Assignment: Create a topographic mapset with CalTopo

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 Knowledge Base 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 6-month PRO subscription, and redemption details are shared in Classroom. Thanks, Matt.

To complete this assignment as written, a BASIC 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.

Once imported, you will see part of two potential loop itineraries in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which is in my backyard:

  1. Pawnee-Buchanan Loop (aka Double Bypass), a 28-mile classic among trail runners and backpackers; and,
  2. 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.
After importing the file, your screen should look like this, except maybe for a different map layer.

2. Saving your work

In the upper-left panel, select “Save this map”.

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.

Save the map to your account. 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 the upper-right corner of the screen.

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.

4. Objects

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 Add button in the top menu;
  • A left-click or right-click will generate a sub-menu; or,
  • Use the pencil icon in the left pane.

4a. Lines

In this step you’ll learn to draw, extend, and join Lines. These keyboard/click tips will help:

  • Click 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.
  • 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.

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.

Vertical profile for the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop

4c. Markers

Add a new Marker where you expect to camp each night. Specifically, use the “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.

4d. Folders

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, “Lines & Polygons,” which will make its objects disappear, both on your current screen and in the upcoming print-view. For actual field use, you might want your Lines on the map, 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

Select “Print” from the top menu 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.

The print-view. My settings are correct, but my map is incomplete.

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?
Posted in on March 18, 2020


  1. Jason on March 18, 2020 at 1:01 pm

    Here’s my latest CalTopo rabbithole shytshow, haha

  2. Randy on March 19, 2020 at 7:34 am

    Good assignment. I’m sure there are others, but a while back I found this guy’s overview and tutorials to be a great intro to CalTopo:

    Part 1:
    Part 2:

  3. Dana L on March 26, 2020 at 2:07 pm

    I’d love to learn more about methods to search for gpx tracks in a given area of interest (using Gaia and/or Caltopo public tracks), and how to integrate them into your own Caltopo project.

    I’ve also had problems with exporting Caltopo maps into Gaia. I haven’t tried the CalTopo mobile app yet. This issue arises in scenarios where I want to download multiple gpx tracks for the same area. It is easy enough to give each track a different name and color in CalTopo, but when I download the tracks in Gaia, that information doesn’t seem to translate– colors are switched and names of the tracks are hard to identify. Not sure if there is a solution to this problem.

  4. Bill on April 7, 2020 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks you for this practice set. Really helped to add to my basic CalTopo skills. Wondering whether the profiles that can be displayed can also be printed on our maps. Would be a nice navigation support feature for to highlight elevation and mileage together with the map set especially for cross country travel. Thanks again for how much you are willing to share with us.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 7, 2020 at 4:22 pm

      You can print the vertical profile separately, but it cannot be overlaid atop a map.

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