Caltopo tip - Try the "MapBuilder Topo" layer


CalTopo, in my opinion the best online and free mapping software, continually rolls out great new features. There’s a (relatively) new map layer, called "MapBuilder Topo” that is a terrific option for printing outdoor recreation maps. It's a big improvement over the standard USGS 7.5 minute map layer. 

What’s cool about it?

  • Shaded relief (shows terrain features like ridges and gullies more clearly)

  • Easy to see and well-labeled contour intervals

  • Roads and trails easily visible and labeled

  • Some distracting non-essential map information (such as unnecessary text, public lands survey section lines and wilderness boundaries) removed or made less prominent

  • County lines added in yellow (it’s helpful to know what county you‘re in if a rescue is needed)

  • Shows approximate vegetation and terrain boundaries, such as forest, rock, and snow/glacier, even crevasses

Have a look yourself!

  1. Go to

  2. Mouseover the “Base Layer” icon in the top right corner

  3. Select "MapBuilder Topo” from the drop down menu (should be the first choice at the top)

  4. Zoom in to your area of interest. Swap back and forth between this map layer and USGS to see the differences. (Note that the map tiles may take longer to generate on your computer and also to print when using this layer.)

Here’s an example of Mt. Hood south side in the standard, old-school US Geological Survey 7.5 minute topo map. 

Note that there’s no relief shading, trails are hard to spot, there’s unnecessary “Mount Hood” text in a large font, the chairlift isn’t shown. Not bad, but definitely room for improvement.

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 9.15.21 AM.png

Now, here’s the same map area in the MapBuilder Topo layer. Improvements:

  • the relief shading makes the gullies and ridges much more obvious

  • county line (yellow) is labeled

  • ski chairlift is shown (very handy for finding your way back down in low visibility)

  • trails are clearly delineated and labeled

  • every index contour has an elevation label

  • green wilderness area boundary is current and correct

Hood caltopo map annotated.png

Which map would you rather use? The USGS 7 1/2 minute maps for many decades were the only game in town, and unfortunately that’s what some old-school navigation classes and textbooks still advise you to use. But, for most people and most activities, these are no longer the best choice. 

Get with the modern times, learn to use mapping tools like CalTopo, and you can have a superior map for free!

And, if you think CalTopo is great, I strongly encourage you to support CalTopo with a $20 annual subscription. There is just one guy running this entire software platform, and your modest annual subscription can help ensure that this great service continues on into the future.

Having a subscription also gives you some nice perks, like being able to print on larger size paper, and being able to save and share your maps to the cloud. When you consider that a single commercial map of just one area can cost between $10 and $15 at the outdoor store, a $20 annual subscription to this mapping software is a pretty screaming deal.