Last fall, National Geographic introduced a free, user-friendly web tool that automatically breaks up USGS topographic maps to fit onto standard 8.5 inch x 11 inch printer paper.
If you’ve ever used any standard-sized USGS topographic map, you are well aware of the over-sized dimensions that such maps typically come in. That means that if you download one in its entirety—and you can download virtually every USGS topo map ever made, for free, via the USGS web site—it’s going to be a challenge to print.
Enter National Geographic’s PDF Topo! Maps tool. To use it, simply zoom in on the interactive map to the area you’re interested in. As you get closer, a series of small red squares appear; each one represents the center point of the 7.5-minute topographic map (the most zoomed-in USGS topo map style available) that covers the area. Click on the red square to open a pop-up window that identifies the name of the quad, then click the map in the pop-up window.
This instantly creates a five-page PDF file that breaks down the quad into four sections, plus an overview map showing the entire quad in context. Here for example, are quads for Katahdin, Mount Washington, and Mount Mansfield. The files are sized for printing on standard paper.
The tool is easy-to-use, fast to download, and offers comprehensive coverage of the lower 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii are not included). It’s not perfect, however, and has a few minor annoyances. These include the fact that you must sign up for their newsletter to use the tool; that you are limited to only 7.5-minute maps (smaller-scale topo maps that cover a larger area are not available); and that the tool indicates where National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps are available, but gives you no way to click on or find them online from the tool.
More significantly, you are also limited by the boundaries established by the USGS maps—you can’t custom center and download a map that covers more than one quad. So if your trail or area runs along the edges of the quad, you’ll be shuffling back and forth between maps as you travel.
These are all balanced, of course, by the fact that this tool is completely free to use. And who doesn’t like free maps?