Exporting & printing topographical maps from digital sources

A custom-made mapset and databook for the Wind River High Route

A custom-made mapset and databook for the Wind River High Route

Today we’re fortunate to have excellent online mapping platforms like CalTopo, HillmapGaiaGPS, 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.

Posted in on July 24, 2015


  1. LukeD on July 24, 2015 at 7:57 am

    Local libraries also have good printing options (BW is free where I live; color is .50/page). Hillmap has a good feature where you can layer sat photos and topo with differing opacity (maybe Caltopo has this too?). Definitely has come in handy a few times where key navigational landmarks weren’t big enough to feature on a USGS quad.

  2. katherine on July 26, 2015 at 11:36 pm

    8.5 x 11 vs 11 x 17:

    I’ve been using caltopo > FedEx office for recent trips. Love it. For me, for *on-trail* travel, I’ve found the 8.5 x 11 size promotes more frequent map checks because I can fold it in quarters and fit it easily in a hip belt. For the most recent trip, I had FedEx do double sided. Then I keep the big picture map in the side pocket for when I need the overview.

    Granted, if I hiked as fast as you I’d breeze through that size too quickly!

  3. Sam Alter on July 27, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    I’ve been playing around with Caltopo and like it’s simple interface. Next trip I’m definitely going to use this site. Thanks for the post.

  4. Bill on February 15, 2016 at 8:36 am

    I have an ink jet printer that will handle 11 X 17 paper, but I’m not that comfortable with ink jet prints on plain paper. I have printed maps on plain paper and sealed them with Krylon Crystal Clear spray. This works well enough, but makes the paper much stiffer. I do have a local printer who can print much larger sizes, but I haven’t spoken to them about printing durable maps. I would think that maps printed with a color laser printer would be more durable, but I don’t have one and don’t know. Beyond paper weight, do you have any thoughts on paper and inks?

    • Andrew Skurka on February 16, 2016 at 3:22 pm

      Unless I need just a map or two for a casual trip, I always have my local FedEx Office print my maps. Their laser printing is higher quality than what I can do at home, and it’s less susceptible to moisture. I don’t go crazy with map durability — for about $1.25 per 11×17 print, it’s worth it to me to have fresh maps for each trip I do.

      • Joe Tittiger on July 4, 2019 at 10:08 pm

        My local prices in 2019 are $3.98 a page for single sided color 11×17. I may buy a decent laser printer. Any suggestions?

  5. […] It should show an overview, and the two separate maps for a total of three pages.  Now save and print however you like.  You’ve now finished and have your paper maps ready to roll.  For an article about how to print your maps with better quality than your home printer look here. […]

  6. John Godino on June 13, 2016 at 9:03 am

    Here’s another great option for durability: print at FedEx on a color laser printer, but use your own waterproof paper. Search Amazon for “waterproof paper”. Last year I got a box of 50 sheets for about $35, or $.60 per sheet. It was 8.5″ x 11″. That works out to be about $.60 per sheet.

    As a test, I printed a map on this paper, and then rolled it up and put it inside a 1 quart Nalgene bottle and left it there… for about six months. I take it out to show it to my navigation classes every month or so, and is still in perfect condition.

    Andrew’s suggestion of using online printing of course will not work with this technique, you need to actually be there in person to put your own paper that you bring it into the proper tray.
    But, this is a small trade off, because the benefit from a completely waterproof and very durable math outweighs the small hassle an extra cost of using specialized paper.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 13, 2016 at 9:10 am

      Thanks for sharing. I could see this making sense for someone who: returns to the same area repeatedly and does not want to print fresh maps each time; or backpacks in really wet environments.

      Personally, I tend to be hiking through and in dry environments. So I judged the extra expense of WP paper to not be worthwhile. I see a PDX in your email handle (airport code for Portland) so I suspect your situation is different in at least one regard.

    • Dave on August 24, 2021 at 10:59 am

      I take a thumb drive to FedEx and print my maps on 11 x 17 that way. I’ve tried both the waterproof and normal paper and I much prefer the normal paper. The waterproof paper is *so* stiff. And loud when you unfold it, and it doesn’t want to stay unfolded.

