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Exporting & printing topographical maps from digital sources

A custom-made mapset and databook for the Wind River High Route

A custom-made mapset and databook for the Wind River High Route

Today we’re fortunate to have excellent online mapping platforms like CalTopo, HillmapGaiaGPS, and AllTrails. But until these platforms are available deep in the backcountry on devices that don’t break or need recharging, as part of my trip planning routine I export and then print my digital maps into a field-friendly paper set.

Here is how:

Exporting

Paper size. I prefer Tabloid (11 x 17 inches) paper over smaller sizes like Letter (8.5 x 11). Tabloid sheets depict a sizeable area (about 4.5 miles tall and 3.2 miles across when printed at 1:24,000 scale with quarter-inch margins) while still being field-friendly (not too big) and a standard paper size (not requiring a super high-end printer). When using smaller paper sizes like 8.5 x 11, I struggle to understand the big-picture topography and I get annoyed by how often my route cuts across pages.

Scale. I use the original map’s native scale, e.g. the 7.5-minute USGS maps are designed to be printed at 1:24,000. If I compress the image in order to fit more topographic information on a single page, the contour intervals and writing become illegible — in the specific case of USGS maps, beyond about 1:30,000. Two notes:

  • The effect will be the same if I try printing 11 x 17 images on smaller paper size.
  • Other maps are optimized for different scales. For example, I have National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps — which are available as a layer on AllTrails — that are at scales of 1:60,000, 1:80,000, and 1:100,000.

Shaded relief. Turn this off. While the shading causes topographic features to stand out better when looking at the map from its south border (e.g. like on a wall, computer screen, or living room floor), it makes the map difficult to read in the field when viewed from any other direction. For example, if I’m hiking south, often I’ll want to look at the map north-to-south, so that it’s oriented with the landscape. But from this angle, the map shading is inverted, so canyons look like ridges and vice versa.

Format. Ideally, the online platform exports a single multi-page print-ready PDF. If it generates only single map files, expect the printing process to consume more time for you. This can especially be a headache with large mapsets for multi-month trips.

Printing

Probably like you, I lack access to a high-end color printer for personal use. The best method I have found to print topographic maps is FedEx Office Print Online. I upload the files, specify the printing specs, pay online, and pick up the order a few hours later from my local branch at the corner of Baseline Road and Broadway.

My go-to specs are:

  • Full color;
  • 24-lb paper, or 30-lb for glossier and more durable prints, albeit heavier and more expensive;
  • Collated, if multiple copies, so that I can easily give everyone in my group their own mapset; and, either
  • Single-sided when solo, so that I can view two adjacent maps simultaneously, or
  • Double-sided if one or more group members will also have a set, since we can partner up and view adjacent maps.

For single-sided full-color 11 x 17 prints, the current cost at my local FedEx Office is $1.77 per print before tax. With my corporate account (Ha, “corporate”!), the price drops to $1.18. If you expect a big printing bill, it’s worth asking about this program.

19 Responses to Exporting & printing topographical maps from digital sources

  1. LukeD July 24, 2015 at 7:57 am #

    Local libraries also have good printing options (BW is free where I live; color is .50/page). Hillmap has a good feature where you can layer sat photos and topo with differing opacity (maybe Caltopo has this too?). Definitely has come in handy a few times where key navigational landmarks weren’t big enough to feature on a USGS quad.

  2. katherine July 26, 2015 at 11:36 pm #

    8.5 x 11 vs 11 x 17:

    I’ve been using caltopo > FedEx office for recent trips. Love it. For me, for *on-trail* travel, I’ve found the 8.5 x 11 size promotes more frequent map checks because I can fold it in quarters and fit it easily in a hip belt. For the most recent trip, I had FedEx do double sided. Then I keep the big picture map in the side pocket for when I need the overview.

    Granted, if I hiked as fast as you I’d breeze through that size too quickly!

  3. Sam Alter July 27, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

    I’ve been playing around with Caltopo and like it’s simple interface. Next trip I’m definitely going to use this site. Thanks for the post.

  4. Bill February 15, 2016 at 8:36 am #

    I have an ink jet printer that will handle 11 X 17 paper, but I’m not that comfortable with ink jet prints on plain paper. I have printed maps on plain paper and sealed them with Krylon Crystal Clear spray. This works well enough, but makes the paper much stiffer. I do have a local printer who can print much larger sizes, but I haven’t spoken to them about printing durable maps. I would think that maps printed with a color laser printer would be more durable, but I don’t have one and don’t know. Beyond paper weight, do you have any thoughts on paper and inks?

    • Andrew Skurka February 16, 2016 at 3:22 pm #

      Unless I need just a map or two for a casual trip, I always have my local FedEx Office print my maps. Their laser printing is higher quality than what I can do at home, and it’s less susceptible to moisture. I don’t go crazy with map durability — for about $1.25 per 11×17 print, it’s worth it to me to have fresh maps for each trip I do.

