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CalTopo – Introduction To Backcountry Mapping and Navigation

CalTopo – Introduction To Backcountry Mapping and Navigation


Back in the day, the good ol’ map and compass were the standard of navigation in the backcountry. While guidebooks and beta from friends were helpful in planning a trip, most people used to rely almost solely on a topographic map to get them from point A to point B – until now, that is.

Thanks to advances in topographic mapping technology, the recreational hiker now has access to an unprecedented level of information for planning a trip through a number of different apps and websites. With so many different options, though, how do you choose just one mapping software for your adventures?

For us, the answer is simple: CalTopo. Stop buying paper maps at REI and start making your own custom trip topos with the powerful software at CalTopo. With CalTopo, you can create some seriously amazing maps, on the cheap, with just a few clicks.

Sound amazing? It sure is. But, if you’re new to the world of CalTopo or aren’t the most technologically savvy, it’s easy to feel like all of this fancy mapping software is flying over your head. 

That’s why we’re here to help. Coming up, we’ve got the ultimate guide to using CalTopo for the outdoor recreationalist so you can spend less time on the computer and more time enjoying the great outdoors.

caltopo replaces old map and compass

What is CalTopo?

Alright, first things first, what is CalTopo? If you’ve never heard of CalTopo before, it can be a pretty confusing thing to wrap your mind around. Here’s what you need to know:

CalTopo is an online mapping software that allows you to easily and quickly create customized maps for any region in the US and Canada. With CalTopo, you can pick and choose your map layers (the base framework for any map), add lines, points of interest, specific information, and get a detailed look into terrain statistics for any trip.

You can download, print, and share any map you create with CalTopo, making it easy to get the information you need for your upcoming adventures. Instead of carrying around a gigantic map that’s 98% useless to you, you can travel with topos that are specifically built for your expedition.

screenshot of map of the usa and caltopo desktop screen

Why you should use CalTopo

The best part about CalTopo? The vast majority of the software’s basic features are absolutely free. That’s right, FREE. You don’t even need to create a separate CalTopo account to access all of the program’s amazing features since you can sign in with Google, Facebook, Microsoft, or even Yahoo! instead. Sure, there may come a time where you want to invest in a paid CalTopo membership, but for the vast majority of us, the free version of the software provides way more than you actually need.

CalTopo and the competition

At this point, you’re probably wondering why you should use CalTopo instead of one of the other navigation apps and websites. If you ask us, CalTopo is the only option for building custom maps. But, don’t just take our word for it, take a look at why CalTopo is the ultimate backcountry mapping and navigation tool by comparing it to the Gaia, the other most popular option on the market:

CalTopo v. Gaia

Gaia is one of the more popular navigation apps out there, thanks to its user-friendly interface and customization features. Originally a backpacking-specific app, Gaia’s main feature is the ability to download topographic and satellite maps for use anywhere in the world, with or without a cellular connection.


Gaia’s maps let you use a variety of routing tools to help plan your trips. Plus, you can measure a variety of metrics, including distance, altitude, and elevation change over your proposed route so you can be better prepared for your trip.

Gaia’s GPS capabilities even let you locate campsites near your current location, with specific information about public lands to help you stay on the right side of that “No Trespassing” sign.

While Gaia’s maps have a great selection of features for route planning, all of which are also found on CalTopo, you have to pay to unlock pretty much all of these great perks. With Gaia’s free membership, all you can do is look at their standard maps – you can’t download them for offline use. So, while Gaia’s software is pretty awesome, when it comes to freely available features, you really can’t beat CalTopo.