      I usually only need one piece of paper and print on both sides. So I just make a copy and keep the copy in a ziplock bag in my lid and carry the main map in my pocket, that way if something ever happens to the main map I have a backup ready to go.

      • Andrew Skurka on August 24, 2021 at 5:26 pm

        Save yourself a trip and use the online system. Then you just swing by to pick it up when it’s done.

        Agree on the WP v normal paper. Also consider: If you take good care of a map sheet, you hike off it days before it’s too beat up to still be useful.

  7. John Godino on June 13, 2016 at 9:10 am

    Also, For anyone interested in a quick overview of using Caltopo, there is a nice tutorial on YouTube that covers how to do it. Search YouTube for “Caltopo”. The first video that comes up is from the Columbia River Orienteering Club, that’s a good place to start. The founder of Caltopo, Matt Jacobs, also has a few tutorials that he put up the cover some of the more advanced features.

  8. Ken Steinhoff on July 14, 2016 at 9:57 am

    Very useful. Also, you’ve mentioned before that 11×17 folds well to fit into a “baggie”.

    I would add: solo hiker can print:
    physical map 1 front – map 1;
    physical map 1 back – map 3;
    physical map 2 front – map 2;

    1/2 the weight, just as convenient

    • Andrew Skurka on July 14, 2016 at 3:44 pm

      Yes, an 11×17 fits almost perfectly into a gallon-sized bag when folded in half. If you chop the half-inch margins off, it fits perfectly, and you can seal the bag in the event of precip.

      I hadn’t thought of that printing scheme. Can you specify that on a print order, or is a manual thing?

      • Ken Steinhoff on July 16, 2016 at 6:30 pm

        Never looked at trying it with a print order. I feel safer knowing it is right before I send it off to the printer.

        I’m using a Mac now, so I can easily move PDF thumbnails around to whatever order I want them printed.

        I just did it for KCHBR and it was a little trickier than usual because I had to slip in a few of the alternate route maps (which I think are soon to be part of the primary route) in their proper place. All good though because it helped me become more familiar with the route.

  9. Rocky Sharwell on September 3, 2016 at 11:04 am

    Any idea of how I print at Staples or Fedex a PDF file of a USGS map tthat has satellite imagery without the imagery. If I was doing it home I could just click on the eye to turn the layer off

    • Andrew Skurka on September 3, 2016 at 12:04 pm

      I don’t understand your question. Try again.

      Not sure what program you are using to export the PDF. In CalTopo, you can specify a single layer, or a mix of them, and it’ll print as a PDF what you’re showing on the screen.

      • Rocky Sharwell on September 4, 2016 at 10:40 am

        Sorry about that I am internet deprived due to a storm. I downloaded the maps from the USGS website as PDF files and uploaded them for printing via the Staples website. When my internet is restored I will look at Caltopo. Thanks

  10. Finn on March 28, 2017 at 6:34 am

    I’m wondering if anyone has experience exporting and printing maps using international maps such as either UK OS or OSI (ireland)?


    • Andrew Skurka on March 28, 2017 at 7:03 am

      It’s probably not as good as goverment-produced topo maps, but you can access OpenStreetMap in Caltopo. That product has a few different datasets, including OpenStreetMap, OpenCycleMap, and TF Outdoors.

  11. Philip on May 28, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    How do I specify 11×17 from the FedEx online printing website? I’m trying to print your KCHBR maps, and although I see how to select 24-lb vs 32, 1- vs 2-sided etc, there does not seem to be an option to pick Tabloid paper.

    • Andrew Skurka on May 28, 2017 at 2:38 pm

      Paper size is dictated by the submitted file. In your case, the file spec is 11 x 17, and FedEx will assume this unless otherwise told.

  12. james on October 10, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    HI Andrew,

    Your site is so great, thank you for all the work you put into it. Can you please show me how to do this with gaia GPS. I have both my tablet and the online version. I looked at Fed x and they have classic or Beta site to place an order. i have a pretty ;arge area id like to have printed off . How do i make sure all the way points , polygons etc.. are in the map and the area is covered. Thank you

    • Andrew Skurka on October 11, 2017 at 8:14 am

      To export digital maps to paper, I use Caltopo, not Gaia. In CalTopo, look for the “Print” option at the top of the screen.

