How To Use CalTopo to Plan Your Next Hike or Outdoor Adventure

At Taos Search and Rescue, we know that a good map can be the difference between a fun day out and a night spent shivering in the woods, waiting for rescue. One of the best ways you can prevent needing a rescue in the wild is to know where you’re going, and to have a good map.

Taos Search and Rescue uses a mapping tool called SARTopo. SARTopo has a “civilian” version called CalTopo. Caltopo allows you to create, share and print topographic maps of anywhere in the United States. CalTopo has map data from the US Forest Service, the US Geological Survey, OpenStreetMap, and many more places. It even has some advanced analytical features, such as slope angle shading, weather history and forecasting, viewshed and sunlight analysis, and more.

In this article, we’ll teach you how to use CalTopo to print custom topographical maps of your next hike or outdoor activity. You’ll be using the same technology that Taos Search and Rescue uses to locate lost, injured and missing persons in the outdoors of northern New Mexico. Let’s get started.

CalTopo is a web application, so you can use it by just navigating to in your web browser. First, you’ll want to move the map to a place near where you’ll start your hike. As an example, we’ll make a map of a popular hike to Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico. We can type “Wheeler Peak, New Mexico” in the search bar at the top of the screen and press “GO”.

Great! Now our map is centered in the general area where our hike will be.

Our next step is to decide which map layers we want on our map. Map layers are accessed at the top right corner of the screen. By default, you are using the “MapBuilder Topo” layer. Click that button.

Now, under “Base Layer”, we can change the base layer we want to use for our map. There are a lot of options here:

  • MapBuilder Topo – is based on OpenStreetMap, which is a freely-available geographic dataset. This is your basic topographic map.
  • MapBuilder Hybrid – is like MapBuilderTopo, but instead of using just a few colors to denote foliage (green for trees and grass, white for barren), it actually uses aerial photography underneath the topo lines. This can provide a little more information about forest clearings and other low-foliage areas.
  • USGS 7.5 – This is the USGS map you’ve probably seen before. Unlike the paper maps, however, CalTopo’s USGS maps have no borders, and you never have to go searching for a particular quadrant, or get annoyed when you’re hiking around the boundary of two quadrants.
  • FSTopo 2013 and 2016 – These are the official Forest Service maps. They only cover Forest Service land, of course, but if you are headed to a National Forest, these maps are the most up-to-date and contain the most information about trails in the area. Other than up-to-date information, the only difference between the 2013 and 2016 edition is that the 2016 edition shows vegetation and foliage in green.
  • Google Layers – All of the Google Maps layers you’re used to are available. Unfortunately, none of these layers can be printed for copyright reasons (they simply won’t show up). You also can’t use them as an additional layer on top – they must be the base layer.
  • Terrain Shading – You can optionally add some terrain shading as an additional layer to make the topographic lines more intuitive.
  • NAIP – If you want satellite imagery on a printed map, you must use the National Agricultural Imagery Program data, which covers the entire United States.

At Taos Search and Rescue, we will frequently use the USFS maps as our base layer where available, or USGS maps. We find these maps to be the most accurate and up-to-date for our area. In our example, however, we’ll select MapBuilder Hybrid as our base layer, because the OpenStreetMap data that it’s based on shows the trail which we want to hike.

We now want to draw our planned route on the map. We can do this by clicking “Add” in the upper left hand corner and clicking “Add Line”:

We can now draw a line over our planned route. You’ll see some trails and roads turn yellow. This means that CalTopo can “snap” your line to these trails. If a trail on your map hasn’t turned yellow, try changing the “Snap To” setting:

Click once to add a route section. Press Escape to remove one. Double-click to finish.

Now that we’ve drawn our the route, we can print our map. Click “Print” in the top menu bar, then “Print to PDF or JPG”. This will open a new window.

The area inside the red rectangle is the area your printed map will cover. On the left-hand side, you can choose a scale for the map if you wish to have a precisely scaled map. Otherwise, you can click and drag the red dot in the center of the red rectangle to move your map area. Clicking and dragging the corners will make the map larger and smaller. You can change the orientation of the map on the left hand side of the screen (portrait or landscape).

Once you’ve got everything perfected, you can click “Generate PDF”. This will open a new window. From here, you can print this map by pressing “CTRL-P” or “Command-P”, just like any other document.

Note that the URL in your address bar has changed. You may share this URL with anyone for 7 days after you generated this map, and they’ll see the same PDF. Here’s our example map that we created.

That’s how to create and print a map for a hike or other outdoor activity on CalTopo. Taos Search and Rescue wishes you safe travels in the outdoors!