Getting Started with CalTopo

Okay, now that you understand why CalTopo is an essential mapping tool for any outdoor enthusiast, it’s time to get you started with the program. Here’s what you need to do to make out-of-this-world maps on CalTopo: 

CalTopo membership levels

Before you start creating awesome maps with CalTopo, you’ll need to decide what kind of membership level you want to sign up for. CalTopo makes it easy to customize your experience to meet your specific needs with their four different membership levels. This is what each level offers:

lists of different membership levels at CalTopo

Free membership

CalTopo’s free membership costs you absolutely nothing and gives you access to nearly all of the program’s mapping tools. With this level of membership, you can layer different map types, add waypoints and lines, measure distances, shade certain map areas, and get a plethora of information about the terrain.

If that wasn’t good enough, you also get the ability to save five maps in “non-public” mode, which means you’re the only one who can see them – perfect for those super fancy topos you’ve made for ski trips to your favorite powder stash. Plus, you can print any map you make and download it in PDF forms. Unfortunately, with the free membership, you can only download PDFs that are 5 pages long or fewer, but they’re still pretty awesome.

The main difference between a free membership and any of the paid CalTopo memberships, however, is in your ability to download maps to the app or website for offline use. While a free membership allows you to print maps and save them as PDFs, only paid memberships let you use the maps for digital navigation without a cell signal.

Basic membership ($20/year)

CalTopo’s basic membership runs you a cool $20 a year, but it’s well worth the fee. This level of membership allows you all of the same great features of a free membership, with some additional perks. For example, you can save up to 20 non-public maps with the basic membership. Plus, with a basic plan, you can generate larger PDFs with more detail that are up to 15 pages long.

This membership plan also gives you access to nearly all the map layers in both the map and website while online, as well as the ability to download a nearly unlimited number of standard resolution maps for offline navigation. Oh, and you can also add CalTopo layers to Google Earth and export in fun file formats, like KMZ.

Pro membership ($50/year)

If you’re a frequent user of CalTopo and mapping software, the pro plan just might be for you. With CalTopo’s pro membership, you get all the features of the free and basic plans, plus 200 non-public maps and the ability to generate some huge 48”x48” PDFs for printing with a proper map printer.

On a pro plan, you can also download a nearly unlimited number of high-resolution maps with aerial imagery for offline use. Plus, you can access every map layer while using the CalTopo website or app, including the weekly high resolution (sentinel) imagery. Oh, and a pro plan allows you to export WMS and WMTS files for use in ArcGIS for the map fiends among us.

Desktop membership ($100/year)

CalTopo’s desktop plan is pretty much geared toward the most enthusiastic of cartography nerds as it includes all of the features of the pro plan, PLUS a desktop app that lets you make custom maps on your computer from anywhere in the world with or without WIFI.

You also get to download up to 300GB of maps to your computer each year, so it’s hard to fathom that you could ever download that many maps, but it’s fun to think about.

Which CalTopo membership plan should I get?

With so many different CalTopo plans to choose from, it can be difficult to decide on just one that meets your needs. Our advice? Start with the free plan and get to know the software. There are so many features on CalTopo to get used to that you won’t really have a great idea of what your needs are until you get a bit more integrated with the system.

Once you’re comfortable using CalTopo, we’d suggest starting out on the basic plan, unless you use smartphone-based mapping software frequently for work or you’re planning some sort of huge expedition.

Also read: Top 20 Best Day Hikes in the World

Additionally, although we love the idea of the desktop plan, we can’t really see a place for it in most people’s lives, unless you’re responsible for planning a huge number of trips for an outdoor organization or you’re highly involved in a search and rescue team.

caltopo replaces traditional compass and map

CalTopo Essential Skills

At this point, you understand the different membership levels of CalTopo and you’re ready to dive into the nitty-gritty details of how it all works. Although the vast majority of CalTopo users are free members, the amount of technology available to people who pay quite literally nothing to use this site is astounding. In fact, there’s so much to learn about CalTopo, getting started can be overwhelming. Here’s what you need to know: 

Creating a custom trail map

The best benefit of CalTopo is in the software’s ability to let you make a personal map that’s completely customized to your trip. Whether you’re heading out on a day hike, planning a long expedition, or looking for the best slope to ski in the backcountry, CalTopo’s got you covered. These are the top skills you need to get started with making a custom trail map with CalTopo:

Finding a Location

The first thing to do when you start making a CalTopo map is to find your desired location. When it comes to finding a location on the CalTopo website, there are a few ways you can go about doing so, depending on what you’re trying to look for.

