Sneaky hack: The better way to get topo maps (cheap & fast)

Topo map and compassYes, you can use a GPS device or your phone, but there’s something deeply satisfying about using real, live, physical topo maps to find your way in the big outside.  No batteries required, nothing to break, and you can pretend you’re like the old timers of decades past, finding their way through the wilderness. And I’ll show you a life hack I use to get better topo maps.

Ah, maps.

Oh, and they make great inspirational wall art. Kind of meditative too (I have one on my office wall that I look at while I’m on the phone).

The problems with most topo maps

Before we wax all nostalgic for topo maps, we can agree that they have a few problems, namely:

  • they can rip
  • they’re big
  • some assembly required (in other words, you kind of need to know a bit about how to use them)
  • bulky (though they do weigh less than a GPS unit or your phone)

The upsides of a real, physical map

Despite the downsides, topo map haters can’t deny the advantages of having a real, in-your-hands map:

  • Printed maps don’t require batteries (that die when you most need your GPS).
  • They’re big, which means you can easily see the big picture: where you’re at, where you’ve been, where you’re going, and all the ways to can get from point A to point B. GPS units & apps give you a tiny, near-microscopic view of the terrain.
  • Never lose your map data. Ever have a memory card die when you’re in the back of beyond? Your friendly map won’t let you down.
  • Topo maps are truly off-the-grid. No signal or data link required. Rely on your wits.

more hurdles though…

If you’re convinced you want printed topo maps, you’ve got some options for where to snag them:

  • buy them online
  • snag your maps from the USGS
  • brick-n-mortar store like REI, or other outdoor gear shops
  • print them yourself from one of the online topo maps sites

But you still run into problems, like:

  • What if you want a map for a special area, or centered on a particular spot?
  • Your hike spans multiple USGS quads, but you don’t want to lug a giant portfolio of maps through the backcountry?
  • Those teeny contour lines are confusing, and you can’t tell if they mean the landscape is rising or falling?

Fortunately, there’s a better way.

How I get my topo maps (super-sneaky hack)

Instead of printing them myself on regular, non-waterproof paper, OR relying on REI’s limited selection of maps, my favorite resource is the local surveyors’ supply store. Yep, those guys & gals need topo maps all the time, and they’re not going to rely on standard USGS stuff. Surveyors are special, and so are you.

At my local surveyors’ supply store, besides all the cool compasses & surveyor gear, they’ve got super-high-end software and printers specifically for mapping. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars in specialized equipment, just for printing maps.

All at your disposal, for a very low fee, about $12 per map, give or take.

Tell them what you want (location, scale, shading, centering, whatever). And they’ll cheerfully print a custom topo map to your exact specs, while you wait.

Usually the first print might not be quite right, so they’ll tweak it & print you a final version.

Topo maps sample

See that map sample? That’s from a custom map I got for a hiking trip down into Grand Canyon. Check out the shading; you can clearly see & understand the topography, even in a place as convoluted & crazy as the inner canyon. Click the image to see a higher-resolution version.

It’s a thing of beauty!

So, you get your professional-quality custom topo map, all on durable, waterproof, special map paper that you can write on, and will stand up to the rigors of being stuffed into & pulled out of your pack again & again.

Then, you’ll get to keep all the copies–and usually still only pay for the final version. In other words, you’ll get backup copies for the price of 1 map, since the store will just throw away those first-draft maps anyway. Give the copies to your hiking buddy, or stuff it in a cache, or hang it on your wall.

Granted, it’s not free, but it’s super reasonably priced, totally customized, waterproof, durable, and you’re supporting a local business to boot.

Want more outdoor gear tricks like this?

Let me know in the comments. Or share your own favorite outdoor, hiking, backpacking trick!

Oh, and if you want to see what we think of the top-rated camp stoves, click here to check out our list.

Dad, husband, and outdoor gearhead. I love backpacking, & take my kids into the backcountry every chance I get. My wife prefers car camping. Between backpacking & car camping, we've tried a ton of gear. After struggling to find the best gear, I created this site to help others & share what I've learned.
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