CalTopo – A How-To Guide

by Matthew Tangeman

It’s hard to beat Caltopo’s online topographic map website. No other free, online mapping software we’ve worked with at WenatcheeOutdoors boasts such a full complement of useful topographic maps and useful tools. At first glance, the website looks like nothing more than Google Maps mixed with USGS topos. But there’s much more here and what makes the site are the different map sets, map layers, and map tools that take a little digging to find and a little experimenting to master.

High Resolution Maps for U.S. and Canada.

While online maps for most areas in the United States are relatively easy to come by, for those that make an occasional voyage up north, this is not always the case. In the CalTopo interface, one can browse topographic maps throughout much of British Columbia, Alberta, and beyond, making trip planning quite simple, not to mention these maps can be printed at a much higher resolution than standard USGS or Green Trails Maps.

Drawing Routes and Markers.

Previously, the ability to draw your own routes over digital maps was the domain of moderately expensive software. In CalTopo, trails and routes can easily be drawn in with the “Add New Object -> Add Line” feature on the left side of the screen. Once you click this, a window will appear on the bottom of the screen allowing you to choose the line’s color, thickness, and label. Click “OK”, and you are now ready to draw your route. Simple single-click point by point along the path you want to highlight, and double click when you are finished. You can view an elevation profile for your route by clicking the small graph icon, just to the right of your route’s name on the left hand toolbar.

Adding markers works much the same way. Follow “Add New Object -> Add Marker”, and add a label in the window that appears in the bottom part of the screen. Now drag the marker (appearing as a dot on the map) to exactly where you want it, click “OK”, and you’re good to go. These markers also have coordinate data built in, allowing you to use them as waypoints on a GPS. To move the marker after it’s been placed, right click (or Control + click on Mac) and select “Drag to New Location”.

Extensive Map Overlays.

Perhaps most unique to CalTopo is the extensive options you have for different map formats. On the left side of the screen, under “Preset Layers”, you have a few options for different formats of topo maps, including USGS 7.5’ maps, Forest Service topos, satellite images with contour line overlays, shaded relief, and slope angle shading. Slope angle shading is of special interest to skiers – a map showing the degree of slope reveals those high risk avalanche areas in the 30-45 degree range.

Our own Mission Ridge with the slope angle layer turned on. Orange and red show greatest avalanche potential – including Bowl 5, Microwave, and Windy Ridge.

In the upper right portion of the mapping screen, scroll over what says “USGS 7.5’ +3” by default, to view a host of other options for map layers, including fire history, current fire information, land ownership, weather, and SnoTel data. We found the fire history to be not entirely comprehensive, but still largely accurate and informational, and the current fire info to be very accurate (on August 18, 2015, it had the Reach Complex fires well documented). The SnoTel data was also very accurate, though the weather info was sometimes glitchy and limited. Nonetheless, this array of tools is quite unique and very useful.

GPS Compatibility

CalTopo is very conducive to using with a GPS unit, allowing you to both import and export GPS data and KML and GPX files with the “Import” and “Export” buttons on the toolbar across the top of the screen. When markers are added with coordinate data (see above), these will function as waypoints for the GPS. This worked with WenatcheeOutdoors’ Garmin Connection software quite smoothly.

Save, Print, and Go!

Once you have finished drawing your route and adding any waypoints, markers, and layers

A CalTopo map in it’s final form, ready to print.

that you wanted, you can save the map to the cloud by signing in with a Google or Yahoo account (see buttons in upper left). Once saved, you can view the maps you created and re-edit them at any time.

To print your map and save it to your hard drive, select “Print -> Print to PDF or JPG” in the upper toolbar. This opens a new window where you can choose the size and scale of your map, and whether you want a PDF or JPG. For higher resolution, go PDF. Select “Generate PDF”. This will create a new link in a new window with your completed map, that you can now download to your hard drive or print. If you plan on using this map again in digital format, be sure to download. The link to your map will expire after 30 days.

Print your map, and head out on your way. With all the tools, layers, and versatile options available, we think you’ll disagree with the statement “you get what you pay for.” Caltopo is a great example of getting a whole lot for nothing.

You can access the CalTopo website here.

 This article was originally published on 08/22/2015.

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