Finding your current location

The simplest way to find a location is to simply press the circular blue button to the right of the word “GO” in the upper navigation bar on your home screen. This blue button will use your computer’s current location to find you on the map, with a pretty impressive degree of accuracy. Of course, this method is only useful if you’re trying to map an area around your current location.

screenshot of caltopo showing how to find a current location

Searching for a place name

Alternatively, you can find a location with a specific place name by using the search bar at the top of your CalTopo home page. Type in the place you’re looking for and hit “GO.” CalTopo will bring you to a map view of your desired location.

While this is pretty simple, this is the least accurate way to find a location. Since there are so many different places with the same name (good luck trying to find the right “Blue Mountain” or “Round Pond”), it’s really the luck of the draw when it comes to searching a name on CalTopo. The more specific and unique the name of a place, the more likely you’ll come to it right away.

Map searching

If you’re struggling to pin down the precise location you’re looking for through the search bar, you can always try to zoom out of the map and locate a place manually. This works best for places you’re already familiar with, especially if you know that a particular campground is just north of a town or in between two large lakes.

Map searching is the most time-intensive way to locate a particular place but is sometimes your only option.

Coordinate searching

Using the same procedure that you would use to search for a place name, you can search for coordinates instead. CalTopo is capable of locating coordinates on the Lat/Long system and on the UTM system, so it’s a super-efficient way to find the precise location you’re looking for. Of course, this assumes that you already have the coordinates you need, so it doesn’t work for everyone.

Using different layers

To begin making a custom map CalTopo, you’ll first need to select your base “layer.” In CalTopo speak, a “layer” is the map you’ll use to plot your data and read the terrain. While many people think that a map is a map, it turns out that not all topos are created equal.

In fact, some maps are better suited for particular areas, depending on if the land is managed on the state or federal level. Even within the sphere of federal lands, different federal land management agencies produce different maps of their regions. Thus, a US Forest Service map might be the best option for trips on US National Forests, while a National Park visitor’s map might provide the most information about what you’ll find at specific ranger stations.

Additionally, different kinds of maps show you different information, which may or may not be relevant to your needs. Some maps use smaller scales (such as 1:25,000), which provide you with a lot of detail in a small area for precision navigation. Others, use much larger scales (like 1:100,000), which are better for overview maps.

The free edition of CalTopo has a surprisingly long list of different map layers to choose from. The bulk standard layer you’ll find when you open up CalTopo is their proprietary “MapBuilder Topo,” which offers a decent overview of both topographical and man-made features. Other layers you can find in the free version include:

  • Topographic Maps
    • MapBuilder Topo
    • MapBuilder Hybrid
    • USGS 7.5’ Topos (Scanned)
    • Forest Service 2013
    • Forest Service 2016
    • Marine Charts
    • FAA Sectional
  • Aerial Imagery
    • NAIP 2013-2015
    • NAIP 2011-2013
  • Google Layers
    • Map
    • Terrain
    • Satellite
    • Hybrid
  • Shaded Relief
    • Normal
    • Enhanced
    • Terrain Shading
  • Other Maps
    • NPS Visitor
    • USFS Visitor
    • Historic 1885-1915
    • Historic 1915-1945
  • OpenStreetMap
    • OpenStreetMap
    • OpenCycle Map
    • TF Outdoors
  • Daily Satellites
    • Weekly High-Res
    • Daily Low-Res
    • Nightly Low-Res

To find these layers and to change your “base layer,” you’ll want to look at the upper right-hand side of your screen. Use your mouse to hover over the rectangular box that says “MapBuilder Topo” and you’ll get a drop-down menu with a lot of different checkboxes and options.  Then, hover over the rectangular box to the right of the words “Base Layer” to choose the map you want to use.

