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A Guide to Canadian Topographical Maps

When I am planning a trip in the United States for which a pre-produced mapset is unavailable, I usually make my own with National Geographic TOPO! software. In TOPO! I can pan seamlessly across USGS topographical map images, like how I can pan across a Google Map; I can markup the maps with symbols, text boxes, and route lines; I can measure the distance of my route; and I can export the maps as JPG images, which I drop into a Microsoft Word document so that the entire mapset can be printed as a PDF and sent off to a local printer. TOPO! is certainly not perfect (I’d rate it 3.5 out of 5 stars) but it’s functional, and it is better than its competitors in terms of usability, features, and cost.

I am currently planning a 2010 trip that will feature about 1,250 miles through the Canada, mostly in the Yukon but I may also pass through corners of British Columbia and/or the Northwest Territories. Obviously I will need to map out this portion of my trip, and I was hoping to find a TOPO!-like software package for the task.

I recently spent almost a day researching Canadian topographical map products, and below I am reporting my findings in the hope that I can save others some time, frustration, and expense. I describe the products roughly in order of their functionality, from the most basic to the most powerful/full-featured.

I am aware that this list does not include every mapping software product available for Canada, but I believe it includes the bulk of them. If you think a product should be included in this list, send me an email telling me about it and I will update this page.

Centre for Topographic Information

This is the Canadian equivalent of the United States Geological Survey’s topographical mapping department. The CTI publishes the most authoritative, reliable, and comprehensive topo maps, usually at scales of 1:50,000 and 1:250,000. Similar to how the most detailed USGS maps of Alaska are at a scale of 1:62,500, which is inferior to the 1:24,000 maps available for Lower 48 states, the CTI maps for remote parts of the country—namely the territories—may also be sub-par: they may only be black & white and they are rarely updated, if ever.

The CTI has made its maps available in several ways:

1- Historically, its maps were only available as paper prints, and they could be (and still can be) purchased directly from CTI or indirectly through its network of dealers. I would recommend staying away from paper maps—they get expensive and they are difficult to work with (Why does my route always seem to straddle the margins of at least two maps, and sometimes the corners of four?)

2- The CTI has made all of its maps available via FTP through its GeoGratis portal. There is no cost for or restrictions on the maps. This option would work for a short trip: only a few maps would need to be downloaded; they could be easily stitched together in Photoshop; and a new map (or two) that covers the entire trip could quickly be printed. For a long trip, however, this would be a very tedious process.

3- Finally, for simple reconnaissance, there’s the Atlas of Canada “Toporama”, which is a click-to-zoom application. The maps are not as good as the official topo maps, so I’d recommend using this tool only to identify what topo map(s) is/are needed and then download that map via FTP.

CanMaps.com

This website resells the CTI maps as JPG images on DVD’s. The maps are available in different packages, e.g., all of the 1:250,000 maps for Western Canada, all of the 1:50,000 maps for Northern Canada. The DVD’s do not include viewing software, so you’ll need a program like Windows Photo Gallery or Adobe Photoshop to view the files. And, even then, the maps cannot be viewed seamlessly—you can only view one map image at a time, i.e. you’re looking at a digital scan of an original paper maps—and you’ll be missing helpful tools like a route ruler.

I do not understand how these DVD’s can be a profitable product when these same maps can be downloaded for free from the GeoGratis portal. Perhaps this product pre-dates this service from the government. Whatever the reason, I would recommend staying away from this product—it does not offer anything you can’t get for free.


NOTICE: The four products described below are comparable in their functionality—in essence, each product includes a “map browser” that allows you to view, markup, and export digital images of the CTI topo map bundle that is also included. The topo bundles are usually offered by province or region. In one case, the software and the topo package are separate purchases. I have not tested all of these programs, but the primary differences see to be in their cost, functionality, graphical interfaces, and their comprehensiveness (i.e., how many map regions they have available).


TopoTracker

This DVD product is sold by GoTrekkers. I was dissatisfied with the depth of the product information on the website—it’d be helpful to have screenshots and a bulleted list of features, for example. The map browser included on the DVD’s is Memory-Map Discoverer, which seems to have all the right features: it allows the user to pan across a seamless map image, plot routes, acquire route info (e.g. distance, elevation gain, waypoints, etc.), and export map images. DVD’s with map packages for all of the Canadian provinces and territories are available, sold separately; most cost CAD $100 but the Nunavut and NWT packages cost $175.

The mapsets for this product are only compatible with Memory-Map; they are in the .qct format. The disadvantage of this is that if you prefer OziExplorer or Fugawi, you can’t use that program. But the advantage is that the maps load faster than Etopo, which are not specifically formatted for Memory-Map.

I ultimately purchased the Yukon DVD from TopoTracker, over the competing products from Etopo. The primary reason was cost—the single TopoTracker product cost $100, whereas the three Etopo products (Southern Yukon, Central Yukon, and Northern Yukon & MacKenzie Delta) would have cost me about $200. According to the GoTrekkers owner, Etopo has been around longer but they have not responded to the price competition. I did not consider purchasing from Fugawi because they do not have maps available for the Yukon.

Etopo

Again, the basis of this product is a map browser and a topo map package. It includes Memory-Map Discoverer, the same software used in TopoTracker, but the maps are “calibrated” to also be compatible with other browsers like OziExplorer, Fugawi Global Navigator, and MacGPS Pro. The topo maps, which are scanned CTI maps at 1:50,000 and 1:250,000 scale, can also be viewed independently as PNG image files, using a program like Windows Photo Gallery or Adobe Photoshop. Map packages are available for all of the provinces and territories, or portions of; they cost CAD $70-$100.

