How to navigate || Part 2: Maps & resources

For my earliest hikes, I utilized whatever resources were conveniently available and that seemed sufficient. Before thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2002, for example, I purchased the ATC Data Book and downloaded the ALDHA Thru-Hikers Companion. And to explore Colorado’s Front Range the following summer, I bought a few National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps that covered the area.

But when I started adventuring off script — starting with the Sierra High Route, culminating with the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, and continuing with high routes of my own — I had to create some or all of these materials from scratch. Through this process, I developed what I believe to be an optimal system of maps and resources, which is the subject of this post.

This article was originally published four years ago, but I’ve updated it and grouped it with a multi-part series about the Navigator’s Toolkit, which will help readers with learning how to navigate. Read the full series:

My three standard map types: custom detailed maps on 11 x 17 paper, a commercial overview map, and digital maps and layers on a smartphone.

Topographic maps

I normally pack three types of topographic maps:

  1. A paper small-scale overview map,
  2. Paper large-scale detailed maps, and
  3. Digital maps (and sometimes additional imagery or data) on a smartphone.

Paper vs digital

The current generation of thru-hikers might consider me “old school” for my continued reliance on paper maps. But overall I think that they are functionally superior. They:

  • Offer a significantly larger viewing window: an 11 x 17 sheet has 187 square inches of topographic detail, or about 13 times more area than the screen on my Pixel 2 XL.
  • Can be written on, to make route notes and draw bearings;
  • Withstand impact, like when dropped or sat on;
  • Remain functional after being exposed to water, so long as a laser printer was used;
  • Do not require batteries or recharging;
  • Are more easily viewed by multiple people, like when discussing route choices.

I understand the appeal of digital maps, however. They don’t require a good printer or a trip to REI. A phone or handheld GPS is more pocket-table and less unwieldy. The mapping software can reliably pinpoint your location, and quickly calculate distance and vertical; and for a long trip, it’s also more cost-effective.

Printing tips

Elsewhere I have detailed my process and recommendations for exporting and printing custom maps. Read that now.

1. Paper overview maps

Overview maps normally have a scale of 1:50,000 to 1:100,000, meaning that one unit on the map (e.g. inch, centimeter, thumbnail) equals 50,000 or 100,000 units in the field. While planning a trip, I use these small-scale maps to:

  • Develop a general understanding of the landscape, including the main watersheds, the road system, and trail network;
  • Identify a general route, and potential alternates; and,
  • Work through logistics, like travel, permits, and resupply.
Several examples of overview maps. Commercial recreation maps are best since they are updated regularly and include more than just topographic data. When unavailable, I custom print USGS 30- x 60-minute or 250k map series on 11×17 paper (upper right).

In the field, overview maps are useful for pinpointing distant landmarks, mid-trip planning discussions, self-evacuations, and detours.

From Colby Pass in Sequoia-Kings Canyon, we were intrigued by a prominent peak on the north horizon. Using our Trails Illustrated overview map, we concluded that it was Mount Goddard, 30 miles away and still inside the park!

On its own, an overview map can be adequate for on-trail navigating. However, I’d caution against this: it’s a missed learning opportunity.

By definition, the topographic detail on a small-scale map is compressed, making it difficult to associate features on the map with features in the field, particularly subtle ones. If your map-reading skills are only so-so, trying to improve them using small-scale maps will generate limited results.

Making matters worse, popular overview maps do not use a standard scale or contour interval, so your brain must relearn this relationship with every new map. For example, the overview map I used in July of Yosemite National Park is printed at 1:80,000 and has 50-foot contour lines. Whereas the map I will use next month in Rocky Mountain National Park is printed at 1:50,000 with 50-foot contour lines, making the topography appear 37 percent less steep.

Also, these popular maps almost always have shaded relief. The shading causes features to stand out more, but plays tricks with your eyes when not viewed from the south side of the map and looking north.

A closeup reveals how much topographic detail is compressed onto these maps. The upper map of Utah is at a scale of 1:75,000, or more than 1 mile per inch; the lower map is 1:250,000, or 4 miles per inch. These maps are most useful when planning a trip, and may be sufficient in the field only for on-trail itineraries.
When a shaded relief map is viewed upside down, the shading can fool your eyes, making canyons look like ridgetops and mountains look like valleys. For field use, it’s better to use a map without shaded relif.

For an overview map, I prefer to use a commercial recreation map, such as from National Geographic Trails Illustrated, Tom Harrison, Green Trail Maps, or Beartooth Publishing, because they:

  • Are revised and updated regularly;
  • Conveniently include things like parking areas, backcountry campsite locations or zones, and services like permit office and visitors centers; and,
  • Encompass a specific area, like a National Park or Wilderness Area, where my entire trip will probably take place.

Individual recreation maps cost $10 to $15 and are available online and from local retailers. If you are Premium member of GaiaGPS ($30 per year), you can access the Trails Illustrated maps digitally (via the website or app); from the website, they can also be printed.

When recreation maps are not available, the next best option is to create your own. In CalTopo, another recommended platform, use the MapBuilder Topo layer. In GaiaGPS, the best layer is probably Gaia Topo, but it’s also worth looking at Mapbox Outdoors or Outdoors by Thunderforest,

A final option is purchase USGS 30- x 60-minute maps, which are at a scale of 1:100,000. Unfortunately, these maps are not updated regularly (many are 25+ years old) and they omit useful recreational details.

