I started using Caltopo.com to plan and document all of my hikes and backpacking trips about a year ago after my friend Matt (Matt’s Hikes) recommended it on the approach hike to Peak Above the Nubble. Matt raved about Caltopo’s ability to print out custom maps using the 1:24000 USGS scale – which are excellent for carrying on off-trail hikes. The printing capabilities in Caltopo really are fabulous, but there’s so much more to this program that I’m surprised that more people don’t know about it.
First off, Caltopo.com is free to use. It supports many of the capabilities of desktop topographical mapping software but it’s online so you can access it anywhere and share it with other people. You can store maps you create with it for future reference, export and import gpx files, embed maps on a web pages or send them with a hyperlink. Caltopo also supports collaborative planning, like Gmap4, but the printing is much better.
Caltopo was originally developed for search and rescue work by Matt Jacobs (a different Matt), who loaded it with California-specific mapping data. He later added data for the entire United States but the original name stuck.
While you can layer data from different data sources in Caltopo, I like to use it planning routes and waypoints before a trip and then share online interactive maps of my routes so that other people can replicate or modify my trips. Here are a couple of Caltopo routes that I’ve published on SectionHiker recently.
If you’re planning off trail hikes, you can draw free-formed routes (not just straight lines), measure potential route lengths without creating a line, compute elevation profiles. and easily flip between different map layers such as a standard topo view, shaded relief, and satellite imagery to scope out the terrain, identify cliffs, and blow-down fields.
That’s really just a brief overview of Caltopo because there’s so much you can do with it. Give it a try if you’re planning a trip. I think it’s a fabulous navigation planning tool.