Website of the week: CalTopo

I love maps.

They show possibilities, what new trips may come up and let me dream of future jaunts.

I can see ridge lines I want to walk, alpine lakes to scurry to and possible camp sites that will be memorable.

The proprietor of the local map store knows me by face and once said to me “’s you!” when I walked in to purchase a map. 🙂

When planning for a trip, the Trails Illustrated or similar maps work well for a general overview. And work well enough if I am staying on trail or going off-trail on terrain not particularly difficult.

But if I need more detail for an off trail route esp?

Then I go to a website I’ve been using for about a year or so now: CalTopo.

Caltopo, as the name would suggest, originated for CALifornia TOPOgraphic maps.

The website uses maps based on 7.5′ USGS quads for the United States as its base. But you can also use historic maps (useful for finding old miner trails in the western mountains), park brochures, USFS maps and so on. (EDIT: And apparently Canadian topos, too. Woo hoo!)


I used CalTopo to plan out a hike on Cloud Peak.

The website is amazing for doing pre-trip info gathering and for using while on-trail.

I find the search engine to find spots is amazing. Much better than a commercial site I use for the Trails Illustrated maps.

Traces can done between points, layers can be added,  shaded relief shown,  export to .GPX format, notes can done, and more…

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I learned map and compass skills in the “wilds” of RI. 🙂 Same principles still apply, though…

The price? Free. Nada. Niente. Zip. Gratis.

UPDATE 10/23/15 –  Basic features are still free. However, various rates for additional features nows. Still, well worth it. And the basic features are very powerful, too.


For you more electronic minded backcountry users, a map can be exported to PDF and saved to a tablet or phone, too.

It really is an awesome site and a useful tool.

This video explains all the powerful features far better than I:

I’ll still like a larger map for an overview, but for fine detail, can’t beat the custom maps made with CalTopo.

So get yourself to CalTopo. And start planning trips.

And if you find the software works for you..consider a subscription.


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8 years ago

Just published on his blog in the past couple days – looks like he’s likely moving to a paid-subscription model. Easily will be worth whatever he charges.

Sam H.
8 years ago

I’ve sent caltopo at least one donation in the past and I would definitely sign up for a paid subscription if it moved to that model. It is THAT good.