2. Paper detailed maps

At home, I rely on detailed maps to more precisely plan my route. In the field, I rely on them to navigate and to find campsites and water sources.

In the US, the gold standard for large-scale maps is the US Topo series, produced by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). US Topo is modeled after the pre-digital 7.5-minute quadrangles.

Each paper “quad” — of which there were about 55,000 — represented 7.5 minutes of latitude and 7.5 minutes of longitude. (In this instance, “minutes” are not in reference to time. The earth is divided into 360 degrees of longitude and 360 degrees of latitude. Within each degree, there are 60 minutes of lat and long, and within each minute there are 60 seconds.) This equated to about 8.5 miles of latitude (map height) and about 5.5 to 7.5 miles of longitude (map width), since the physical distance between lines of longitude decreases towards the poles.

Left: An original USGS 7.5-minute quadrangle. Right: A custom map based on the same map series, digitally annotated and exported to a print-ready 11×17 PDF using CalTopo.

The 7.5-minute quads and US Topo have a scale of 1:24,000. One inch on these maps equals 0.3788 miles, since there are 63,360 inches in one mile.

The most common contour interval is 40 feet. But the USGS was not always consistent in its units or contour intervals. For example, some parts of the High Sierra have 20-meter contours, while 80-foot contours were used in the Tetons and Glacier National Park.

The natural scale of 7.5-min quads is 1:24,000, so topographic detail is much clearer. This series is the gold standard for topographic maps in the US, and ideal for precise navigating.

Today, scans of the 7.5-minute maps can be accessed digitally, like through CalTopo (my pick) and GaiaGPS. A related product that is better for Forest Service lands, FS Topo, is also available through these platforms. The 7.5-minute scans and FS Topo layers can be exported out of CalTopo and Gaia into print-ready PDF’s.

An 11 x 17 tabloid print-out does not rival the beauty or quality of an original quad, however. To be nostalgic, purchase them directly from the USGS, or look for a wooden bureau with coin slot-style drawers at your local outdoor retailer.

Special circumstance: Alaska

The maps generally available for Alaska are different than those in the lower 48.

Recreation maps are increasingly available for Alaska, particularly the National Parks. For areas where they are not available, make your own in CalTopo or Gaia, or track down the beautiful 1- x 2-minute series that are printed at a 1:250,000 scale with 250-foot contours.

The US Topo layer is increasingly available for Alaska, but I still prefer to use scans of the older 15-minute quads, which are printed at a scale of 1:63,360 and normally have 100-foot contour lines. A lot of topography hides in these maps, but the Alaskan landscape is so huge that the scale and contour interval is more becoming of it. The incredible detail of the standard 1:24k/40-foot series undermines its usefulness.

Read the comment from Roman Dial for additional perspective on maps in Alaska.

3. Digital maps

As a backup and a supplement to my paper maps, I also load digital maps onto a smartphone (my pick) or GPS unit, and sometimes other layers, too, like Landsat imagery and properly boundaries.

If I lose my paper maps or if I get way off route, digital maps become invaluable. Both instances happen. I’ve found other people’s maps, and I’ve had clients lose their maps. And on one of my first guided trips, we bailed out of the Alaska Range and ended up 100 miles away from our intended exit point, way off both our overview and detailed maps.

Digital maps have inherent value, not even accounting for the powerful software that accompanies them and that I will discuss more in Part 3 of this series.

A screenshot of the 7.5-minute layer, as seen in the GaiaGPS app


In addition topographic maps, I also like to have two other items.

Route description

A route description is useful for providing general information about a route (or a section of it), interesting historical and scientific knowledge, personal anecdotes from the author, and in-depth explanations of tricky sections. I tend to get annoyed by wordy descriptions containing information that is obviously and more efficiently conveyed by a topographic map.

While preparing for routes for which no route description was publicly available, I have made my own. In these DIY guidebooks, I consolidate bits of information from email and phone conversations, online forums and trip reports, land manager websites, and my travel reservations. I have learned to copy the content verbatim, because it’s full meaning often can only be interpreted once in the field.


A datasheet is a list of key landmarks (e.g., intersections, passes, creek crossings, shelters), usually at least with the incremental and cumulative distance between them. In my high route guides, I also include vertical change because it’s more revealing than horizontal distance.

A datasheet it not useful for a spontaneous itinerary, because you’ll be off it after an intersection or two. But it’s extremely convenient for established trails and routes, like a long-distance trail. With a datasheet I can quickly:

  • Dead-reckon to future landmarks;
  • Identify realistic camping areas for the night or future nights; and,
  • Determine if I’m ahead or behind pace.

The information on a datasheet can be calculated manually, at home or in the field, for between two points or between many points. But digital measuring tools in CalTopo and GaiaGPS will yield more accurate data and make much quicker calculations.

