Decent paper maps for backpacking can sometimes be challenging to find. My preferred map has always been the USGS 7.5-minute quad, with a scale of 1-24,000 (1 inch equals 2000 feet). Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of ways to access the data. The USGS makes the map images available as PDFs online for free from the USGS Store, for example. National Geographic sells their TOPO! State Series software with maps on DVD for $49.95. Or you can go to a web site like Trails.com or AllTrails.com to access maps online (for $49.95/year–a price that I find a little astonishing). The big disadvantage to using any of these sources is that, for the average guy, it’s difficult to print out the map you want in the format you want.
The biggest issue with do-it-yourself maps is being able to print a map that’s larger than 8.5″ x 11″. Not many of us have a printer that’ll handle paper much bigger than that, so if you’re printing your own maps, you’ll likely need several sheets to cover the entirety of your trip. Also, some printers are better than others, and the quality of your self-printed maps may not be as good as you’d like. It’s true that you can still buy the original USGS 7.5-minute quads on paper, but chances are good that you’ll need more than one to cover your trip–the map boundaries are never located where you need them, it seems.
MyTopo.com covers the best of both worlds. You can browse the topo maps online for free (several scales, actually–not just the 7.5-minute quads), select exactly the region you want (spanning multiple quads, if needed), and then order a custom printed map of exactly what you want. Maps can be printed in sizes from 18″ x 24″ (for $9.95) all the way up to 5′ x 8′ (for big bucks). Maps are printed on waterproof paper with your choice of markings like titles and lat/long/MGRS grids, and they’ll deliver them to you either folded or rolled. If you prefer your map printed on glossy paper, or even laminated, you can have that, too. Shipping costs are reasonable–as little as $2.25 for a folded map via first-class mail. Rolled maps more expensive to ship (but still reasonable). There are plenty of shipping options, too, depending on how quickly you need the map to arrive.
Here’s a preview of what you’d receive:
I ordered a map from them last week, covering a section of the Collegiate Peaks wilderness here in Colorado. My map was a 24″ x 36″ folded map for $14.95 that they delivered via USPS priority mail for $5.95 (regular first-class was only $2.25!). I ordered it on Saturday and it arrived on Wednesday–pretty speedy service. The map itself looks great–excellent quality paper and printing with professionally-done legends, folded just like a map you’d buy at your favorite map store. If the weather had been decent this weekend, I’d actually be out in the wilderness using my new map instead of sitting here at my computer telling you about it.
To me, it’s definitely worth spending fifteen or twenty bucks to get the right map for a wilderness expedition, and MyTopo.com definitely did not disappoint. I’ll be using them again for my future map needs.