Those giant maps gathering dust in the corner of your favorite outdoor store have finally been brought into the 21st century. National Geographic‘s new service, launched last week on their Maps site, makes every United States Geological Survey (USGS) topographic map easily searchable and downloadable, free of charge, as a PDF file.
Downloadable maps have been available on the USGS’s own site since 2009 (the year they began the still-ongoing process of digitally cataloging US landscapes). However, the USGS site remains outdated, unorganized and frustratingly difficult to navigate — finding and downloading a map is unintuitive, and the maps aren’t properly formatted for a home printer. National Geographic‘s site, on the other hand, is clean, easy to use and works with any home printer. Finding, downloading and printing a topographic map takes only a few seconds, thanks to a user-friendly interactive system similar to Google Maps.
The PDF maps come in five pages. The first page is a zoomed-out overview showing the map of the area in relation to the surrounding territory. The next four pages break down the USGS Quadrangle (the official name for USGS topo maps) into four quarters, showing detailed topographic data (in the same timeless illustrative style of mid-century topos), complete with hill shading to make the terrain clearer.
Nat Geo’s PDF map service brings a new (and welcome) level of convenience to using topographic maps, but don’t expect it to replace good ol’ fold-out maps quite yet. The USGS-produced digital topos don’t receive the same amount of inspection that traditional maps receive, are computer-generated on a mass scale and contain less detail than most maps you see in stores. Still, they’ll likely come in handy for anyone venturing into the great outdoors.