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Caltopo: A Great Online Mapping and Planning Tool for Hikers

I started using Caltopo.com to plan and document all of my hikes and backpacking trips about a year ago after my friend Matt (Matt’s Hikes) recommended it on the approach hike to Peak Above the Nubble. Matt raved about Caltopo’s ability to print out custom maps using the 1:24000 USGS scale – which are excellent for carrying on off-trail hikes. The printing capabilities in Caltopo really are fabulous, but there’s so much more to this program that I’m surprised that more people don’t know about it.

First off, Caltopo.com is free to use. It supports many of the capabilities of desktop topographical mapping software but it’s online so you can access it anywhere and share it with other people. You can store maps you create with it for future reference, export and import gpx files, embed maps on a web pages or send them with a hyperlink. Caltopo also supports collaborative planning, like Gmap4, but the printing is much better.

Caltopo was originally developed for search and rescue work by Matt Jacobs (a different Matt), who loaded it with California-specific mapping data. He later added data for the entire United States but the original name stuck.

Watch Creating Markers and Shapes in Caltopo on YouTube

While you can layer data from different data sources in Caltopo, I like to use it planning routes and waypoints before a trip and then share online interactive maps of my routes so that other people can replicate or modify my trips. Here are a couple of Caltopo routes that I’ve published on SectionHiker recently.

If you’re planning off trail hikes, you can draw free-formed routes (not just straight lines), measure potential route lengths without creating a line, compute elevation profiles. and easily flip between different map layers such as a standard topo view, shaded relief, and satellite imagery to scope out the terrain, identify cliffs, and blow-down fields.

That’s really just a brief overview of Caltopo because there’s so much you can do with it. Give it a try if you’re planning a trip. I think it’s a fabulous navigation planning tool.

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13 comments

  1. Great article about a great web resource. I use CalTopo all the time, even more so now that I am trying to do as much of my computing as possible with Chrome OS rather than with Windows. I may not have as many total features as Expert GPS, but it has some nice ones of its own. I especially like the “View from here” feature with wireframe imagery.

  2. One of my favorite little features in Caltopo is the ‘view from here’ option. It’s great when trying to label peaks in a photo – I go to where I was standing, right click -> view from here, then turn on the satellite and wireframe layers. It’s an amazing tool!

  3. Just the other day recommended gmap4 from your article about it.

    • Got seduced by this other tool. The printing is much better. Being able to print 1:24,000 with distance scales is really nice.

      • Philip,
        You and I are certainly on the same page!
        I recommended Gmap4 to my navigation students of until about two years ago, when Cal topo completely eclipsed it.

        You mentioned map scale. One of the great features of Cal topo is you can select from five or six standard scales, or choose custom imprinted any skill you want to. Combining this with a variety of paper sizes, and you can pretty much print any map size of any scale that you can imagine.

  4. I really like Caltopo maps, seems they’re the best of available options. For use away from the desktop I would suggest using BackCountry Navigator for Android. Not sure if you have the option of using various icons for places in Caltopo.com but you can use various icons in BackCountry Navigator.
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.crittermap.backcountrynavigator.license

  5. Here, here. it’s a completely fabulous tool.

    HJ

  6. So I’m a novice really trying to get into this mapping stuff. I noticed on the map you shared Royce Speckled Mountain that the trail is already marked out on the map and you just drew an outline of it. Some trails that i would like to find are not mapped out on CalTopo. How can I use CalTopo to fond these trails or can I?

  7. One more terrific feature of Cal topo: you can right click anywhere on the map to make a marker point or a free-form line, by holding down the shift key and dragging. Then, you can export these points and lines as either a GPX file or a KML file.

    You can use the GPX file on your GPS or smart phone GPS app, and view the Cambell files in google earth.

    This is extremely handy for route planning at home.

    Also, you can easily import a GPX track that you have procured from somewhere, perhaps from a friends trip, or downloaded from the web from a track sharing site like GPSies.com.

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