Free online topographic maps for hiking

Hiking maps are off course essential for planning a trip. While in the old days you had to buy a paper map first before you could start with planning your trip in detail, today you can already start planning your trip entirely from your computer screen for many regions in the world. Today the Internet is a fantastic resource for a wide variety of maps suitable for hiking:

  • Sheets of topographic maps readily downloadable in JPG, TIF or PDF-format and ready to print, usually paying but some are also available for free
  • Interactive topographic maps can be consulted in a geographical application on your screen
  • Base maps for use on a GPS device
I will keep this post limited to the first two types of maps and will only include maps that are available for free. I have a long list of these kind of maps saved under my favorites in my browser. Not that I have already used all of them for preparing a trip, far from. I’m just a map fan and I think it is an interesting list to share with you. So if you are not aware of a map that covers a region that interests you, than you can bookmark it right away. I’m sure this list will not be a complete list at all. So if you know or stumble upon other interesting map sources, don’t hesitate to mention them. I’d like to continue supplementing the list.
Sample of the interactive topographic map of New Zealand over Mount Cook.
So here’s the list:
  • This Czech list contains many topographic maps from various corners over the world.
  • Wanderreitkarte is a source for hiking trails and long distance trails in some European countries.
  • TopoMapper concerns another source for an almost global coverage in topographic maps. Australia, USA, Canada, and the coastal areas of Greenland are covered by national or local map sources. The rest of the world is covered by old Soviet military topographic maps (which are unfortunately not always that accurate). This link can be helpful to better read the Soviet Maps. New Zealand and Antarctica are not covered.
Sample of the Soviet military map in TopoMapper over Patagonia’s Torres del Paine. Place names are unfortunately difficult to read if you cannot read Russian.
  • ArcGIS Explorer is an online GIS application by Esri where you can find a wide variety of maps from a community of users. By registering you can even make and edit your own maps and share them with the world if you like. For a complete understanding of the application and how to browse the maps, use the help function. The entire USA and New Zealand are covered in detailed topographic maps. To find them, type in the search bar in the right upper corner one of the following names to find one specific map:
    • USA Topo Maps or
    • ArcGIS Online USA Topographic Maps
    • New Zealand Topographic Basemap (LINZ)

    When planning a trackless hiking expedition in a remote region where detailed maps are hard to find or nonexistent, the following maps in ArcGIS Explorer might also be of value beside the Soviet military maps in Topomapper or any other topographic map. The topographic maps in ArcGIS Explorer only show elevation contours, hydrology and some basic ground cover information for most part of the world. The satellite images give a better idea about ground and vegetation cover. These composite multispectral Landsat images have a resolution of 15m and are sometimes a better source for the few Landsat images that still have lower resolution or cloud cover for a few places in Google Earth, Google MapsBing Map and many other sources (although these images are not completely free of cloud cover either):

    • ArcGIS Online World Topographic Map or
    • Topgraphic
    • MDA NaturalVue Satellite Imagery
MDA NaturalVue Satellite image in ArcGIS Explorer of Pangnirtung and Mount Asgard on Baffin Island. The image gives more clues about the location of moraines, quicksand and boulder fields in the glacial valley and is therefore a much better source to determine your hiking route through the valley than any topographical map can do for this rugged environment.
Finally, if you only need a map for a small area it can be interesting to just print the map from an online interactive map instead of buying the whole paper map. Sometimes I even stitch multiple cut print screens from an online interactive map just like I would stitch several individual photos into one single panorama photo. This works just fine with most panorama stitching software. To print the map you only need to make some measurements and calculations and optionally an adaptation of the size of the digital map to know the exact scale of your printed copy. Keep in mind that strictly speaking this method can only be used for personal use.
That was it. So now, start planning your next trip!