Datasheets can be reconfigured into other quick-reference lists, such as of:

  • Water sources in an arid area;
  • Resupply points on a thru-hike;
  • Designated campsites.
An example datasheet (left) and route description (right)


To keep my maps and resources clean, crisp, and dry, I keep them in a gallon-sized freezer bag. I carry two bags:

One bag is for materials that I’m using right now or will be using soon, like before the end of the day, and possibly before a long break when I would have the chance to resort things. I keep this bag free of clutter — the more that’s in it, the less accessible things are — and I store it in a secure but easily accessible location, like a dedicated side pocket on my backpack.

The other bag is for materials that are not presently in use, as well as other paperwork like my backcountry permit and sometimes some writing paper. I try to compartmentalize maps and resources that I have already used, so that I don’t waste time looking through them for my “next” map. I store this bag inside my pack, usually sandwiched between the pack liner and the pack body fabric.

Gallon-sized freezer bags are tough and inexpensive, and they fit perfectly my 11 x 17 maps after their half-inch margins have been removed and they’ve been folded in half. For trips longer than about 5 days, I will take a third bag so that I have a fresh and clear bag for the second half of the trip.

Leave a comment!

  • What types of maps do you carry?
  • Do you prefer paper or digital maps?
  • How does the length and difficulty of your trip affect your choices?
Posted in on August 23, 2019


  1. Daniel on April 8, 2015 at 4:00 am

    During a scrub bash in Tasmania last year, I surprised at how well the iPhone 5 performed using Gps Gaia, I had an Etrex 20 and my friend had the iPhone with a planned route onboard, The iPhone didn’t miss a beat, it was on track for the whole day, great bit of kit.

    • David on January 25, 2019 at 7:05 pm

      I’m just getting into backpacking so I am trying to get some ideas together. Thank you for your help and insight into the maps. It has been very helpful for me.

    • Dean on September 2, 2019 at 4:47 pm

      I use my Gaia app all the time for mapping trails. Its a battery hog though.

  2. boilerbugle on April 8, 2015 at 9:04 am

    How many detailed maps do you carry on a week long trip? With the scale of the detailed maps, seems like you could end up having 10-15 of them for a 6 day trip.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 8, 2015 at 9:23 am

      The number of maps I need per time (e.g. day, week) really depends on how miles per day I am hiking and the shape of the route — straight or zig-zagging, and point-to-point, lollypop, or loop.

      Some examples from my guided trips, which are extensively off-trail:
      Low intensity 3-day trips: 1 map
      Moderate intensity 5-day trips: 3 maps:
      High intensity 7-day trips: 6-7 maps
      Very high intensity 7-day trips: 8-9 maps

      And then a personal trip from last year: I burned through 13 maps with two very fit friends on a 5-day trip.

      The question is nearly irrelevant, however. If you need to navigate precisely, you need good maps, i.e. large-scale maps like the 7.5-min series. If you try to save printing expensive or paper weight by using a small-scale map, you will spend the entire trip wondering where the f— you are, because those maps do not have the detail to pinpoint your location.

      • boilerbugle on April 8, 2015 at 1:27 pm

        Thanks for the response. Makes total sense, I asked the question because idea of having 13 or even 7 pieces of paper to keep track of on a trip feels a little overwhelming. But getting lost or not being able to find a way out in an emergency would be much more so, obviously.

        • Andrew Skurka on April 8, 2015 at 2:41 pm

          Quick tip: I store all of the maps that I won’t need today in a separate gallon-sized plastic bag inside my pack. Only the maps I need today are on my person or in the side pocket of my pack.

          Also, I should have added something to my last response. The size of the landscape has a big effect on the usefulness of a map. In a place like Alaska, where gravel-filled valleys can be several miles wide and where there is huge topographic relief (the second highest peak in North America, Mt St Elias, is just 12 miles from the ocean), a 7.5-min map with 40-foot contours isn’t very useful because it’s actually too detailed. The most detailed series up there is the 15-min maps, which are 1:62,500 scale and have 100-foot contours. In the lower 48, a big landscape like the High Sierra is also well served by 15-min maps, though this series was discontinued a long time ago; but the Appalachian Mountains really need 7.5-min maps because there are lots of smaller ridges and valleys.

          • Dogwood on September 10, 2016 at 9:28 pm

            Plastic sheet protectors enclosed on three sides with a rigid 1/4″ top flap work well for keeping maps. They come in the 8.5″ X 1″ and 11″ X 17″ size and different wts.

            So many great navigation tips. Thx to all, most of all Andrew for communicating clearly his knowledge.

  3. Andrew on April 8, 2015 at 11:13 am

    Do you think there should be a wider use of the metric system for mapping in the United States? As I read your piece about how many inches and feet in a mile, I became concerned that I would never be able to do these calculations and conversions on the fly while navigating a route. Granted, inches and miles were not what I grew up with, so I have a harder time working with them. But for those of us who are less mathematically-inclined, I feel the metric system is easier to work with, especially with maps, which could make the difference between becoming lost or remaining “found.” On a recent trip in the mountains of California, I encountered several locals who were struggling with the conversions from map distance to ground distance. They kept having to remind themselves “how many inches in a mile?” And so on. Thoughts?

    • Andrew Skurka on April 8, 2015 at 11:22 am

      I think that most people would agree that metric is much more intuitive than imperial. But conversion is pretty disruptive — think about how many Mile Marker posts there are on US highways, and how many 5/16-inch bolts there are in an American car.

