fun of plotting the route out on a map and the nostalgia of recalling trip details. I always bring along printed maps and a compass. My “go to” GPS has been a Garmin GPSmap 60 CSx (Sirfstar chipset). On my next trip, I am planning to use the GPS on my Android phone (Note4 with Broadcom BCM47531 GPS/GNSS receiver) to record the trip with the OruxMaps app (offline Open Andro maps). The GPS on my Note4 seems as accurate (and less jumpy) as my Garmin where I live at 1000 ft. Not sure how well it will track in deep canyons. The touch screen and bigger display is a plus. Battery usage on my Note4 with the GPS on is good, dropping from 100% to 87% on a 12.5 mile hike. To conserve on battery, it is in airplane mode with wifi and blue tooth off, and location services just using the GPS. I would bring a USB Power Bank to keep the phone battery topped off. Also, my phone allows for a battery change and I have a couple of spares.

    One concern is that my Android is less durable than my Garmin so I want to find a way to tether my phone to a very thin cord (perhaps secured around my neck). The tether would just be there to break a fall.

    Has your phone GPS worked well in deeper canyons?

    Cheers … Tim

    • Andrew Skurka November 10, 2016 at 6:48 am #

      My phone, an older Nexus 5, does not have a reliable GPS, so I only use it sparingly. Plus, I have a Suunto Ambit GPS watch that records a good track for me. Hard to say how yours will work in the GC. If you are hiking the Tonto Trail or similar, it’ll probably be fine. But if you are in a slot, I would expect it to jump around.

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