For any of us heading into the outdoors there is one piece of gear that may seem a bit old fashioned to those hooked on technology, but it is an indispensible piece of equipment and it is a topographic map.
I am in the final stages of planning a week long solo river trip in upper Michigan and I want to know exactly where I am heading. Though I can find all sorts of information on the web and with my Garmin GPS unit, with a topo map, I can sit back, study the area I am heading to, make notes and not worry that the batteries are going to die.
Don’t get me wrong, I use my GPS unit and place way points onto the map that I download to it, but having a hard copy map gives me another option for studying the area before I get there.
In the past finding topos was at best a chore but for the past few years we have been able to access them online and download what we need. Of course you can also download maps for a fee for your GPS unit and view them on a computer and there is also the site GPS File Depot (see my previous story about GPS File Depot) where you can find a large number of free GPS ready files. But when it comes to generating hard copy maps that offer the detail you need, for me the go to site is the U.S. Geological Survey .
With a new system the USGS has put in place you can download and print topographic and other maps of the entire nation, this is not new, but the amount of time between map updates is. By using geographic information system (GIS) data, the maps are updated every three years. In the world of topo maps a three year update time is amazing. Another interesting option is if you would like to compare new maps with old, there is a collection of historical maps available as well.
There is a very good description on the maps along with other information regarding the system at the Maps for America page on the USGS website. At this point in time the USGS is at the end of the first update cycle, so new maps will be coming out very soon.
To find the maps you need, it is as simple as heading to the USGS website. From the home page you can find a vast amount of information ranging from the afore mentioned topos, to maps of hazardous areas, aerial and satellite images, maps of where the avian flu has hit and much more.
Finding the topographic map section is as easy as clicking the tap at the top of the home page for maps, images and publications. From here you can then select on the left of the page the “Download free topo maps” link. You are taken to an interactive map of the United States where you can zoom to a location or simply search for the place.
When I was downloading maps of upper Michigan, at first I made one mistake by zooming in too close. By doing this I lost the detail lines showing individual topo maps, so stay zoomed out a bit and will see each section map. You then choose on the right side of the webpage the “mark points” selection and you are able to place a reference point into the quadrangle you are viewing. By clicking on the reference point you placed, a drop down list of maps available will be displayed. From there the map can either be download directly or added to a “download cart” where you can download multiple maps in a single zip file.
Once you down load the files things really get interesting because they are not single layer PDF files, but multi layer files. There is also a video offered on the USGS site that shows what each of the layers contain and how to access them and it does not end there. By downloading a tool bar for your Adobe Reader from TerraGo Technologies, you can manipulate the files in a variety of ways.
I have not had a lot of time to play with the TerraGo tool bar but it offers options that in the past were impossible.
There is one more thing to consider when printing these maps and that is the actual size of the image, which is 22.75 by 29 inches. Obviously most home printers will not generate this size but what I do is open the PDF under an imaging program that can work with it and crop out the area I need. By doing this I can print 8.5 x11 maps that contain the needed information and are large enough to read.
So next time you are planning a trip and want to truly know the lay of the land before you get there, set the GPS aside from a bit and download a few maps. When you look at a hard copy map you will retain it in a much better and different way than when you view them on a GPS screen.
Now I am heading back to my computer to print out the maps I need for my trip in a form I can hold in my hand and batteries are not needed.
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