How To Use CalTopo To Plan Your Next Hike

Where do you get your hiking maps? If you haven’t heard of CalTopo, it’s time you did. Caltopo is a free, open source, easy to use software that makes building custom tracks simple. You can customize the base layer, allowing for an easy to read interface. Users can also draw custom trails and create their own paths. Even the elevation profile can be analyzed via Caltopo.

In my own experience, it has surpassed Google Maps in terms of usefulness. The next time you plan a hike, create your route using CalTopo. You can download it as a GPX file and even print a PDF version of the map. Carry a paper copy as well as a GPS version, never get lost again. 

Follow this link to see a real-world example used to create a hike in the Gila Wilderness. 

Logging into CalTopo will give you this screen:

Initial login CalTopo Screen

This is the basic map that you will see upon first logging in. If you plan on using this website frequently, creating your own account is a great way to save progress and maps. The best part, it’s free!

Getting started and using this program is easier than it looks. The software is intuitive and has just enough options to make the learning curve quick and easy. 

Starting With the Base Layer

In the upper right-hand corner of the screen is the button that has the words  “mapbuilder topo”. Hovering your mouse on top of the text opens a drop-down menu.

Caltopo dropdown menu

The drop-down menu is listing all the available layers for the base map. On here, you can choose a variety of options to build your route. Each uses a different style of illustration technique but the general topographical knowledge is nearly identical. My personal favorite layer is the USGS 7.5” option. It breaks the entire country into distinct grids, mimicking the old paper method of mapping used by the forest service.

The reason I enjoy the USGS layout is that this style of topographic map is the same I use in the field. Building maps on a familiar background help to make navigation simple in the backcountry. Caltopo has plenty of options for all types of map enthusiasts and finding your favorite base layer takes some experimentation.

Drawing a Line With Caltopo

My favorite feature of CalTopo is the easy to use line drawing tool. In the lefthand menu, underneath the login options and preset layers, there are the green colored words:

“+ Add New Object”

Click on the “ Add Marker” option.

Jarbidge topographic map on CalTopo

Clicking on “add marker” will turn your mouse into a cursor. Hover your mouse over the point on the map where you want the trail to begin. Click on the starting point for your map and drag the mouse to draw a path. Click again to place a vertex on the path. You can only draw in straight lines which means using a great many points to create accurate maps.

arbidge exaple with line drawn and elevation profile

The purpose of drawing a line is to create a trail that any hiker will be able to follow. I find it particularly useful in measuring distances and analyzing elevation profiles. It also lets me craft my own hiking trails, it allows for creativity in following the topography of the landscape and creating the best route to a specific location. On a side note, all my best fishing spots are off trail. In the picture above, you can see the elevation profile of the trail I just created. 

Once a path is drawn, a pop-up window appears and details customizable options.

  • Edit

Click “edit” to change the name of a particular path. It also gives you options to leave comments and organize the line into a folder. Change the color, thickness, even its opacity.

  • Profile

Click “profile” to see a visual representation of the elevation profile based on the track you just created.

  • Terrain Statistics

“Terrain statistics” is a more in-depth analysis of the elevation profile. It also includes the angle of slope, aspect of directional movement, the percentage of tree cover, and percentage of various measurements of total land cover.

  • Print map

Click “print map” to create a PDF version of the route. This will divide the route into printable formats, breaking the trail into pieces to fit on printer paper.

  • Delete

The red “X  Delete” is what you click when you want the path deleted. I find myself using this feature often after making mistakes.

  • Resample

The “resample” button, located in the footer of the popup is useful for long routes. This button allows the user to simplify the route by subtracting the number of points within the path. On my longest routes, I put a point every .3 miles, this helps to create a smoother line. Less data makes it easier to load and store on a GPS device.

  • Extend

If the line you drew is too short or you want to make an addition, click the “extend” button in the footer of the popup window. This reverts your mouse to a cursor and lets you draw additions just as if you were starting a new path.  

  • Reverse

The “reverse” button in the footer of the popup switches the starting point with the ending point. When you draw a line, the first point made is automatically turned into the trailhead. This is an excellent option to see the elevation profile reversed.

  • Split

Click the “split” button, located in the footer and then hover your mouse over a point in the line where you want the path to be split. Click one time and two lines will be created from the original.

  • Join

The opposite of split, the “join” button, also located in the footer of the popup. To properly use this function, it is important to name all of the individual lines created. Without names, you will not be able to use the join function. Upon selecting the line you want to be joined, a menu will appear in the bottom of the screen. Use the drop-down menu to choose the name of the line you want to be a part of.

Printing a Map

Printing a map is a painless process with Caltopo.

How to print CalTopo

Simply click the “Print” button on the top menu. This will open drop-down options with some sharing options. If a paper map is what you’re after, print to PDF and you will be good to go. There are also options for downloading a KML file or an MBTiles File, for use in Google Earth and Garmin.

Export the File

Also located on the top menu is the option to “Export” your map. Connect via GPSIO or Communicator if wanted.

Export map in CalTopo

My personal preference is to download the GPX file. I find this format is the most useful, being accepted universally across devices. Before any hike, I first design the map on Caltopo then download the GPX file to use on my smartphone. Every hike featured on this site was first created using this method. 

Turn Your Smartphone into a GPS

I use an Android smartphone and I take it everywhere I go. I do not have a sim card or a service plan, it simply functions on Wifi. Using it in the wilderness has never been a problem, the GPS chip is a standalone feature and will work in the absence of data or Wifi.

The app I use for navigation is Gaia GPS*. I can upload GPX files and download offline maps. Gaia GPS also allows me to track hikes and even creates a GPX file of the path I walked. I can export the GPX file to be edited on Caltopo. My phone works great and can connect to dozens of satellites at any given time. Using my phone as a GPS unit helps me save on both cost and weight, the less stuff I need to carry, the better of a hike I can have.

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*On this page we have used our affiliate link for Gaia GPS.  We do not usually use affiliate links on this website but we have made an exception here because we use this program extensively and have mentioned them repeatedly.

Our link will save you 20%-50% on the membership cost, plus we get a small amount back which goes straight towards creating quality content. It saves you money for a program you should already be using, and is a great way to support the site. Classic win-win!

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