      If you have annotated maps in Gaia, you can export the file and import it into CalTopo, but you probably will lose some of the content, and the formatting will definitely change. Personally, I annotate the maps in CalTopo, then export a very basic GPX file into Gaia so that I can easily download the necessary digital maps onto my phone and have some key landmarks in the app.

  13. TJ on January 17, 2018 at 1:32 am

    I’ve played around a bit with CalTopo. I like it a lot! I’ve only printed on 8.5”X11” in 1:24000. When I put a protractor on it the scale is slightly off. I’m just experimenting for free before I do a paid version of it. Am I doing something wrong?

    • Andrew Skurka on January 17, 2018 at 7:05 am

      I can’t imagine that it’s off, but I’ll forward your email to Matt the owner.

      When you make your print tiles, are you clicking the “print to scale” box and then specifying 1:24k? Just because you are working with 7.5 min maps does not mean they must be or will be printed at 1:24k

  14. TJ on January 17, 2018 at 7:30 pm

    Could I email you directly? I’ve played around a bit. I see no option to resize the maps other than to change the grid scale

    • Andrew Skurka on January 18, 2018 at 9:27 am

      Here is my “print screen” window, which opens in a new window after clicking “Print” at the top of Caltopo and selecting “Print to PDF or JPG.”

      Notice in the upper-left corner that there is a dropdown box for “Scale.”

      I don’t know the intricacies of the various subscription levels, but it’s possible that the more basic levels (or when you’re not even logged in) don’t have all of these features.

      CalTopo print window screenshot

  15. Anna Perhach on December 31, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    I’ve been trying to print USGS maps but I’m worried that if I print the maps on the wrong sheet of paper that it won’t by 1:24,000 scale anymore. Does anyone have any advice?

    • Andrew Skurka on January 1, 2019 at 8:25 am

      From what program are you trying to export the maps for printing?

      If you are using CalTopo and are in the “print mode” window (from the main page, click on print in top menu, and it’ll open a new window), you’ll see a drop-down menu with available paper sizes and scales. Most home printers can only do 8.5×11 or smaller.

  16. Todd on April 16, 2019 at 7:30 am

    Caltopo doesn’t even HAVE a print button, at least on my Android. I’ll try from laptop later, but pretty useless as is. I have very high quality PDF USGS topos downloaded, but the FedEx method as described is not the way their system works currently. You have to specify that it is a custom job, write a note detailing what you’re after, and hope the FedEx employee gets it right. No thanks.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 16, 2019 at 9:42 am

      To print you must be on the website, not in the app.

  17. Todd on April 16, 2019 at 6:18 pm

    Yes! Worked fine printing from home ????. Still haven’t looked at sending to FedEx, but I’m hopeful!

  18. Amy on May 7, 2019 at 1:50 pm

    Thank you for sharing. Makes me wish a printing place was local for me. I use Adobe reader to print it on 4 pages (8.5×11) and tape together. It makes it unwieldy, but I can see everything. I plan on covering it in contact paper, so I have yet to see how well it fits in my pack afterwards.

  19. Michael on September 18, 2019 at 7:46 pm

    Your FedEx printing link appears to be broken. Do you have a new method of printing?

  20. Michael on September 19, 2019 at 9:27 am

    My bad. I was thinking the link would direct to the specific product you use. Thanks for the clarification. Great content all around.

  21. Skylar on June 15, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    Hi Andrew, I came across your post and it really helped me figure out the scale aspects of printing a map. I’m in the process of trying to print a Caltopo map but at a much larger size. About 4×5 feet. I was wondering if you had any ideas or suggestions of how to ensure that I’ll be able to read the small trails and labels? The map is of the state of Colorado with its hiking/ohv trails and I’ll be mounting it to a wall. I’m working on creating the map now. Considering FedEx as a printing service for this project.

    • Andrew Skurka on June 16, 2020 at 5:22 pm

      I think you will struggle to print out a map of the entire state on 4×5′ paper while still keeping it legible with such details.

      As a point of comparison, on my wall I have a Raven map of the state, https://www.instagram.com/p/BsCSNKNl-vH, and it’s printed at 1:500k. It includes interstates and state highways, but no detail beyond that (e.g. major trails like the Colorado Trail, USFS roads, residential roads, etc.). If they did add that kind of detail, the map would be excessively noisy, to the degree that it’d no longer be useful. I fear you will end up in a similar situation.