To find these layers and to change your “base layer,” you’ll do the following: 

1. Go to the upper right-hand side of your screen

2. Use your mouse to hover over the rectangular box that says “MapBuilder Topo” and you’ll get a drop-down menu with a lot of different checkboxes and options.  

screen shot of how to change map base layers on cal topo

3. Then, hover over the rectangular box to the right of the words “Base Layer” to choose the map you want to use.

screen shot of how to change map base layers on cal topo

Perhaps the coolest thing about CalTopo is that you can choose not one, not two, but as many different layers to stack on top of each other as you want! This may seem frivolous to the uninitiated, but the ability to stack multiple map layers or satellite images on top of each other can create a custom map that’s perfectly suited to your needs.

For example, if you’re headed into a super remote place in a dry environment, an outdated topo map might not accurately reflect the current conditions of the surface water and tree cover in that area.

So, you can layer the USGS 7.5’ minute maps with the NAIP 2013-2015 aerial imagery to get an idea of what you might expect in that area. Or, if you’re going on a backpacking trip in a national park, you can layer a visitor’s map with a topo map to get a good mix of trail and topo features.

To stack map layers on top of each other you’ll do the following:

1. Go to the upper right-hand side of your screen

2. Use your mouse to hover over the rectangular box that says “MapBuilder Topo” and you’ll get a drop-down menu with a lot of different checkboxes and options.  

3. Click the green button under “Additional Map Layers” that says “+Stack New Layer”

screenshot showing how to stack new layers in caltopo

4. Hover over the blank rectangular box to select the layer you want to add.

screenshot showing how to stack new layers in caltopo

5. Once you select your new map layer, you need to decide its transparency levels. The more transparent the new layer, the more prevalent the base layer will be, and vice versa. To change the transparency of a new map layer, simply move the slider under the layer name to the right for a more opaque layer or to the left for a more transparent layer.

screenshot showing how to stack new layers in caltopo


Congrats! You now know how to add and change layers on CalTopo.

Plotting lines and points

The next step in creating a highly customized CalTopo map is to plot lines and points to guide your journey. Let’s take a look at how to do that here:

Plotting a point

Plotting a point is a super useful skill on CalTopo as it allows you to easily identify points of interest along your route. Most often, we use this to label potential campsites, but it can also be useful for identifying potential sources of water, trailheads, unmarked cabins, or other similar sites.

Thankfully, plotting a point is fairly simple with CalTopo. To do so, you’ll follow these steps:

1. Look at the left-hand side of your screen. You’ll see a white panel with options for saving a map and preset layers. At the very bottom, you’ll see two green buttons: “+ Add New Object” and “+ Add New Layer.” Click the button to add a new object.

screenshot of adding an object on caltopo

2. Next, you’ll click the first item on the drop-down menu, which is “Marker”.

screenshot of adding a point on caltopo

3. Once you click the button to place a “Marker,” a small red dot will appear in the middle of your screen and a white box will appear in the lower right-hand corner.

4. Move the red dot to wherever you want it to be by clicking and dragging. Alternatively, you can type in coordinates into the appropriate space in the white box, under “Coordinates.”

5. If you want to change the style of the marker, look at the lower left-hand corner of the box, where you’ll be able to click on the red dot. From here, you can choose from a wide range of different styles, or import your own with a URL. Additionally, you can change the color of your marker by pressing on the red box next to the word “color” in the marker box.

screenshot of how to change the marker type on caltopo

6. Label your marker with something descriptive and add a comment, if you’d like. The label will show up on your map, while the comment only appears if you click on the marker.

screenshot of how to label a marker on caltopo

7. Once you’re happy with your marker, click OK on the white box to exit out of it.

8. Now if you want to edit your marker, you’ll have to click directly on it to open up a different box. From here, click the blue button that says “Edit” to return to that original white box and to be able to move your marker.

