For a while now, I’ve been making maps for my backcountry trips. I’m mainly doing this because, unlike the UK, North America doesn’t necessarily have great maps for every area. Furthermore, I sometimes don’t want to pay for a printed map for a quick trip, or perhaps I’ve not found a single map that shows everything I want, or shows too much. To fix this, I’ve dived into the world of creating your own maps. There are a lot of different tools out there to do this, and honestly no one tool is perfect. Even if it was, there is no one data source either.
What I’ve decided to write is the guide that works pretty well most of the time for:
- The Tools
- Finding the map source that works
- Finding relevant data to overlay on the map
- Adding data to the map
- Printing a paper map
- Generating an output that can be read by most GPS units
- Offline Smartphone Apps
- Loading your route onto your smartphone
I’ve written this with hiking in mind, but you could use it for pretty much anything… biking, snowshoeing, skiing, camping all spring to mind. I’ve broken it up in to sections you can (kind of) take or leave. For example, if you just want a paper map, just do up to that point, or perhaps you use an iOS device, you can export the data then import it into your app of choice.
Before we start, I also want to be clear that I’m not responsible for the accuracy of the maps or data you choose to use. Be mindful though that any source you pick might not be perfectly up to date, and especially in winter, won’t show current conditions (e.g. recent landslides, avalanche dangers, unmelted snow, road closures etc).
UPDATE 11th September 2015: I wanted to add something here, remember that your smartphone might be your only way to call for help. You should preserve battery life for that possibility. External batteries are available to keep your phone going and much like you take extra food into the backcountry, you should take extra power, more than you need. But fundamentally, this guide is more about making a paper map than it is necessarily about using it on your phone. As I emphasize later, always bring a paper map (which can never run out of battery) with suitable knowledge of how to use it. This is just one part of many hiking precautions, North Shore Rescue can give you direct advice from the first hand experience of a Search and Rescue team on what to do before you leave, please read that.
As I said in the introduction, there are loads of tools to achieve the same end. For this article, I’m going to skip the debate for a bit, and just pick a few:
- For finding sources, importing maps, light editing and printing of your maps: CalTopo
- For mapping in the backcountry (Android smartphones): Backcountry Navigator
Those two are the main two you will need, but there are a few others worth mentioning:
I might not go into full details on those, but they have guides on how to use them.
Also, I stress again these are not the only tools out there.
Let’s start with CalTopo and search for roughly where you are going.
CalTopo, on the default map layer.
Finding a Map Source that Works
I’m lucky, I live in British Columbia, and CalTopo has access to some great maps from DataBC. You might not be so lucky, or might not like what you see, so in the top right corner, you can change your source:
I’m personally a fan of OpenCycleMap (link to the full service), as it tends to have great data, especially for near populated areas, worldwide:
CalTopo set to OpenCycleMap
But in some areas, not so much:
A little more sparse in this area
Play around a bit until you find one you like:
This is actually a scan (most of these are). But it does show some extra details (camp sites by the road, ski lifts)
This one is nice, but I’m going back to the first for now
Don’t get too hung up on this, pick a usable one even if it’s not perfect.
Where to get your relevant data?
You thought I put a lot of disclaimers in about the data sources being more regional than global? Treble those warnings here.
You’re going to have to look for a source of trails, waypoints, routes etc. These can be from plenty of places, find them with Google. Here are just a few that work for me:
For this example, I’m going to use some waypoints from ClubTread, and a route from EveryTrail. This assumes you want 2 data sources (any number is fine). At the bottom of both pages, you will find download links:
ClubTread’s download link for waypoints
EveryTrail’s download link (on lower right of the page)
2 GPX files are yours!
GPX files are the most widely accepted file format for various tools (KML is probably second). For this guide, we’ll just stick with GPX files. It’s important to know that they only contain a small set of objects, like tracks, waypoints and a few others. They do NOT contain the image of the map you overlay them on.
Adding Data to the Map
Back to CalTopo, time to import both those GPX files!
