Goodbye Paper Topographic Maps, Hello US Topo

The USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle map has been around for over a century, but the familiar paper version is on its way out.

USGS 7.5-minute quadrangle paper maps are being shoved aside. Digital US Topo maps now available on the Web perform like traditional paper topo maps while offering important technical advantages.

For more than a century now, the 7.5 minute quadrangle map, which has a scale of 1:24,000 (one inch to 2,000 feet), has been the standard map used by outdoor recreationists, scientists, land managers, and many others. The USGS has produced over 57,000 different ones since the agency was founded in 1879. Today you can obtain 7.5 minute quadrangles covering all 48 contiguous states, Hawaii, the U.S. territories, and the Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Prudhoe Bay areas of Alaska.

The problem with our old topographic maps is that they are, well…… old. As cultural features of the landscape have come and gone through the decades, and as orthophoto mapping, satellite imagery, GIS, and other remote sensing, refined mapping, and geoanalytical techniques have come into widespread use, USGS hasn’t had the money to update the paper topo map series. It’s been impractical to rely on volunteers to do the job, too. After a good deal of hand-wringing, it was finally decided that the paper topographic map series would have to be replaced by The National Map and related tools permitting a wide range of faster, cheaper, more sophisticated geographic analysis.

The USGS is excited about its new US Topo map series, and if you are a topographic map user, you should be too. Digital US Topo maps perform like traditional 7.5-minute quadrangle paper topographic maps while offering important technical advantages, including data layers that permit onscreen geographic analysis. You’ll like the price, too. This new generation of topo maps, “an evolutionary step toward complete digital topographic map content,” is available free of charge on the Web.

As the USGS has proudly announced:

Each map quadrangle is constructed in GeoPDF® format from key layers of geographic data – orthoimagery, roads, geographic names, contours and hydrographic features - found in The National Map, which is a nationwide collection of integrated data from local, State, Federal, and other sources.

US Topo users can turn geographic data layers on and off as needed; zoom in and out to highlight specific features or see a broader context; and print the maps, in their entirety or in customized sections, on a wide variety of printing devices. Additional analytical tools are available free for download. File size for each digital 7.5-minute quadrangle is about 15-20 megabytes.

This is actually a second-generation, new and improved tool:

The prototype of US Topo, "Digital Map–Beta," has been available since June 2009 and currently covers 17 states. US Topo maps include all of the content of the earlier "Digital Map–Beta," plus integrated contours and hydrographic features.

As the US Topo product evolves, the USGS will provide digital versions of earlier edition topographic quadrangle maps and will incorporate additional geographic data layers from The National Map


Having nationally consistent data quality assured to high standards is a tremendous benefit of this approach, but there are lots of other advantages. The maps can be printed to scale or used onscreen, and there are direct "mash-up" capabilities with Google Maps®. Depending on their needs, users can select from various reference systems, including LatLong and Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM).

For further information about downloading and using US Topo, currently available coverage, and the timetable for production of US Topo maps, visit this site.

This great leap forward in map technology doesn’t mean that the legions of hikers, bikers, 4WDers, birders, climbers, and other recreationists who routinely use topographic maps are going to summarily toss their “tope sheets” into the recycling bin and start packing laptops instead. Lots of traditionalists feel navigationally challenged if they don’t have paper maps to use, and many appreciate the look and feel of the things too much to easily part with them. They don’t need batteries, either.

But I have seen the future, folks, and the paper map is a fast-fading part of it.

Picture this scene. Grizzled Outdoorsman stands next to a trail studying a topo map spread out on a boulder and anchored with pebbles. G.O. loves that map, tattered and stained though it is. Hearing the sound of approaching feet, G.O. looks up to see a 15 year-old kid. The kid says “hi,” then reaches for his belt and unclips a handheld electronic device. It contains, among other things, a complete copy of The National Map and enough GIS software to bring tears to the eyes of a professional geographer. The kid’s been brought up right, so he adopts what he hopes is a non-patronizing posture as he asks the old man: “Excuse me, sir, but what would you like to know?”

Postscript: As a basic component of The National Map, US Topo plays a vital role in the USGS National Geospatial Program, the umbrella program for USGS geospatial coordination, production, and service activities.



All I can say is "Yippeeeeee!".

I must include, however, that if I was lost in the woods and needed help, I'd still rather run into G.O. than the kid.

Good point, Kirby. Despite its praiseworthy features, a piece of electronic gear can't magically provide its bearer with the experience, sound judgment, forbearance, and other qualities needed for survival in the wild.

I'm a little confused in terms of one detail- can you load these maps onto a gps unit currently? I don't see information about that on the US Topo page. To me, the US Topo project is just another way to get a paper map- with the advantage of being able to scale it as you like and switch to UTM.

I've been using National Geopgraphic's TOPO Explorer, where you buy quads for $1, can print great maps and transfer them to certain types of GPS. I think I'll stick with this system for a while...

Free maps, how can I pass that up?
Batteries do die, so I'll still have a paper back-up.

If it were possible to load that info into a GPS (not a GIS), I'm sure that instructions would be provided. We'll check further. Meanwhile, I think it's a tad dismissive to suggest that "the US Topo project is just another way to get a paper map- with the advantage of being able to scale it as you like and switch to UTM." It's not just about packaging. The layered information in US Topo opens up a world of useful descriptive and analytical things that you cannot even begin to do with the limited information a traditional map provides.

This sounds great. It will be even better when GeoPDF can be run on a Mac.

If you've got a pc, you can download quadrangles (@ The National Map) in GeoPDF format from the USGS store at no cost. I didn't realize that you can't do the downloads on a Mac. Does that also apply to a Mac that has the Windows OS loaded on it?

It looks like the plug-in for GeoPDF is from a company called terraGo Technologies. Apparently it operates through Adobe Reader and there's currently only a Windows version. I would think it should work on Windows loaded on a Mac via BootCamp.

I'm trying it on my Mac , and all I can see for the area where I live is what looks like a satellite map. I can turn on/off some of the layers, but I'm thinking that there are some advanced features that I'm not seeing.

Thanks, y_p_w. If a Mac owner using the Windows OS (via Boot Camp) is able to access only some of the layers, it may still be OK if the missing layers aren't needed or wanted, but it sounds to me like there could be a lot being given up. Pending further information from Mac users who can address this matter from experience, I'd be reluctant to recommend the GeoPDF plugin to Mac users.

Totally USLESS for most people. GeoPDF is only for Windows PCs. It does not work on the most obvious device, the iPhone or iPad. Does not run on Macs. You can't load it into a hand held GPS. So we have government data that we all paid for and in order to use we have to pay Microsoft for a copy of Windows. We can vote a president out of office if we don't like him but he bureaucrat who decided on this Windows Centric system , no way we can vote him out of his job.

This data needs to be in a truly open format. The sad part is that it would not have cost any more for the USGS to have done this "right".

Uh, "iPhone or iPad" does NOT equal "most people", unless you're talking about most people in a very small and entitled portion of Western Civilization. Most people in your world perhaps, 'anonymous 9:38pm', but not most people in THE world.

And to the greater point of the article, GPS or other tools on a phone of any sort are nice, but my current cell phone got broken just bumping into the corner of my desk in my pocket. No matter what electronic tools/tethers I may carry into the bush I still want the paper maps I learned to read and navigate by 40+ years ago in basic training.

last time I checked, "most people" use Windows and don't have iPhones/iPads.

Besides, who in the heck totes an iPad while hiking in a place where you'll need a topo map?

Just saying.