Plotting a Line

Plotting a line in CalTopo is a useful skill for anyone looking to mark specific routes for their backcountry maps. Most often, this is used to identify a common or suggested route to take from Point A to Point B, which can be super helpful information to have, especially when you’re navigating off-trail. To plot a line in CalTopo, do the following:

1. Look at the left-hand side of your screen. You’ll see a white panel with options for saving a map and preset layers. At the very bottom, you’ll see two green buttons: “+ Add New Object” and “+ Add New Layer.” Click the button to add a new object.

screenshot of adding an object on caltopo

2. Next, you’ll click the second item on the drop-down menu, which is “Line”.

3. Once you click the button that says “Line,” your cursor will change into a + shape and you’ll likely see a plethora of yellow lines get highlighted on your topo map. These yellow are common paths that people have often plotted or tracked on their GPS.

Most often, these lines follow trails, but you’ll sometimes see them deviate from marked trail, especially on older maps. Place your cursor wherever you want your line to start and click once.

screenshot of how to add a line in caltopo

4. Now that you’ve started your line, it’s time to draw out your route. If you’re following the path of the highlighted yellow line, your drawn line will “snap” to the shape of the yellow path – you just have to click your mouse occasionally along the way to keep building your line toward your final destination.

screenshot of how to add a line in caltopo

5. If you make a mistake while plotting your line, simply hit the “ESC” button and CalTopo will erase the last line segment you drew.

6. Once you have the line you want on your map, double click your mouse and – Voila! You have a line. There are options to extend, split, reverse, or delete your line, too, all of which can be found by clicking on the line and following the directions in the pop-up box. Using this box, you can even edit your line, change its colors, and give it a name for easy referencing on your map.

Using map overlays

One of the most useful, yet underrated parts of CalTopo is the ability to use map “overlays” to enhance your map for different purposes. A map overlay simply adds more information to your map to clue you into data about precipitation rates, fire regimes, or land management, to name a few.

You can find all of the map overlays by going to the same rectangular box in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, where you can add and change your map layers. In the free version of CalTopo, you have access to the following overlays:

  • Map Overlays
    • Contours
    • MapBuilder Overlay
    • Slope Angle Shading
    • Land Management
    • Motor Vehicle MVUM
    • Fire History
    • Fire Activity
    • Sun Exposure
  • Weather Forecast
    • Temperature
    • Precipitation
    • Max Wind Speed
    • Wind Plot
    • NWS Forecast Grid
  • CalTopo Maps
    • Shared Maps
  • Realtime Data
    • SnoTel Sites
    • Weather Gauges
    • Weather Stations

The average CalTopo user will get the most benefit out of using the contours and slope angle shading map overlays. When using the contours overlays, you can add in more detail to the topo lines that you already see on your map. Depending on the map layer you use, you may or may not already get a lot of information about the topography you’re looking at.

So, sometimes it’s useful to use the contour overlay on less detailed maps.

screenshot of contour overlays in Caltopo

10 Foot Contour Overlays

Alternatively, the slope angle shading map overlay is useful in a number of ways. First and foremost, if you’re new to the world of reading topographical maps, the slope angle shading can help you as you start to develop your map reading skills.

Additionally, slope angle shading can make it easier to quickly spot areas with specific slope angles as the steepness of the terrain can have a drastic effect on your ability to travel over it.

screenshot of slope angle shading on caltopo

Zoomed-out Slope Angle Shading

Finally, the slope angle shading map overlay is super useful for the backcountry skiers among us because it can make it super easy to see what slopes have angles that we should avoid based on our observations and that day’s avalanche forecast. It can also make it easier to identify potentially good ski slopes in a new location.