      As another point of comparison, this road & recreation atlas for Colorado uses a scale of 1:200,000. I think that’s probably about the scale you want for your project. But suddenly your paper size is going to get much bigger — if my Raven map at 500k is 4.5 feet wide, your map at a 200k scale will be over 11 feet wide!

  22. Michael Owen on December 15, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    Hey Andrew – great article on this, I’ve recently needed to do some map printing and this is exactly the information I needed for some things I didn’t think of. A couple questions if you could help:

    -Which of the three mapping services would you recommend (CalTopo, GAIA, AllTrails)? I’m mostly mapping for some off trail navigation work in forested areas with a lot of frequent ridges and valleys of 200-400′ relief. Clear topo is vital.

    -I’ve been messing around with CalTopo for a project and trying to turn off the shaded relief before creating a PDF to print. Can’t find where, may a paid feature, or maybe easier on GAIA, etc?

    Thanks for your help!

    • Andrew Skurka on January 23, 2021 at 11:07 am

      CalTopo is the best desktop platform, hands down. And it’s app is entirely functional, and it’s really convenient that your CalTopo desktop maps feed directly into your app.
      Gaia has the best app, hands down. It’s desktop site is functional, except for its map-making feature, which is woefully inadequate, to the degree that it’s a deal-breaker for anyone who plans to print more than one map.

      It’s been years since I used AllTrails. But my sense of it then, and my sense of it now based on what I see in search results and conversations with others, is that it’s best for people who want to follow prescribed routes that have been created by others.

  23. Chris Stewart on March 23, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    Hi Andrew. I was wondering what things you take into consideration when choosing where to lay-out the pages for the map? For example, do you focus on trying to get prominent peaks on the page to assist in navigation? Do you try to include bail-out routes? Are there other factors that you consider when trying to optimize map lay-out? Thanks in advance!

    • Andrew Skurka on March 23, 2021 at 4:33 pm

      For bail-out routes, you should be carrying a small-scale overview map and/or you should have digital maps of adjacent areas on your smartphone GPS app. Some reading, https://andrewskurka.com/backpacking-topographical-maps-types-sources-formats/

      When laying out the print tiles, I generally try to center the route, but may skew the centering to include important topographic details at the edges of the map like a prominent ridgeline or peak that could be a useful navigational reference.

  24. N Gallow on August 25, 2021 at 9:54 am

    Andrew, I’m really curious how you carry and use these maps in the field. I like the idea of the larger tabloid size but I can’t imagine accessing these too easily without removing your pack to get at them.


    • Andrew Skurka on August 25, 2021 at 10:03 am

      Trim the margins of all your maps

      To carry the 1-2 maps you’ll need for the day:
      Fold the map(s) in half
      Stick it in a gallon-sized ziplock
      Fold the ziplock (with the map inside) in half or even quarters
      Stick it in a side pocket on your backpack

      To carry the rest of your maps:
      Fold them in half
      Put them in a gallon-sized ziplock
      Keep that baggie inside your pack

      • Michael Kosnac on October 17, 2021 at 7:43 pm

        Thank you Andrew for all your hard work and advice!
        I am planning to thru hike cdt next year. I would really like to have paper maps sets to navigate myself, I will download guthuks on my phone for a back up but really would feel better and enjoy orienting with proper maps. I have downloaded the map set from cdt website and have used your advice to download map set to fed ex. I like the idea of using their laser printer bc I feel they will be better however just New Mex alone is $65, that’s just for 8×11, your advice asked for 7x 11 i believe which doubled the price. Even if I go for smaller 8×11 size, that may total $ 325, 7×11 would cost over $800. That price has me thinking about buying my own printer, maybe not laser, or I could try caltopo but would still run into same sticker shock? What do you think?

        • Andrew Skurka on October 18, 2021 at 8:45 am

          Indeed, 3,000 miles of maps aren’t cheap!

          Are you creating your own maps or printing maps downloaded from CDTA?
          I know $325 isn’t cheap, but if the maps are already prepared for you I’d definitely run with that. Any other solution — like creating your own maps — is going to be a huge time sink, and you will have other things to do (including working, so that you have funds for this trip).

