Beginning in the 1940s, the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Mapping

Program was tasked with the immense cartographical feat of surveying

the entire country to create a series of more than 50,000

topographical maps. Widely-available and mostly accurate, the

1:24,000-scale government maps canvas the total of the contiguous

United States. They are today de rigueur on outdoors adventures

ranging from mountain climbs to canoe trips.

Not occurring to many people — including me! — these maps exist

within the public domain and are thus free for use and distribution.

Taxpayers funded the decades-long project, and now you, dear taxpayer,

are allowed the keys to download thousands of maps from a U.S.

Geological Survey web site.

To be sure, printed maps from the USGS still come with a fee. But a

download of the agency’s cartographical creations, which open in Adobe

Acrobat as PDF files, is as simple and free as a few mouse clicks.

You can print the high-resolution map files from a home inkjet. Or,

save the file and email a map to a copy shop for large-format

print-outs.

To start the process, go to http://store.usgs.gov and find the text

“Map Locator” on the top upper part of the left-hand column. Click it

to be whisked to a Google Maps interface of the United States.

Instructions are on the right side of this page. Essentially, you can

search a place name — “Yosemite,” for example — and then select from

available topo maps of the area by clicking on red marker icons that

pop on the Google map.

To select a map and download, click on the red marker. You will be

presented with a pop-up balloon showing one or more maps in the area.

Click “download” next to the map of choice, and wait as the data

streams in and saves on your computer.

In my tests, the USGS site was often slow. Map data can take a long

time to display, even with a fast connection. Usability on the site

was only mediocre, too. I am fairly literate in the ways of the Web.

But the USGS site was not entirely intuitive.

Regardless, follow the instructions close and you should have few

issues. Now, go forth taxpayer! Scour the topos. Enter into the public

domain. And download your maps at will.

–Stephen Regenold writes about outdoors gear at www.gearjunkie.com.