Hiking with Geospatial PDF Maps

More and more I’ve been seeing references about Geospatial PDF mapping. I finally had an opportunity to research and thought you might be interested in my findings.


Although I try to stay current with technology, sometimes I find myself saying, WHAT?

The word geospatial is used to indicate that data that has a geographic component to it. This means that the records in a dataset have locational information tied to them such as geographic data in the form of coordinates, address, city, or ZIP code. GIS data is a form of geospatial data. Other geospatial data can originate from GPS data, satellite imagery, and geotagging. Source: GIS Lounge


Whether you use a standalone GPS unit or a mapping app on your phone, there are times when established trails aren’t visible on any available digital maps. This was the case for a local BLM recreation area I recently hiked.

This is what the area looks like on my mapping app. 

This is what the area looks like on the BLM standard PDF map. 

This is what the area looks like using CalTopo in Map Builder Topo format.

You can see the CalTopo map is far more detailed than either of the other two options. I could just print out the map and use it for navigation, but what if there was a way to know exactly where you were on the map?


(1) Download a PDF Geospatial Reader app. The most popular seems to be Avenza. I haven’t played with the app much, but it appears powerful with a store to purchase map sets. But you can also use it as a free interactive reader which is what I did.

(2) Download a geospatial map. You may be able to find maps available in this format. Check out this list from the National Park Service. If there’s not one available, you can also create your own which is what I did using CalTopo.

Step 1: On the CalTopo website, after finding your area of interest and marking any details you’d like included, select print, center the red box using the red dot to move it around, change the parameters in the format box to “Geospatial PDF,” then select “generate PDF.” Note: you can make the map details small for this step as you’ll be able to zoom on your phone.

Step 2: I was working on my computer so I saved the file to my computer, then sent it as an email attachment to myself so I could download to my phone. You can also open the CalTopo website on your phone and go to your account where you’ll see a tab for PDF, then download directly to your phone.

(3) Open downloaded map using a Geospatial PDF reader such as Avenza. 

(4) Adjust your phone settings. You’ll need to have “location” turned on. To save battery, you can leave phone in airplane mode.

(5) Select the “location” icon to see your location as a blue dot on the map. It’ll follow you as you hike. On this network of trails, it was very helpful. Note: the location icon is denoted by the yellow star in this photo. 

I was also running my mapping app so I could track my hike. It was great having the option to flip back and forth between the Geospatial PDF map and my track. 

I could have created a track on CalTopo and uploaded to my phone mapping app; however, with so many trail options, I wanted the flexibility to explore on the fly.

Have you been using Geospatial PDF maps? If so, do you have other tips to share?


FYI, you can now print your own standard PDF USGS 7.5 minute, 1:24,000 base Quad Maps

15 thoughts on “Hiking with Geospatial PDF Maps

    • Catch up mode! I’ve got to figure out a way to do this while traveling. I got a Chromebook but the screen quality isn’t very good, it’s sluggish and options are very limited without internet. I didn’t want to invest much since my car invites vandalism frequently. It gives me an option to backup my photos and quickly sort which is somewhat beneficial but I’d really like a better option. I love sharing and memorializing my stories, but I’d sure like to find an alternate process.

  1. Wow Jan! You are amazing! This post is da bomb! Great resource and while I have yet to follow your steps it looks very clear and easy for even a novice geek to attempt. Nicely done thank you for helping us all with our mapping pursuits.

  2. I’ve used several different mapping programs, including the expensive ones. CalTopo is by far the easiest and most user-friendly of the group. It may have limitations over the fancier ones, but especially for mapping and tracking while packing, I love it! I don’t electronic anything once I’m out, but love the printable, customization of maps that CalTopo offers. Great stuff!

  3. I’m way late on this comment and I still haven’t gotten a chance to dig through this post thoroughly, but the short version is “Thank you.”

    I don’t have the gizmos to do this sort of stuff yet, but I’m a-gonna get there one a these days, and this will help a bunch when I do.

    I did skim through your 2016 summary and have been meaning to sift through your entire blog for ideas. (Haven’t done that quite yet either.) But in case you haven’t yet posted anything about infrastructure, that would be helpful.

    By that I mean (without giving out personal details) how you travel and how you live day-to-day when you’re not on the trail, and what tips you have to pass along.

    I’m hoping that next year I can start spending six to eight months a year traveling around, with the worst part of winters spent in a sunny place, for as long as I have the health and inclination to do it. Not quite there yet but I am doing as much planning as I can now.

    Thanks again.

    • Hi Dave, glad you are finding my posts helpful. I’ve got a draft started on as you call it my “infrastructure.” Maybe your questions and facing a forecast of rain, rain, and more rain will motivate me to get it done.

      So here’s a quick overview of my traveling lifestyle. I’m very much of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of traveler. I have invested in a US travel atlas so I have an overview in case I end up going in an unplanned direction. I don’t enjoy lengthy driving thus I try to find diversion tactics, some point of interest where I can at least get out of my car and walk for a bit every couple hours. It might turn into a place I’d like to spend the night. If so, I’ll look for a place to boondock, usually forest service or BLM roads. Sometimes I’ll pay for campgrounds. I’m on a strict budget so I try to sleep in my car when not on trail. I have a Honda CRV which I’ve converted into a perfect travel/sleeping mobile. I’ll be sharing details on my post, as well as tips for finding dispersed camping. Of the approximate 175 days I spent away from home in 2016, about 50 were spent in my car, 50 in my tent while on trail, 50 with friends and family, and the remaining 25 in motels.

      In 2014 I did a couple short trips to start figuring things out. 2015 I learned tons as I spent major time on the road. 2016 was much easier and I’m looking forward to continued enjoyment in 2017.

      Please feel free to send additional questions to me at jansjaunts-wordpress@yahoo.com

  4. Pingback: 2017 – Where Did Jan Jaunt? – Jan's Jaunts and Jabberings

  5. Pingback: Long-Distance Hiking and Backpacking Skills, Summary Post – Jan's Jaunts and Jabberings

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