      So let’s assume that imperial is here to stay.

      To measure distances on the map, you can use the scale that is printed at its bottom (unless you cut that off in order to save weight), or you can use the scale-adjusted ruler on your compass. I wonder why exactly the backpackers you saw you struggling: Was it because they were inexperienced navigators, or because they were struggling with imperial units? I suspect it’s probably more the former than the latter, since measuring distances on imperial maps becomes second-nature for anyone who has done it a bit.

  4. Outtherekids on April 8, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    How about printing on tyvek? Have you ever considered this option? Water- and tear proof, tyvek maps are excellent imho!

    • Andrew Skurka on April 8, 2015 at 2:34 pm

      If you want really durable maps, I suppose this would be an option. However:

      1. Does Tyvek have a fibrous texture? If so, would this adversely affect the printing solution?
      2. My local FedEx does not offer Tyvek paper, as far as I know.
      3. I don’t need waterproof or durable maps. I protect them in a gallons-sized plastic bag, which works really well. And on personal trips I burn through a few maps a day, and 24-lb laser paper is plenty fine for this.

      • Outtherekids on April 12, 2015 at 1:55 pm

        1. Well, yes Tyvek is fibrous, but there is a special Tyvek paper that is designed for being printed on and it has a smooth texture. (Another option is Xerox Nevertear, and there are several others.) The tyvek maps we own all have perfect resolution.

        3. I get your point. Nonetheless, there are application areas where Tyvek (or similar) maps might be very useful to many people. I really like not having another plastic layer between my eyes and the map. The tyvek maps we use are all overview maps at 1:50,000 or 1:100,000, covering areas that we keep coming back to, so it is quite useful to us that they can take a lot of abuse.

  5. Dirk on April 8, 2015 at 9:13 pm

    I really wish the National Geographic Topo! series was still being made and distributed on DVD. I really enjoyed that software and printing maps at home. There are other tools online that do similar things, I just found the National Geographic interface to be pretty easy to use and helpful.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 8, 2015 at 10:45 pm

      CalTopo does everything that TOPO! did plus much more, and it is always improving. I never use TOPO! anymore, never.

    • Herb on May 13, 2015 at 3:45 am

      I purchased a pack of the NatGeo adventure paper and print a thome using Theyve had a recent update and the selectable layers is pretty fantastic. The website is a great planning tool as well.

      For most of my use, i’ve found you cant beat the TrailsIllustrated maps when available.

      • Andrew Skurka on May 13, 2015 at 6:13 am

        Can you define, “for my use”? I find that TI maps are adequate for trail hiking only, and even then it is often difficult to determine a precise location or to be confident in the small details of your immediate surroundings.

  6. Cameron N. on April 8, 2015 at 10:05 pm

    I recently discovered I was trying to print some maps out at the library and couldn’t quite get the specs right, but that could be that the library printers are pretty archaic. It seems like a pretty decent tool though.

    • James Taylor on April 9, 2015 at 11:22 am

      +1 for It’s not quite as useful for printing as Caltopo, but it has one very useful feature: the ability to split the screen between two different views of the same area (think satellite imagery right next to topo imagery). As you scroll one view, the other follows right along. Advance use of this site can prevent the type of uncertainty Andrew mentioned with the glacier being mapped incorrectly, as you can quickly compare your chosen topo data with more up-to-date satellite imagery for key navigational points on the route. It’s also useful to easily envision what the terrain will look like as you trace along your route on the topo.

  7. Brett Hinton on April 9, 2015 at 11:45 am

    I have used the Trimble Outdoors Navigator App which uses maps from MyTopo (I think they use the USGS 7.5 minute maps). Have you ever looked at that app versus Gaia? They also allow custom printing maps from them at home (so it would be compatible with printing from FedEx). The interface seems to be nicer than Caltopo (which I had never heard of), but probably not as flexible.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 9, 2015 at 12:14 pm

      I have not done a comparative analysis on mapping apps. Since I use Gaia as a backup-only resource and since it does everything that I need it to, I stopped my search there.

    • Andrew Johnson on April 13, 2016 at 9:20 pm

      @brett hinton, the Trimble apps were all “sunset” a couple of weeks ago: We’ve been fielding all sorts of happy converts/refugees, who like the app a lot. I’m one of the Gaia GPS founders/developers.

      Once upon a time we used the MyTopo apps in Gaia GPS too, but I think the CalTopo compilation is the best USGS topo set, maybe ever created? You can compare the CalTopo maps on to your old Trimble app, and see what you think.

  8. Dave F on April 9, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    If you spend a lot of time in one park or area, it can be useful to see if there are any apps dedicated to that particular park. Obviously that’s not as scalable as having an app that can download USGS maps for any location, but it can have the advantage of more frequent map updates than what you get through USGS. Since Shenandoah National Park is only a 2 hour drive for me, most of my shorter weekend trips are there. The PATC Shenandoah app (listed under “International Mapping” in the iTunes store) is great and not only has the more detailed park maps (i.e. with shelters, trail names, points of interest, etc) but has the ability to create routes and access a lot of the park-specific information you typically find on the back of those maps. The same company has one for Yosemite (called “Tom Harrison: Yosemite High Country 2012”) which was really useful when hiking off trail between Mt. Lyell and Ireland lake.