  5. John Godino June 13, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    Here’s another great option for durability: print at FedEx on a color laser printer, but use your own waterproof paper. Search Amazon for “waterproof paper”. Last year I got a box of 50 sheets for about $35, or $.60 per sheet. It was 8.5″ x 11″. That works out to be about $.60 per sheet.

    As a test, I printed a map on this paper, and then rolled it up and put it inside a 1 quart Nalgene bottle and left it there… for about six months. I take it out to show it to my navigation classes every month or so, and is still in perfect condition.

    Andrew’s suggestion of using online printing of course will not work with this technique, you need to actually be there in person to put your own paper that you bring it into the proper tray.
    But, this is a small trade off, because the benefit from a completely waterproof and very durable math outweighs the small hassle an extra cost of using specialized paper.

    • Andrew Skurka June 13, 2016 at 9:10 am #

      Thanks for sharing. I could see this making sense for someone who: returns to the same area repeatedly and does not want to print fresh maps each time; or backpacks in really wet environments.

      Personally, I tend to be hiking through and in dry environments. So I judged the extra expense of WP paper to not be worthwhile. I see a PDX in your email handle (airport code for Portland) so I suspect your situation is different in at least one regard.

  6. John Godino June 13, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    Also, For anyone interested in a quick overview of using Caltopo, there is a nice tutorial on YouTube that covers how to do it. Search YouTube for “Caltopo”. The first video that comes up is from the Columbia River Orienteering Club, that’s a good place to start. The founder of Caltopo, Matt Jacobs, also has a few tutorials that he put up the cover some of the more advanced features.

  7. Ken Steinhoff July 14, 2016 at 9:57 am #

    Very useful. Also, you’ve mentioned before that 11×17 folds well to fit into a “baggie”.

    I would add: solo hiker can print:
    physical map 1 front – map 1;
    physical map 1 back – map 3;
    physical map 2 front – map 2;
    etc.

    1/2 the weight, just as convenient

    • Andrew Skurka July 14, 2016 at 3:44 pm #

      Yes, an 11×17 fits almost perfectly into a gallon-sized bag when folded in half. If you chop the half-inch margins off, it fits perfectly, and you can seal the bag in the event of precip.

      I hadn’t thought of that printing scheme. Can you specify that on a print order, or is a manual thing?

      • Ken Steinhoff July 16, 2016 at 6:30 pm #

        Never looked at trying it with a print order. I feel safer knowing it is right before I send it off to the printer.

        I’m using a Mac now, so I can easily move PDF thumbnails around to whatever order I want them printed.

        I just did it for KCHBR and it was a little trickier than usual because I had to slip in a few of the alternate route maps (which I think are soon to be part of the primary route) in their proper place. All good though because it helped me become more familiar with the route.

  8. Rocky Sharwell September 3, 2016 at 11:04 am #

    Any idea of how I print at Staples or Fedex a PDF file of a USGS map tthat has satellite imagery without the imagery. If I was doing it home I could just click on the eye to turn the layer off

    • Andrew Skurka September 3, 2016 at 12:04 pm #

      I don’t understand your question. Try again.

      Not sure what program you are using to export the PDF. In CalTopo, you can specify a single layer, or a mix of them, and it’ll print as a PDF what you’re showing on the screen.

      • Rocky Sharwell September 4, 2016 at 10:40 am #

        Sorry about that I am internet deprived due to a storm. I downloaded the maps from the USGS website as PDF files and uploaded them for printing via the Staples website. When my internet is restored I will look at Caltopo. Thanks

  9. Finn March 28, 2017 at 6:34 am #

    I’m wondering if anyone has experience exporting and printing maps using international maps such as either UK OS or OSI (ireland)?

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Skurka March 28, 2017 at 7:03 am #

      It’s probably not as good as goverment-produced topo maps, but you can access OpenStreetMap in Caltopo. That product has a few different datasets, including OpenStreetMap, OpenCycleMap, and TF Outdoors.

  10. Philip May 28, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

    How do I specify 11×17 from the FedEx online printing website? I’m trying to print your KCHBR maps, and although I see how to select 24-lb vs 32, 1- vs 2-sided etc, there does not seem to be an option to pick Tabloid paper.

    • Andrew Skurka May 28, 2017 at 2:38 pm #

      Paper size is dictated by the submitted file. In your case, the file spec is 11 x 17, and FedEx will assume this unless otherwise told.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Quick and Dirty Guide to Making a Map in Caltopo – .douchepacker. - April 28, 2016

    […] It should show an overview, and the two separate maps for a total of three pages.  Now save and print however you like.  You’ve now finished and have your paper maps ready to roll.  For an article about how to print your maps with better quality than your home printer look here. […]

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