Did you know that you can download every USGS topo quad, at every available scale, for anywhere in the country—for free? All you have to do is visit the online USGS map store, where you can zoom in, select your desired quad, and then download it. The map appears digitally in pdf format exactly as it looks in paper format.
USGS maps are in the public domain, which means that we all collectively own them as American taxpayers. When you purchase a paper version, you're essentially just paying for the printing and distribution costs, not the expenses associated with producing it in the first place. So you can download it for free, but you'll need to figure out a way to print it in usable format.
Many USGS maps have not been updated for decades. Now the USGS is rolling out the next generation. Known as US Topo, these new maps incorporate more layers of data. Along with the standard topographic contours, geographic names, and roads, they also include aerial and satellite image overlays. Once downloaded, users have the ability to select or de-select desired layers. You can read all about it here.
So far the USGS has released some beta versions of these maps for 17 states, including many in the Northeast, though they do not include the full functionality. Currently the only state completed in the new US Topo format is Kansas, though I would expect to see more states added steadily over the coming months and year.
Though USGS quads don't include up-to-date trail locations and information (especially in the Northeast), they can still be an invaluable planning and research tool—especially when they cost you nothing but download time.
“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.