How You Can Get Every U.S. Topo Map for Free–Easily

National Geographic unlocks its vault of USGS maps, in home printer format, at a cost of nada

Maybe you don’t care about paper topographic maps any more. Maybe you are addicted to the power of the Gaia GPS app and carry your smartphone or iPad Mini in an Otter Box. But, as you know in your heart of hearts, there may come a day when electronics let you down and you’re so very happy you packed the analog insurance of a map and compass. And for that day, you might want to thank National Geographic, which has just made it far easy to get and print every U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle map for free.

Now, there are lots of free map sources. And you certainly can always pick up one of those rolled quads at REI or your nearest independent outdoor retailer. But Nat Geo’s PDF Quads service is just about the smartest, most convenient way to acquire and carry the maps.

You start by searching or scrolling through a Google Maps-style interface, then zoom in until you get to the area you want cartographied. NG’s service works by dividing the 7.5-minute, 1:24,000 into four smaller quadrants that fit onto a standard size letter paper and provides them to you as four separate PDFs, along with an overview map. In practice this is (obviously) more convenient than carrying a full-size USGS quad, and good luck trying to print one of those yourself.

But the way the maps are divided can also be awkward. For example, San Jacinto Peak, one of Southern California’s most popular hiking destinations, ends up printed with the peak in one corner of one sheet and the primary trail to it on another sheet. For fine navigation, maybe it’s not such an issue, but when trying to grasp the larger picture of the landscape it can be a challenge. Still, it’s free. Via your own printer. So, I’ll just shut up and enjoy.

And Nat Geo also adds hill shading, which the USGS doesn’t. So what’s not to love?


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Showing 2 comments
  • captkit

    “a battle is an event which takes place at the junction two maps”

  • Best camp stoves

    Nice resource. Instead of printing on regular, non-waterproof paper, or relying on REI’s limited selection of maps, my favorite resource is the local surveyors’ supply store. They’ll print a custom topo map, with customized shading, scale, centering, etc. on waterproof paper, for about $12.

    Then, you can fold the map down to size for easy use while hiking, and still see the big picture. Granted, it’s not free, but it’s reasonably priced & totally customized to wherever you want to go.

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