    I think that for extensive off-trail travel over longer distances, the more generic apps are better suited since they’re not constrained to things like park boundaries, but if you’re spending a week hiking around a specific trail system (especially within the confines of a park) I think the park-specific apps are pretty handy, and they’re usually cheap.

    The tradeoff is that since people use National Parks for other things besides backpacking, there are apps out there that are park-specific but worthless for that pursuit. National Geographic has an app called “Park Guides” which lets you “buy” individual parks, but the maps are nothing more than generic Google earth images. So, it can be hit or miss.

  9. Mercedes Clemens on April 9, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    Great idea re printing out on tabloid paper at FedEx, thank you! Also, I was able to find a 30% off coupon at RetailMeNot (I googled “Fedex office coupon”), which really dropped the price. I’m looking forward to picking up my maps tomorrow! Looks like there are often coupons for online printing at FedEx.

  10. Vadim Fedorovsky on April 13, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    Andrew thank you for an amazing post which really clarified a lot for me. I finally fully understand the importance/significance of 7.5 minute maps now!

    One suggestion. You write: “The 7.5-minute quads are printed at a 1:24,000 scale, meaning that one unit on the map (e.g. one inch) equals 24,000 units in real life. For context, there are 63,360 inches in one mile (5280 feet per mile, 12 inches per mile) so one inch on the 7.5-minute maps equals 0.3788 miles.”

    I understood what you were saying but it was confusing at first because of your use of the word ‘units’ after 24,000. Saying “…equals 24,000 INCHES in real life. For context, there are 63,360 inches…” would be clearer.

    Is not a big deal but I think this correction would make what you are saying easier to understand quickly.

    • Jim Cushing on August 6, 2015 at 9:13 pm


      It doesn’t matter which units you use, the scale is still 1:24,000. One inch on the map equals 24,000 inches in real life. Likewise, one centimeter on the map equals 24,000 centimeters in real life. Whatever the unit—inches, centimeter, feet, etc.—this ratio holds true.

  11. PaulW on April 14, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    Very helpful article. Thanks!
    Can you recommend any specific models of phones that work well for backcountry GPS? The cheapo phone I use requires a cell signal for any location reporting.

  12. Neal Watson on April 16, 2015 at 10:53 am

    What I have been using is a GIS program called ArcMap by ESRI. It’s likely too expensive to be used solely for this purpose, but I have access to it through work. (There is a cheaper version, I believe.) It has nearly limitless options for mapmaking, and has a free USGS plugin that seamlessly stitches together all of the latest USGS topo maps. It also makes it easy to do any custom scale, and I add a scale bar to my maps to make it particularly easy.

    I hadn’t thought of getting them printed at FedEx. I’ve just been printing them on my inkjet, and keeping them sealed in freezer bags. I’ll definitely take the fedex route for my next trip.

  13. Jason Weddle on April 17, 2015 at 2:48 am

    Andrew, Thank you very much for posting this. This is very helpful. I’m always trying to find maps and I was not aware of CalTopo. Awesome, awesome. Thank you.

  14. Sam H on April 17, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    +1 on caltopo, Andy. Just an amazing free/donation resource. Also nice to see a photo of your copy of the Beartooth Publishing maps – such a superb map-maker. My other go-to resources are Google Earth (not for map making, but research), and which is excellent for converting files to various types.

  15. John K on April 28, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    I was curious about what app you’re using in the photo with the concentric circles measuring distance. The caption says you used it to resolve some confusion about your position near a glacier. The file name for that photo indicates it’s Gaia GPS. But when I looked it up, that appears to be incorrect. It looks like the app in the photo is instead called Topo Maps, by Phil Endecott.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 28, 2015 at 9:54 pm

      I’ll have to ask my assistant guide, Alan Dixon — it is a photo of his phone. I know he is a dedicated Gaia GPS user (we just spent 15 days together in southern UT, and we’re going out in the morning for another 6) and I assumed that was the case here; I’m on Android so I didn’t think much about the difference the tools or UI shown in this photo. But perhaps he was experimenting with other programs when that photo was taken in 2013.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 28, 2015 at 9:54 pm

      I’ll have to ask my assistant guide, Alan Dixon — it is a photo of his phone. I know he is a dedicated Gaia GPS user (we just spent 15 days together in southern UT, and we’re going out in the morning for another 6) and I assumed that was the case here; I’m on Android so I didn’t think much about the difference the tools or UI shown in this photo. But perhaps he was experimenting with other programs when that photo was taken in 2013.

  16. Jim Skidmore on May 7, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    I just want to chime in as well and say thanks for this post. I own your book, but I never followed up on the method described in it because I don’t own TOPO! I’m headed out on a week-long, mostly off-trail trip in Grand Canyon soon, so a couple of weeks ago I followed your instructions here. I’m usually clumsy with these things, so I expected to have trouble. I was pleasantly surprised with how easy CalTopo was to use, and I am impressed with the quality of the color maps. For $4 and change, I have 4 11″ x 17″ maps at 1:24,000 to cover my route (a lollipop). So a huge thanks for this tip!