Erin Mckittrick, of Journey on the Wild Coast fame, has used Etopo and had this to say about it: “We used Etopo for our British Columbia section, but you can’t buy the whole province so we needed to buy multiple chunks. It’s not nearly as good as National Geographic TOPO!. Not only is it more expensive but it’s also less user-friendly in a number of ways. But we never found anything better. I tried to use some of the free stuff online but could never get it to work right.”

Karsten Heuer, another adventurer known for his Yellowstone to Yukon and Being Caribou trips, had this to say about Etopo: “I have exclusively used the Etopo product and find it cumbersome but ultimately functional. It may seem expensive given other digital products in other countries but it’s a vast improvement on the paper system which was the only option a few years ago—I think I forked out over $1,500 for 1:50,000 maps for the Y2Y Hike.”

Note that Erin and Karsten are criticizing the usability of the browser, Memory-Map Discoverer, not the maps, so this criticism probably applies equally to TopoTracker, which also uses this browser.

Fugawi Canada Maps

This package includes a proprietary map browser, Fugawi Map Viewer, as well as digital scans of the CTI maps for each province, sold separately. Note: Map packages for the territories are not available. At just $50 this package is less expensive than TopoTracker or Etopo, but the map browser is not as robust or fully-featured as Memory-Map Discoverer, and personally I would probably be willing to invest in the more powerful software. With the Fugawi Map Viewer, the user can only do the following three things: pan seamlessly across the map images, print selected areas, and search a geographical index.

You can enhance the functionality of this product by also buying Fugawi’s Global Navigator software (for $120). But the additional cost may make it worthwhile to just buy a package from GoTrekkers or Etopo, unless Global Navigator is clearly a superior browser in which case it might be worthwhile.

Fugawi Global Navigator + Touratel Maps

In the long run this may prove to be the most cost-effective mapping software solution. The first necessary purchase is Fugawi’s powerful, full-featured Global Navigator software. With this browser you can view many different types of maps (nautical, topo, street) from a variety of sources (governments, third-party, your own paper scans, etc.).

Next, you need to buy access to a map package. If you want US or Canadian topographical maps, you can buy a yearly subscription to Fugawi’s online map library, which provides complete coverage of the US or the Canadian provinces; the cost is $10-12 for each subsciption. In other words, you no longer have to pay $50 or $100 to get access to each state or province—you just pay $120 upfront and then $10-12 each year to have to access to every state or province. Note: Fugawi does not offer coverage for the Canadian territories, so if you’re looking for maps of Yukon or NWT, you’ll need to buy a different package.

A high-bandwidth connection is probably critical to the usability of this online library, although since up to 2 GB of map data can be cached locally on your hard-drive, it may become less of an issue if you tend to use the same maps repeatedly (since they’ll be in your cache).

Posted in on April 2, 2010
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6 Comments

  1. Pete B. on March 13, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    Andrew, I just wanted to share this resource with you: http://www.mytopo.com/ca_search.cfm

    They have Canadian, and US maps, and allow you to print them centred wherever you want, in a range of sizes and scales.

    Cheers.

  2. ryan on June 5, 2012 at 11:33 am

    I live in canada and have secretly been using this its free and basic no route plotting ect.. but you can do it manually.

    http://www.digital-topo-maps.com/topo-maps.php

    get out there !

  3. Dave on August 30, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Ibycus offers the complete set of the Department of Natural Resources Canada 1:50 000. The only way one s going to get better resolution is to obtain them from a private company such as SkyBase Solutions. I can’t speak for the quality of them since I don’t have it ($250 is a lot of money), but a lot of the patch-workers have it.

    http://www.ibycus.com/ibycustopo/

    However, they no longer offers direct downloads. One would have to get a magnet link to get the torrent.

    • Dave on August 30, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      If you don’t mind the magnet link being shared:

      magnet:?xt=urn:btih:D8D585EDC926D58170A90E22DB2928A50D21765E&dn=IbycusTopo4.0.iso&tr=udp%3a%2f%2ftracker.ccc.de%3a80%2fannounce&tr=udp%3a%2f%2fopen.demonii.com%3a1337%2fannounce&tr=udp%3a%2f%2ftracker.publicbt.com%3a80%2fannounce&tr=udp%3a%2f%2ftracker.openbittorrent.com%3a80%2fannounce&tr=udp%3a%2f%2ftracker.istole.it%3a80%2fannounce&tr=udp%3a%2f%2fipv4.tracker.harry.lu%3a80%2fannounce&tr=udp%3a%2f%2ffr33domtracker.h33t.com%3a3310%2fannounce&tr=udp%3a%2f%2ftracker.feednet.ro%3a80%2fannounce

  4. Johnny on January 18, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    I had no idea there were better maps than Toporama! I must be missing something here but cannot for the life of me figure out the GeoGratis portal. The search tool seems useless. For example, I’m searching Apsley, Ontario and check off maps. There doesn’t seem to be any relevant results here. I’ve spent a good hour trying to figure this out. Any tips on how to use the site? (The links you posted re-direct to the main page.)

    • Andrew Skurka on January 19, 2015 at 11:10 pm

      This post is outdated now. The best thing to do is go to Caltopo.com and use the NR Canada layer, which has the 250k and 50k maps. WAY better than what was available when I wrote this post.

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