          Print the maps on their intended paper size, whether that’s 8.5×11 or 11×17. If you print them on a different paper size, you’re going to screw up the intended scale, perhaps making them un-readable (too much topographic detail squished onto a smaller sheet) or making them unnecessarily detailed (too little detail spread out onto a larger sheet).

          • Michael Kosnac on October 18, 2021 at 11:22 am

            I am downloading the map sets state by state from CDTC coalition website. It seems like all or nothing for each state, can’t really pic and choose parts of a state to print. Probably do New mex fist 8.5x 11 and see how I like. I really like caltopo but you’re right, too much for long trail. Thanks for the go ahead on these, Sounds like price of admission.
            I also have J Ley alts downloaded to supplement hike, they look like zip files? and may have a question if i run into prob there.
            cdtc recommends bearcreeksurvey material, any thiughts about those? Then cdtc, bearcr survey and others can provide geo space referencing, what is that?

            I am looking for bigger overview map of San Juans, Wind River. Any recommendations?

            I also plan on carrying garmin in reach/ or mini. Any quck advice for that? ever used?
            thank you so much!

          • Andrew Skurka on October 18, 2021 at 11:31 am

            You would be better served by directing these questions to a CDT-specific forum. The trail (and the map tech) has changed quite a bit since I was last on the route in 2007.

  25. DanB on November 9, 2021 at 4:29 pm

    If going solo, have you thought about organizing your print file so that odd pages are grouped together and even pages are grouped together? Then you can print double-sided and still view two adjacent maps simultaneously. For example, the first double sided print would have page 1 on front and page 3 on the back; another print would have page 2 on the front and page 4 on the back. And so on. Thus, page 1 and 2 would be on different pieces of paper, and can be viewed simultaneously. This save weight and money.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 29, 2021 at 12:29 pm

      I’ve thought about it, but I’ve never done it. Adds admin time and headache (depending on your PDF skills and software), and generally don’t find it helpful because I typically have a “mental map” of the area after hours of pre-trip study/planning and because I can use my phone as a backup too.

  26. Ken Steinhoff on November 30, 2021 at 4:33 pm

    I mentioned this strategy in the comments July 2016. I did it for the PCT and it definitely “added to admin time and headache.” Of course I ditched paper maps soon after starting the PCT, because whatever philosophical outlook I had, I almost always new where I was, a way out, and a way forward. For attempting map and compass sans GPS on complicated off trail routes though, it can be helpful especially when you are moving across the “edges” of your map.

  27. DanB on December 10, 2021 at 11:06 am

    Another HYOH situation. Just beware of all the options and choose what works best for you. Definitely pros and cons to most things. I wish I had Andrew’s visualization ability, but I’m not that good–just one reason he’s a pro at this stuff and people like me are just enthusiasts. For anyone printing at home, be aware that most (all?) printers give the option to print only odd or only even pages. Thus, no need to reorganize the print file, but it’s a good idea to number the pages so it’s easy to see what’s what. Not sure about FedEx, UPS Store, or other professional print shops, but wouldn’t be surprised if they offer the only odd/only even option as well.

  28. Neil on June 8, 2022 at 9:25 am

    After reading your 2 articles, one on Caltopo and one on printing I went ahead and purchased a $50 subscription to Caltopo. My navigation history mirrors your almost exactly and I’ve been using free versions of CT and Gaia just as you had been doing.

    I decided to experiment using a print service (Staples) to print up 2 11×17 maps of the 4 Pass Loop in the Maroon Bells of Colorado. My up to date desktop PC took quite while (3-4 minutes) to create the 2 page PDF file at 400 dpi. The PDF had a 3rd page, which showed a larger map area at smaller scale and which indicated the specific areas I had requested. I went ahead and included this 3rd page in the print order just to see if I like having the surrounding area.
    Using Staples’ on-line service I requested 28 lb paper and full colour, one-sided sheets. It started out costing $3 but by the time the additional fees and taxes were added it came to $6. I will be able to pick the maps up later today. I assume that if I have a large order, say 50 sheets the fees will be less

Leave a Comment