  17. Maeglin on July 4, 2015 at 12:28 am

    Right in the Rain makes printer paper. I have tried the (white) 8.5×11″ recently, but you are correct, there is too little detail in the printed maps.

    I see that they sell 11×17″ colored pages (tactical).

  18. Brad on July 7, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    I am trying to print 11 x 17 using FedEx online. There is nowhere that indicates paper size. Does the site detect the native size of the file automatically?

    • Andrew Skurka on July 17, 2015 at 4:25 pm

      Yes, it detects paper size.

  19. ilgar on August 8, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    I recently started using my smartphone instead of a GPS.

    My first app is the free Avenza PDF Maps. It takes PDF maps which are specifically designed (GIS/geospatial) to be interactive and lets the user view GPS location, record GPS tracks, add placemarks, and find places.

  20. Bob S. on August 23, 2016 at 7:20 pm

    Hiya Andrew,

    I have to work miles off roads and trails so I routinely include aerial/satellite imagery, hybrid maps, and elevation profiles of routes in my map packet. I also make sure I have digital versions of maps and imagery for my GPS, smartphone and inReach Explorer plus the GPX/KML files loaded onto every device because we all know what can happen sometimes.

    When I’m planning my routes I cross-reference multiple sources and use high resolution imagery because beaver ponds and ephemeral features might not be indicated on a topo map. Looking at multiple sources and historical data could mean the difference between a relatively short workday and an unexpected ‘camping trip’ for me.

    But anyways, I thought I would share this with everyone as it is simple and free. If you follow this link:

    Then click on the ‘View On Google Earth’ button at the top of the page you will be prompted to save a KML file. Save the file then open it in Google Earth and you will get a seamless USGS topo map for the entire USA layered over the the aerial imagery. Save the KML file to ‘My Places’ in Google Earth and you can toggle the map on and of or adjust the layer opacity to view the topo map and satellite imagery together. There are instruction and other useful tools on the website as well.

    Hope you found this useful!

  21. Leland on October 13, 2016 at 8:04 pm

    Hi Andrew. Thanks for the information. I’ve been considering replacing my GPS unit by using my new smartphone, and this is helpful, especially the app and battery use information.

    FYI, I notice you’re using the terms “large-scale” and “small-scale” backwards. This is an easy mistake to make, since overview maps cover a large area, so you might think they are larger “scale” than detail maps. But the standard terminology is the reverse – the detail map shows each area of the ground larger, in more detail, and so the detail maps are large-scale; and the overview maps, where features appear smaller, are small-scale. As a reference see this Wikipedia article, which explains it in terms of scale fractions (1/24,000 is a larger fraction than 1/500,000, etc.):

    • Andrew Skurka on October 14, 2016 at 8:05 am

      Thanks for the edit. I’ve looked this up before for clarification, but must have re-reversed the relationship at some point.

  22. Tim on November 10, 2016 at 2:24 am

    Hey Andrew,

    For some years now, I’ve have taken a GPS on my Grand Canyon backpacking trips. It is more for the fun of plotting the route out on a map and the nostalgia of recalling trip details. I always bring along printed maps and a compass. My “go to” GPS has been a Garmin GPSmap 60 CSx (Sirfstar chipset). On my next trip, I am planning to use the GPS on my Android phone (Note4 with Broadcom BCM47531 GPS/GNSS receiver) to record the trip with the OruxMaps app (offline Open Andro maps). The GPS on my Note4 seems as accurate (and less jumpy) as my Garmin where I live at 1000 ft. Not sure how well it will track in deep canyons. The touch screen and bigger display is a plus. Battery usage on my Note4 with the GPS on is good, dropping from 100% to 87% on a 12.5 mile hike. To conserve on battery, it is in airplane mode with wifi and blue tooth off, and location services just using the GPS. I would bring a USB Power Bank to keep the phone battery topped off. Also, my phone allows for a battery change and I have a couple of spares.

    One concern is that my Android is less durable than my Garmin so I want to find a way to tether my phone to a very thin cord (perhaps secured around my neck). The tether would just be there to break a fall.

    Has your phone GPS worked well in deeper canyons?

    Cheers … Tim

    • Andrew Skurka on November 10, 2016 at 6:48 am

      My phone, an older Nexus 5, does not have a reliable GPS, so I only use it sparingly. Plus, I have a Suunto Ambit GPS watch that records a good track for me. Hard to say how yours will work in the GC. If you are hiking the Tonto Trail or similar, it’ll probably be fine. But if you are in a slot, I would expect it to jump around.

  23. Bill on March 10, 2017 at 8:25 pm

    Hi Andrew …thanks for all the great research and sharing your hard won knowledge!!

    Did you ever get to speak with your assistant guide Alan to see what program he was using on his phone in the picture …the interface looks cool!!

    I use Gaia with my iPhone now and will never go back to using the clunky and expensive garmin …which I am planning g on selling on ebay asap!!

    Many thanks

    • Andrew Skurka on March 10, 2017 at 8:33 pm

      That is Gaia, circa 2014.

  24. krpt on August 17, 2017 at 4:30 am

    Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for sharing your experience,
    What’s your preferred way to store the printed maps for quick access and elements protection during the day?


