Today we’re fortunate to have excellent online mapping platforms like CalTopo, Hillmap, GaiaGPS, 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:
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.
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.