Once the import is complete, our map will show the waypoints above:
Dog Mountain with just the waypoints
Repeat for the other file you downloaded and you’ll get a route too:
Dog Mountain with Waypoints and Route
Now is a good time to save your work in CalTopo (creating an account if necessary)
Let’s say you want to add your own objects to the map, you can, in the lower left. For this example, I’ll add a simple marker (lower left of the interface):
You can add a lot of different things to maps in CalTopo as you can see here – but for ease, I’m just going to cover simple markers for now.
Adding a marker
Printing a Paper Map
Here is where CalTopo really shines I feel. Click Print in the top right corner.
I personally like creating PDFs for this bit, so the guide will show that. The print from browser tool is very good as well and a fine choice, so go right ahead and use it if you prefer.
CalTopo PDF Printing
Hit Generate PDF when you’re ready. You’ll find the result looks better than the preview above:
Screenshot of the resulting PDF
Print those and take them with you.
You might want to add some pages or print again for some area maps. It’s easy to make a book-style map for yourself. I recommend taking maps of the area, not just the exact route and nothing else, in case you get lost.
How to make these waterproof you ask? A resealable bag works as good as anything I’ve used.
Need to catch up? Here is a link to the map I was making in the above screenshots.
Generating Output for most GPS Units
Remember GPX files? You’re going to export your own from CalTopo
Export to GPX above (you can also export to Google Earth’s KML format if you wish to view your work in Google Earth)
Send the resulting GPX file to your device (check your manual on how to do this).
Using this on your phone
This brings us now to the other tool I really love in wild, Backcountry Navigator. I very much recommend you spend the $10 on the Pro version as it does a LOT for that. You can also quite easily load maps for Offline use (probably not an issue on Dog Mountain, but certainly is when you’re in the backcountry near Pemberton).
Before we start though, let me make it clear that you should always go into the backcountry with a paper map, compass and knowledge of how to use them. Smartphones and non-smartphone GPS devices can and do run out of power, may not be water resistant, be broken in falls or you may have forgotten to set them up before you left. The guide up to this point shows you how, so you have no excuse.
To ensure this part stays up to date, I’m going to link to their getting started guides on how to download maps and use the app: http://support.crittermap.com/forums/21342738-User-Guide
However, here we are going to import our map data and download some maps for offline use. Do this before going into the backcountry where you will likely not have phone reception or data service.
A prerequisite step, not shown, is transferring the files to your device. Email them to yourself, plug in via a USB cable, use the beloved AirDroid or Dropbox… there are lots of ways.
As I was creating this, it turned into a screenshot lead tour, so for this next part, here’s a gallery, in step by step order.
Let’s load the GPX file from earlier
Import tracks and waypoint
Find the file you need
Create a new trip database (or add to an existing one if you need to)
It’s our data from CalTopo! Shown with the OpenCycleMap map layer below.
But lets choose the more familiar map (sorry, I messed up this screenshot a bit and had to pixelate it to avoid confusion)
Head to more map sources
Find the maps you prefer (note that I’m in the USA maps here for Caltopo, there is also a Canada maps section)
CalTopo map layer
In Map Layers, we can also download maps for offline use
Select the area you want
Not shown, but choose the maximum zoom level to download, then create a new map package and name it
Estimated size will be shown, tap proceed
Once done, you can change to offline maps in Map Layers (also, to go back to “online”, change to the Preview Cache)
The results! Remember, if it’s not downloaded, it won’t show. Be sure to download before you go to the backcountry.
When you’re out in the wilderness, you can find your position (well, as good as your phone can tell you) using the options under this menu:
Remember: GPS uses considerable power, but will work when you don’t have phone reception (you’d be surprised how many people think you need a phone signal, in fact, you don’t, but you do need data service if you have not stored the map offline).
Hopefully now you have a paper map from CalTopo and an Android phone/tablet running BackCountry Navigator with your route and maps available offline.
Remember to waterproof your phone somehow (I just put mine inside a pocket sized MEC dry bag) and bring some extra external batteries with you.
A big thanks to the makers of all the tools and data sources used in this article. Many of them are free, open source or low cost for high value. Consider donating or purchasing. CalTopo’s About Page has details on how the developer likes support, and they have an awesome blog too. Backcountry Navigator is made by CritterMap Software and can be demoed for 30 days and/or purchased on Google Play.