    • Andrew Skurka on August 17, 2017 at 6:33 am

      Two one gallon freezer bags. Keep current resources in one and keep it accessible, future or last resources in the other and store it inside the pack.

      • Adam on January 28, 2020 at 6:04 pm

        I’m curious what you mean by accessible. Where exactly is it stored? Pants pocket? Hipbelt pocket? Side pocket of pack? Special pouch?

        Also, do you ever write on your map in the field?

  25. Basil Newburn on August 29, 2017 at 1:28 am

    Andrew, do you have a post describing your notation system for mapping? I haven’t been able to find it yet. I downloaded one of your sample maps and would love to know more about how you organize and label markers, waypoints, observations, etc., both at home and in the field. Periodically plotting progress in the field can help make sure you continue to know where you are, while also capturing data such as speed through terrain. And taking geo-situated notes enriches recollections of the experience and provides useful beta for the future.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 29, 2017 at 9:39 am

      I have not written a post like that.

      When I develop my guides, I create points at important, distinguishable, and must-walk-past landmarks like passes, lake outlets, and trail junctions. Then in a spreadsheet I enter key information about the terrain between points, e.g. distance, vert up, vert down, vert per mile. When I take these resources into the field, I essentially hike from point to point.

      Also on the maps, I’ll annotate relevant notes, such as where there may be a good game trail, if there is a high-water hazard, or where the terrain may have changed since the area was mapped (e.g. receding glacier, eroding coastline, shifted river braids).

      • Basil Newburn on August 29, 2017 at 1:27 pm

        Cool, thanks Andrew. Would you also be willing to describe your system of colors and alphanumeric waypoint names for mapping? As a pilot and sailor I like to be organized with my navigation systems but I haven’t worked out a full charting system yet for backpacking (and it’s pretty obvious that you have). Following trails is too easy to need it- I’ve done some off-trail cross-country stuff but am eager for a lot more. I have been loving Gaia on our big iPad and am now starting to learn Caltopo. Amazing tools we have today.

        A couple years ago my wife and I did the Long Range Traverse in Newfoundland- a cool hike. It is all “off-trail” but there is a worn footpath in many places, assuming you can keep yourself on target. (Parks Canada actually makes you pass a navigation exam before issuing you a permit.) I started plotting our position and time when we would take little navigation breaks to keep track of where we were. Occasionally I pulled out Gaia on my phone just to double-check my map-and-compass work – it’s a place where rolling hills and remote lakes can start to look similar.

        I could share some info on marine plotting if you’d be interested. There is a well-established system of maintaining navigation logs, both in a book and on the chart, similar to what you do in your planning and in the field. Flying is similar but things are moving much faster so pilots don’t often update logs in the air. They’re both pretty GPS-intensive now because you have full mechanized systems supporting the devices, compared with backpacking in which I–like you–prefer map-and-compass and consider GPS to be a backup.

        Anyway, FYI from one enthusiast to another. Really appreciate all that you are willing to share with your fans.

  26. Shawn K. on December 24, 2017 at 8:44 am

    Andrew, do you have any experience with dedicated GPS data loggers? I was looking for a more power efficient way to create tracks for geotagging my photos, and I believe a data logger may be a great tool to use in conjunction with paper maps and Gaia.

    My plan is to use Gaia for route planning & printing, with map tiles downloaded to my phone, which I’ll leave off in my pack. I prefer keeping a map at hand for quick reference on the trail, but if I get turned around, I can power up my phone for a fix. If needed, I can transfer my complete track from the data logger to my phone in the field, too. I can also use the data logger to mark waypoints, and to record trail notes while on the move.

    I haven’t read of a data logger being used in this way, but I’m sure someone has by now. The model I bought weighs 55g, logs for a week on a charge, and it’s pretty cheap, too. If it integrates well with Gaia, it seems like a good, lightweight option for creating GPS tracks that are useable in the field.

  27. Mike G. on August 26, 2019 at 8:05 am

    Hey Andrew,

    Do you have a preferred grid overlay for your paper maps? Lat/Long, UTM, etc.

    I use Gaia to print my maps and they have several different grid overlays and wondered if you found one more helpful/hurtful than another.

    Thanks for all the great info!

    • Andrew Skurka on August 26, 2019 at 8:47 am

      Good question. I don’t add a grid overlay. A few reasons for that: It steals space from the map; I rarely want a grid; and playing “Battleship” is really no longer necessary when you have a GPS unit with maps.

      I’ve considered adding a grid for the maps for my guided trips, because it’s useful to clients when they are finding or transposing bearings on the map. But the margins are never too far away, and eye-balling it usually gets you close enough.

      • Brad Pade on August 26, 2021 at 3:32 pm

        I have a GPS watch that displays UTM at all times while I’m hiking. I find I can go from that using the Battleship method to my exact spot on the map without having to get out my phone. It’s a pretty good time saver.

  28. Roman Dial on August 26, 2019 at 10:54 am


    A quick scan shows that nobody else mentioned this, and as an Alaskan adventurer and professor of mathematics (and biology), I felt compelled to point out that Alaska’s “15 minute maps” were never printed at the 1:62,500 scale of the Lower 48 maps but actually at one inch to one mile, or 1:63,360 (because 1 mile x 5280 feet/mile x 12 inches/foot = 63,360 inches). They have a grid of one-inch = one-mile squares printed on them that make a handy distance estimator (think back to calculus).

