*NOTE: This post has been updated to address the wholesale changes in CalTopo in 2021. You can read about these changes HERE and we have inserted links to key places in CalTopo’s training page throughout these instructions. If you notice an inconsistency, have your own tips, or find a better workaround, let us know in the comments!
For at least five years, CalTopo has been my preferred map-making platform, and I use it exclusively for personal trips, guided trips, and guidebooks. The service was launched in late-2011 by Matt Jacobs, and its functionality eventually matched and then greatly surpassed my prior go-to, National Geographic TOPO! desktop software, which has since been discontinued.
Assignment: Create a mapset using CalTopo
As part of our guided backpacking trips, clients are required to participate in an 8-part Planning Curriculum that prepares them for their trip and that can be retooled easily for their personal trips. We run the Curriculum in Google Classroom, but I’ve opted to share this map-making assignment here, since the formatting is more user-friendly and since it may have some public good.
This exercise will introduce you to the CalTopo functions that I use most often, and that other backpackers probably do, too. Like most software, mastery requires extensive use, so completing this assignment is more of a beginning than a mission accomplished.
If you can’t figure out some of the steps, refer to the CalTopo Training Webpage or leave a comment. Our clients can also pose questions to their group in Classroom.
Activate your account
If you don’t already have a CalTopo subscription, you’ll need one.
Our clients are given a free 2-month PRO subscription, and redemption details are shared in Classroom. Thanks, Matt!
To complete this assignment as written, a MOBILE account is required (currently, $20 per year). But a FREE account gets you most of the way there — in the final step, you’ll be limited to 8.5″ x 11″ sheets rather than my preferred 11″ x 17″.
1. Import a geographic file
In most cases you probably would start a map from scratch. But this assignment works better if I start you off with a partially constructed map.
Download this GeoJSON file, which has more CalTopo-specific code than a more standard and commonly used GPX file. If you are having download issues, you may have a Dropbox-blocking firewall.
Import the file into CalTopo, using the “Import” button in the top menu. Import all the data from this file.
Zoom in on Colorado. You will see part of two potential loop itineraries in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which is in my backyard:
- Pawnee-Buchanan Loop (aka Double Bypass), a 28-mile classic among trail runners and backpackers; and,
- Triple Bypass, which is my more adventurous variant of it and which is one of my eight recommended loop runs and hikes in the Front Range.
2. Saving your work
From CalTopo: “Saved maps are maps where the data has been saved to CalTopo. On a saved map, the URL is m followed by a 4-digit code that is a unique combination of letters and/or numbers, e.g.
caltopo.com/m/GSKP. The name of the map will appear in the upper left hand corner. Notice that the Details/Sharing button will also be visible again on the left side of the map viewer.”
CalTopo further states: “You may have noticed that once you save a map, there is no longer a Save button visible in the map viewer. In a style similar to other online editors such as Google Docs, changes made to a saved map are automatically synced. Anyone with access to the map will also see any changes made as long as they have a data connection.”
Choose a map name. Personally, I name my maps by trip date (e.g. 2020-07 Yosemite, 2020-08 San Juans) so that they can be sorted in this order.
You need not change the share settings, but it’s worth pointing out that by default your map is publicly available. If you’re planning something top-secret or using proprietary data, it should be made completely private.
All edits hereafter will be auto-saved.
3. Map layers
Select “Forest Service 2016” from the available mapping/imagery layers, using the drop-down menu in right frame, or in the upper-right corner if you have closed that window.
FS Topo 2016 is the best layer for the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and USFS lands in general. In many other areas, I use the “Scanned 7.5” layer, which has digital scans of the discontinued USGS 7.5-minute paper quads.
While you must select a single base layer for your printed maps, other layers can inform your route planning and map making. So utilize them.
Objects is the umbrella term for Lines, Markers, Polygons and other features that can be added to your name. They can be created and edited in several ways:
- Select the orange ‘Add’ button in the top menu seen in the image above.