We recommend playing around with the fixed and gradient options on the slope angle shading map overlay to see which one works best for you.

screenshot of slope angle shading on caltopo

Zoomed-in Slope Angle Shading

Understanding terrain statistics

Beyond simply the ability to create a map, CalTopo also offers unparalleled amounts of information about the terrain you’ll see in the backcountry, all without ever leaving home. The kind of terrain statistics you can get depends heavily on whether or not you’re looking for information about a specific point or for a route, so let’s take a look at both of those topics here:

Terrain statistics for a point

CalTopo offers a number of great bits of terrain information for specific points on a map, including:

  • Latitude and Longitude
  • UTM Coordinates (Be careful –  CalTopo’s default is the WGS84 datum, so you may have to convert these coordinates, depending on your GPS! You can do that easily on CalTopo)
  • Other Position information
  • Elevation
  • Slope
  • Aspect
  • Sun Exposure

To access this information for a specific point, you’ll do the following:

1. Click on the point that you want information about.

screen shot of how to get terrain statistics on Cal Topo

2. In the white box that opens up, you can then click on either “Position & Elevation” to get information about your coordinates and elevation” or “Sun Exposure” to get a chart detailing the sun exposure at different times of day at that location.

screenshot of terrain statistics for a point on caltopo

3. To change your datum information for your coordinates (this is especially important to note if you’re going to use these coordinates on a GPS that’s set to a datum other than WGS84), you’ll want to click on “Position and Elevation.” Here, you’ll get information about your point’s coordinates in a variety of different systems, each listed in the leftmost column.

The rightmost column tells you how to “read” this information in standard human speak, instead of a bunch of numbers. To change your datum from WGS85 to NAD27 CONUS, simply click the drop-down button labeled “Read As” and select the first option.

screen shot of how to change the datum on caltopo

Terrain statistics for a route

CalTopo’s super detailed terrain statistics are incredibly useful when trying to learn more about a proposed route and what you can expect along the way. To find terrain statistics for a line you’ve drawn on a CalTopo map, do the following:

1. Click on the line you want to learn more about. A white box will appear.

2. Click the blue button that says “Terrain Statistics.” This will provide you with all of CalTopo’s terrain statistics for your route. Keep in mind that the statistics are presented in order of how you drew the route. So, if you started drawing your map in the east, your elevation profile will consider that the beginning of the route.

How to read the terrain statistics

screen shot of terrain statistics for a line on caltopo

Reading terrain statistics can be challenging at first, so here’s what you need to know:

The top section of the terrain statistics box is all dedicated to giving you information about the elevation changes in your route. This is the information you’re given and what it means:

  • In the upper left, you’ll get the “range” of your elevation in bold black lettering, which shows you the lowest elevation on your route and the highest.
  • Next to the “range,” you’ll get two numbers, one in green and one in red. The green number is the amount of elevation gain over your route and the red is the amount of elevation loss
  • Below the range and elevation change numbers, you’ll find a white graph with a red line. This shows the elevation profile of your route, from start to finish. These are fairly simple to read and they help give you an idea of when you’ll have an uphill or downhill section during your hike.
  • Just below that white box, you’ll actually see three colorful bands running from left to right under the graph. The topmost band refers to the slope angle of your climb, the middle shows the land cover type, and the bottom band shows the amount of tree cover. We’ll talk about where you can learn more about the colors shown in these bands next.
  • In the bottom third of your terrain statistics box, you’ll get five more pieces of information:
    • The first graph on the left is another way to show the elevation profile of your route, but this time in bar graph format.
    • The second graph from the left shows the slope angle throughout your route. You can match the colors shown here to the colors shown in the slope angle band under the elevation profile map for a more detailed look at the slope angle during your hike.
    • The middle graph shows you the general aspects of the slopes on your route. This is helpful information, especially for skiers and anyone looking to stay in or avoid the sun throughout the day.
    • The second graph from the right shows the tree cover along your route. You can compare this information to the tree cover band under the elevation profile chart for a more detailed view.
    • The rightmost graph is actually a color key to help you read the “land cover” band underneath the elevation chart. Using the key, you can match the colors to the type of land (e.g. shrub, forest, grassland) and get a good idea of what kind of terrain you’ll walk over during your route.
Measuring distance

Measuring the distance between two points with CalTopo is as simple as plotting a line between those points. Once you do this, you can simply click on the line, and it’ll show you the distance of that line in both kilometers and miles. What could be easier?!