    Another common misconception regards the 1:250,000 scale Alaska quadrangles (commonly called “quads”): they nearly all have a grid of squares printed on them also as seen in this blog post’s banner image. For some reason, many people think those are five-mile-sided squares; they are not! They are 10 kilometer squares, which as most know is equivalent to about 6 mile squares.

    Anyway, I am with you on the overview maps. In Alaska where a lot of travel is in broad valleys the bigger perspective is easier to navigate with than the 1:63,360 scale, where I often get lost in detail that is not apparent from the view while walking or packrafting. Besides, it’s nice to say, “we are here” and put your finger on the map where a finger covers about one or two square miles, as you can be pretty confident that you are in that area.

    I rarely take the 1:63,360 scale, except for technical passes and canyons. I would simply need too many. Even a 300 mile east-west trip in the Brooks Range will need about four or even five quads. Multiply that by five or six to carry all the 1:63,360 and weight adds up.

    For recreation, I advocate e-free travel. Leave the GPS, the InReach, the phone and the whole digital array at home, where it pretty much dominates our life.

    It’s nice to get away into nature, without the burden of electrons once in a while, right?

    • Andrew Skurka on August 26, 2019 at 11:39 am

      Thanks for clarifying the 15-minute scale in Alaska. I’ve used those maps a lot, but never seen an actual quad with a scale printed on it — I’ve always exported them out of NG TOPO! and now CalTopo. And I’d always assumed that they shared the same 62,500 of the lower 48. I was a little confused by this, however, when I was looking at AK maps in the USGS store that were indicating 1:63,360 scale, I thought maybe those were just an anomaly.

  29. Mindaugas on August 29, 2019 at 9:03 am

    If it’s raining and you need to change your maps that are in the freezer bag, they will get wet. How do you deal with that?

    • Andrew Skurka on August 29, 2019 at 9:13 am

      1. Plan ahead.
      2. Hover over your maps as you are swapping them out.

      Getting your maps wet or damp is not ideal but not the end of the world. For my Moderate groups (average fitness below 40, above-average for 40+) I assume one 11 x 17 sheet per day at 24k scale. So even if your map gets wet, you’ll have a fresh map tmrw. For someone who is more physically fit, they will go through two or three maps per day.

      • Mindaugas on August 29, 2019 at 10:33 am

        On my trips I use 2-4 maps (A4 (8.27 × 11.69 inches), 1:50,000 scale) per day in mountainous area. If I swap them during the rain they all will get damp from my wet hands or rain. So I put every single sheet of map into plastic sheet protectors and seal them.
        I was thinking about using your way (because it’s simpler and consumes less time at home preparation), but was worried about getting maps wet. But you are very experienced backpacker and that means that your method works. As you say, damp maps is not the end of the world.

  30. Eric B. on January 28, 2020 at 3:25 pm

    Your note about how paper maps give the “big picture” of your route v.s. thermal screen of a GPS is exactly right.
    Even in a car with built-in GPS paper maps can show alternative routes and points of interest that are tough to find, if you can find them, at all, on a GPS screen.

  31. John Gillespie on February 18, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    Any experience using Benchmark landscape maps? Detailed though non-topographical, they might work well as small-scale, overview maps. I find their appeal is in their price and scope, roughly $20 per state atlas with every Western state and even Alaska included in their catalog. Just haven’t put them to the test yet.

    • Andrew Skurka on February 18, 2020 at 4:48 pm

      Have seen them in stores but have never used one. They remind me of the DeLorme Gazetteers.

      From what I can tell online, these maps don’t have enough detail to serve as overview maps. Trails are missing, and there is no topographic detail. I’d be intimidated at the prospect of bailing off my intended route using one of these, and there’s enough detail to plot out a general route.

      • John Gillespie on February 18, 2020 at 7:29 pm

        Thank you for the insight. Yea, I suppose they are more like a 3rd level map, best used pre-trip.

  32. Thales Ferreira on April 23, 2020 at 9:36 pm

    Regarding the orientation of the paper you always use Portrait or using Landscape depends of the trail?

    • Andrew Skurka on April 23, 2020 at 9:42 pm

      Depends on the orientation of the route. Usually I try to have a little bit of overlap between maps, and then try to minimize paper use.

  33. Brian on May 20, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    Hey Andrew, when printing maps on GAIA from a PC how are you ensuring that you have an accurate scale relative to the standard Mercator projection given that the website is in web Mercator projection? For instance, if I am dialed in at 2,000 ft on the web map; I do not believe that equates to a 1:24,000 commercially produced map.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 20, 2020 at 2:32 pm

      I don’t use Gaia to print my maps. (I use CalTopo). Maybe someone else can chime in.

  34. Andrew Purdam on June 26, 2020 at 5:32 am

    Andrew, I just noticed you mentioned 360 degrees of latitude.
    Don’t you mean 180? 90 South to 90 North?

    • Andrew Skurka on June 26, 2020 at 9:51 am

      Way to pay attention. Yes, 180 degrees of latitude.

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