- A left-click or right-click will generate a sub-menu, though that now has limited options. It’s best to click ‘Add’.
As a general comment, it’s much easier to work with objects (especially lines) if you have a mouse.
In this step you’ll learn to draw, extend, and join lines. These keyboard/click tips will help:
- Click ‘Add’, and select ‘line’ to draw a line
- Shift+Click to draw a freehand Line. Without a mouse, this operation is difficult.
- While drawing a Line, you can alternate between regular and freehand;
- Double-click to end a Line or click on the checkbox in the upper lefthand corner.
- ESC to undo.
- When drawing a Line, you often will see highlight-yellow tracks on your screen, which are based on open source geographic data. You lay your Line atop these tracks by clicking on the track and then clicking on another point somewhere along the track.
Next, select one of the two itineraries: Pawnee-Buchanan or Triple Bypass. In this step, you’ll close the loop between upper Buchanan Creek and Pawnee Lake.
- The Pawnee-Buchanan Loop goes downhill to the confluence of Buchanan and Crater Creeks, and then uphill to the lake.
- Triple Bypass goes up Thunderbolt Creek and over Paiute Pass, and then drops precipitously to Pawnee Lake.
Extend the existing Line, “Brainard to Thunderbolt,” to Pawnee Lake. If you follow the trails, you can snap-to the underlying trail data; if you go off-trail, you’ll have to make your own route.
Join this extended Line with the other existing Line, “Pawnee to Brainard.” Note for the future: The join-to Line must have a name, or it will not show up as an option.
Rename the completed loop by its full name (i.e. Pawnee-Buchanan or Triple Bypass).
Add a Line to either Crater Lake or Point 12113, in the event you have time for a side trip. This Line could be integrated with your main loop using the split and join tools, but you can leave it as a standalone Line for the sake of this exercise.
4b. Vertical profile
Bring up the vertical profile of your completed loop, using the left-pane or the line-click menus.
Keep the Profile open for the next step.
Add a new marker where you expect to camp each night. Specifically, use the “Tent” icon. You’ll need to click on the red dot in the marker edit box to change the red dot to a tent icon:
- On night 1, around Mile 11 identify a nice-looking area that is flat and semi-forested, and has water nearby;
- On night 2, stay at the obvious feature around Mile 19.5 (if you selected Pawnee-Buchanan) or Mile 15 (if you selected Triple Bypass).
- Name these Markers, “Night1” and “Night2” or similar.
Slide your mouse along the vertical Profile for mileage markers.
Create a new Folder, and name it “Campsites.”
Move your campsite Markers into this Folder, out of the default Folder, named “Markers.” This can be done by:
- Categorizing Markers (and other Objects, like Lines) when they’re first created;
- Editing them afterwards; or,
- In the left pane use the “Bulk Ops” feature, which is a huge time-saver when moving or editing multiple objects.
Un-select the Folder, “Side trips,” which will make its objects disappear, both on your current screen and in the upcoming print-view. If you were really planning to do one of these itineraries, you may want to include these Lines on your maps, but I want to demonstrate that in CalTopo you can hide data to clean up the screen and your printed maps.
5. Print your mapset
“Print” by clicking the old-school printer icon on the left of the map screen and then “Print to PDF or JPG.”
A new print-view window will open with print-specific options. Select:
- 11 x 17 paper
- 1:24,000 scale
- Geospatial PDF
Make a mapset of your entire route with two Portrait pages. Move the print windows over your route using the center red dot.
When you’re ready, select the “Generate PDF” button. Your map set will load in another new window, with the loading speed depending on your internet connection, number of pages, and underlying geographic data.
Save the PDF to your local device, so that you can print it at home or upload it to FedEx Office Online (my pick). Clients should submit their PDF to Classroom for review.
Leave a comment
- Where are you getting hung up, or what’s not clear?
- What other CalTopo functions — both basic and advanced — should be added to this assignment?