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Topographical Maps

The prepared Scout always carries a map of the area and a trail guide with him when hiking.

When planning a hike there is no substitute for a professionally printed large format map like those published by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

For hikers who need a map in a hurry, or who need a map of a specific area, there are many online sources for topographical maps and trial guides that you can download and print yourself.  There are also several good topographical map apps for your tablet or phone that use the device's built in GPS  with  downloaded maps that you can use even in places with no cell reception. The GPS will tell you  where you are on the map, at least until the battery dies or it gets wet.

There are basically three kinds of maps available online:

  1. DRG, or Digital Raster Graphic maps which are scanned copies of traditional USGS topographical maps
  2. Online maps based on the National Map  which can best be thought of as a seamless digital map, similar to Google maps.  Also referred to as US-topo maps
  3. Custom maps and trail guides created for a specific hiking area or trail

Surprisingly, the best online maps for hikers are the DRG maps or the custom maps, not maps based on the National Map.  The reason is that the National Map does not yet contain trail information for many areas. The DRG maps, scanned from the historical printed USGS topo maps show many more trails, particularly the ones less travelled.

Here is a brief comparison of available online map resources and map apps.

Online Topographical Map Resources

 

TopoQuest

MyTopo

USGS Store

AllTrails

AMC

Map Viewer

Difficult to use

Google Maps

Good

No information

No information

Print map sections

Right click on map

Yes

No

No information

No information

Print entire map

No

No

Only whole maps

No information

No information

Trails on maps

Yes

Yes

Varies – maps labeled US-topo may not have trails

Yes

Yes

Free maps

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

 

Topographical Map Apps

 

Topo Maps

Gaia GPS

US Topo Maps Free

Orux Maps

AlpineQuest

Apple

Yes

Yes

No

No

No

Android

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Offline maps for areas with no cell coverage

Yes

Yes

Free version no

Pro version yes

 

Yes

Free

No

No

Basic Version

Yes

Basic Version

The USGS  publishes a handy guide to reading topographical maps and understanding map symbols
For those interested in historical topographical maps,   MyTopo maintains a historical map archive

 

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