Importing an existing route

If you or a friend frequently use a GPS or GPS watch to track your movements in the backcountry, you might want to import an existing route file into your custom CalTopo map. Doing this is quite simple, so long as you have the file saved to your computer or whatever you’re using CalTopo on.

To import an existing route, you’ll:

1. Look for the Import button at the top left of your screen.

screen shot of how to import a route file into Caltopo

2. Click this button and CalTopo will give you the option to connect to Garmin GPS’s GPSIO system or upload a GPX, KML, KMZ, or GeoJSON file. Once you do this, you’re all set!

Saving your map

After you spend hours or days making a super-detailed map, the very last thing you’d want is for it all to disappear into nothingness without being saved. So, just like when working on a word document, you’ll want to be sure to save your map frequently to avoid disappointment.

To save a map in CalTopo, you’ll head over to the leftmost side of the screen and look at the buttons at the top of that menu panel. Saving a map requires that you sign in with either Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, or Google, so it’s your choice how you’d like to proceed.

screen shot of how to save a map on caltopo

Once you sign in, a red button will appear under your name or email address. Click this button, give your map a name and press save. Now you’ve saved your map!

Printing CalTopo maps

Now that you’ve made your custom CalTopo map, it’s time to take it with you into the backcountry! Unless you’ve purchased on of the paid subscriptions, you won’t have the option to download a map onto the app for offline use. Plus, even if you did have this option, it’s always a good idea to have a paper map with you when heading into the mountains.

So, to print a map, you’ll do the following:

1. Click on the button in the upper section of your screen that says “Print”

screen shot of how to print a map in caltopo

2. This will open up a box that allows you to print using PDF or JPG, download KMZ or MBTiles files, or print a coordinates list (also helpful). Press the first button to print using PDF or JPG.

3. You’ll be taken into a new screen where you’ll get a big red box placed over your map. This red box is the print area, so you’ll have to select what you’d like to print.

4. To move the print area box, press on the red dot in the middle to drag it around the map. Adjust the sides of the box to be the perfect size for your map. You can also change the box from portrait to landscape using the drop-down menu to on the bottom of the lefthand side of the screen.

screen shot of how to print a map in caltopo

Adding two print areas

5. You can customize certain settings, including gridlines for your PDF on the left side of your screen.

6. If you want to add another page to cover more area on your map, click the green button at the lower lefthand side of your screen to add a page. Then adjust the print area as appropriate.

7. When you’re ready, press the button to generate a PDF. Open the PDF file and print!

CalTopo Apps

Until fairly recently, CalTopo’s functionality was limited to on-line use at home on your computer. Thanks to the somewhat new release of CalTopo’s apps for both apple and android phones, however, you can now take the power of CalTopo’s mapping software into the backcountry with you.

Both versions of the CalTopo app are still fairly new, so you may encounter some bugs, though the company is quick to fix them. The best part of CalTopo’s apps is that they allow you to download maps for offline navigation use, just as you would with Gaia.

Plus, CalTopo’s maps have more layers and features than Gaia, so they’re great for getting the maximum amount of information possible about a specific area. The downside is that, while the app is free, you need a paid subscription to download maps for offline use.

CalTopo: To Use or Not to Use?

If you ask us, CalTopo is a pretty amazing piece of software, especially when you consider how much you can do without paying a single penny. CalTopo’s ability to create custom maps is really unparalleled, once you learn how to harness all of its features.

If you’re the type of person who uses maps a lot in their daily life and would benefit from downloading offline maps, we’d highly recommend paying for one of the premier membership options. Otherwise, get mapping and get outdoors with some amazing customized topo maps, free of charge!


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