Hello, my name is Dave, and I’m a mapaholic.
Being an occasional backpacker, I use topographic maps both for planning hikes and camping trips, and for navigating on the trail. My map of choice, just like practically everyone else, is the 7.5-minute USGS quad. I obtained my first one of these back in the late 80’s, before the internet, and before it was feasible to store much map data electronically (can you say “40 MB hard drive”?). I think I ended up ordering it from someplace, and it came in the mail rolled up in a cardboard tube. I think I just about wet my pants when I first unrolled it. It was soooo cool! The level of detail on that map (1 inch = 2000 ft) was more than I’d ever experienced, and I could determine the latitude and longitude of anything on the map. It wasn’t long before I could smugly recite the coordinates of my house down to the arc second or so.
It wasn’t until around 1997 that I discovered that it was possible to actually purchase topographical maps in software packages on CD. My first (and so far still only) mapping package was Topo! by Wildflower Productions (now produced by National Geographic). I bought a package that gave me maps for most of western Colorado. I think I paid $70 or so, and I still use them today. The software does a nice job of stitching the maps together to make one more-or-less continuous map at high resolution. You can also use the software to transfer routes and waypoints to (or from) your GPS, and you can trace routes, examine elevation profiles, and do lots of fairly cool stuff. Nowadays you can buy numerous state editions of the software for about a hundred bucks.
Besides mapping packages like these (and there are others), the number of online mapping resources appears to be growing. Topozone has been around now for several years, and I believe even Google Maps can show you topographical features. There’s also the National Map, which makes a large amount of USGS map data available in a web-based viewer. My experience with web-based mapping is that it’s either not free (Topozone requires a subscription, for example) or it’s not the most convenient to use for creating maps that can be printed.
I kept wondering when the USGS would finally get around to making their existing raster maps available for download. They’d been available in digital form for a while through third parties for a fee, but I’m too cheap to pay for large quantities of them. So I’d check every so often to see if anything new was available. I checked again this morning (for the first time in a year, probably). Lo and behold, I discovered that you can now indeed download raster maps for free! Here’s the link:
This link takes you to an interactive tool for finding the maps you are looking for. Selecting a location will show you what maps are available for that location. They have other maps besides the 7.5-minute quads. Once you find the map you’re looking for, you can simply download the map as a PDF file (in zipped form).
You can simply use Adobe Reader to view the map, or you can optionally download the free GeoPDF toolbar for Adobe Reader from TerraGo Techologies. This toolbar adds some interesting and useful capabilities to Adobe Reader for using these map files, including geosearch capabilities and some distance and direction measuring tools.
Although you can’t really print out these maps with a regular printer and have them come out in a usable form (because the maps are much bigger than an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper), Adobe Reader has a Snapshot Tool (under Select & Zoom on the Tools menu) that you can use to select and copy rectangular chunks of the map into an image editor (like MS Paint) for further annotation and printing. The Snapshot Tool will select and copy the selected region at whatever zoom factor is being displayed, so make sure to set the zoom to 100% (or whatever you desire) before doing the copy operation. The Snapshot Tool will scroll the document as you’re selecting the rectangular region, so you’re not limited only to those portions of the map that are visible. You can also select a region at a lower zoom level and then zoom in before copying it (technically, whenever you release the mouse button to finish selecting your region, Adobe Reader copies the selection at that resolution to the clipboard, but you can recopy the selection to the clipboard after zooming by right-clicking on the selection and choosing Copy Selected Graphic from the menu that pops up).
These free downloadable maps won’t replace the mapping software I already own, but I can easily see using these maps to augment the capabilities I already have. I’m going to like this.