Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Finding, Printing and Using Paper Local Maps

This Reddit discussion and this YouTube video inspired me to brush up on my old school map and compass skills. While figuring out where I could find the time to do this I had an epiphany: I didn't need to be exploring the backcountry to practice reading terrain or shooting azimuths; I could do all this in my own neighborhood. An no, I didn't need to buy a fancy compass either, the one built into my phone would be more than adequate. All I really needed was a high quality paper map of my local area.

A bit of Google'ing provide an easy answer to where I might find such a map. The USGS has been publishing local maps of the US since 1947. Using the USGS topo viewer, I plugged in my address and downloaded the 2022(!) Alexandria, VA 1:24000 quadrangle. I couldn't help but celebrate how smoothly my plan was coming together: I'd be practicing my orienteering skills in no time.

The map files are distributed as GeoPDFs, which means they can be opened and printed from any PDF reader, so that's what I did. As I grabbed the map from the printer I realized just how flawed my plan had been: the map was there, but it was scaled down to an unreadable level. As a local navigation tool, it was useless.

A quick Google Search suggested I wasn't the only one who had this problem, and offered these National Geographic maps as a solution. This was promising, as these were USGS maps and were designed for printing on letter sized paper. But there was a significant catch: many of these maps are now quite dated. For example: the Alexandria, VA quadrangle is from 1983. Considering the USGS has an update map from last year, it seemed silly to rely on National Geographic's ancient version.

I looked around for other solutions, but ultimate did the unthinkable: I read the manual. Or rather, I watched the Using the National Map Products and Services playlist on YouTube. These videos take you through viewing, downloading and yes, printing USGS maps. I watched them at 1.5x speed, and they were more than worth my time. In fact, I'd argue that if you spend any time in the outdoors or ever glance a map, it's worth taking the time to watch these videos.

In the next few posts I'll walk through each of the lessons I learned that let me ultimately produce local hard copy maps that exceeded my expectations. Up next: finding local maps.

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