Smartphones in the Backcountry – Part V

Trip Planning with Caltopo

This is the final chapter of our series. Our previous article (Part IV) focused on using Google Earth to create maps that will work with our navigational apps. In this article we’ll be focusing on Caltopo as our trip planning tool to create digital maps – and to make some prints. This will start off with the basics so it should be as good a place as any for even a total novice to jump in. By the time you’ve reached the end of the article you should have the skills to map out routes with confidence. You’ll improve your backcountry planning for runs, hikes, and any adventures where you want to get an idea of possible routes, mileage, and elevation gain… and of course you’ll be able to get your map onto your smartphone. Let’s get ‘er done!

Caltopo Interface and Map Example

This is a quick tutorial on making a map in Caltopo. Refer to the next image below as a reference for the various steps. Hopefully it will make sense, even if you’re not a bonafide genius.

Caltopo Interface Reference
Caltopo Interface Reference

Getting Started

  1. Fire up your web browser
  2. Sign up for a Google Account (or Yahoo) if you don’t already have one.
  3. Browse over to

Finding A Place

The search tool can find many places including mountains, lakes, passes… pretty much any geographical feature that’s named. You can locate cities, towns, and addresses too of course. Our example map is going to be in the Sequoia/Kings area. We can search for “Sequoia National Park” but this doesn’t really bring us to the area we’re looking for. Instead let’s try “Kanawyers”, which is the little community at Road’s End. This will get us close to the trailhead.

  1. In the Search Box, enter “Kanawyers” and press ENTER.
  2. The map will center on the georeferenced location for Kanawyers.
  3. If the map does not refresh after searching for a term it means you have misspelled the place, or the location is not georeferenced.

Creating a Trip Folder

Organizing your trips into folders is a good habit to get into. This will keep all your paths, placemarks, and other trip-related items sorted and you won’t end up with a big mess after a year!

  1. Hover over the Add button (a drop down menu will appear) choose Add > Folder.
  2. A window will open on the bottom of the screen. You can label your folder, then save it. Let’s call it “Sample Trip”.
  3. You should see the new “folder” on the left side bar (it just appears as a label).

Creating a Path

  1. Hover over the Add button (a drop down menu will appear) and choose Add > Line.
  2. We need to choose a folder to put it under. Click the Folder drop down box and choose Sample Trip.
  3. Enter a name (label) for the path, let’s call it “Our Route”. Choose a color, and set the weight to 2. Any of these can be changed later.
    Add Line Window
    Add Line Window
  4. Click OK.
  5. Notice the cursor has changed. Start clicking points on the map to create a path. Zoom in if necessary to see detail on trails, etc… Your route can be refined later so the first pass doesn’t have to be exact.
  6. To undo a point press ESC. To finish your path double click the last point. You will now see your path under the Sample Trip folder.
    Our Newly Created Path
    Our Newly Created Path
    Zoomed to see Detail
    Zoomed to see Detail
    The View From Here feature
    The View From Here feature
  7. To edit your path click the pencil icon to the right of it in the folder. Grab a vertex and drag it, this will create 2 new vertexes each time. That may seem confusing but it makes refining paths very easy. To delete a vertex right click it and choose Delete Vertex. Click the OK button when done editing to save your edits.
  8. The length of your path is shown by simply hovering over its label on the left side bar, or by clicking the label, or by clicking the path on the map.
  9. To see the elevation profile for your path, click the graph icon to the right of it in the folder.
Showing Elevation Profile
Showing Elevation Profile
The Expanded Elevation Profile
The Expanded Elevation Profile

Creating a Placemark

  1. Hover over the Add buton (a drop down menu will appear) and choose Add > Marker.
  2. We need to choose a folder to put it under. Click the Folder drop down box and choose Sample Trip.
  3. Enter a name for the placemark. Let’s just call it “POI”. Click the dot icon next to “Style” and you can choose a different icon if you like.
    Marker Details Window
    Marker Details Window
  4. The placemark will appear at the center of the map. You can click and drag it to the location where you’d like it, or you can enter coordinates in the popup window. Then click OK.
  5. Notice that the placemark now shows up under your Sample Trip folder.
  6. To edit your placemark, click the pencil icon to the right of it in the folder. You can now edit the location, name, and style of the placemark.
Completed Map with Placemarks
Completed Map with Placemarks

Exporting a Map

When you want to use your map on a smartphone or handheld GPS you’ll need to export it. Usually a .KML file is what you’ll want, but you may benefit from using a .KMZ file if the map includes image overlays (these would usually be other maps you decided to add, but possibly other geographical data/imagery). Most handheld GPS units will support image overlays via .KMZ files, most smartphone apps will not unfortunately. Image overlays are more of an “advanced user” feature anyway, so we won’t worry about that too much right now. The main idea is to get your map exported and onto your smartphone; here’s how…

  1. Hover over the Export button (a drop down menu will appear) and choose the file format that you want. .KML and .GPX are the most universal/common so probably one of those.
  2. If you’re looking to export to .KMZ format, it’s actually under the Print command.
  3. In the popup window, ensure that all of your map items (paths, placemarks, etc…) are checked, or pick and choose which items you’d like to include
  4. Click the Export button and your file will be downloaded. You should be able to find the file by looking in your browser’s Downloads folder.
  5. Once you’ve located the file you can simply move it to another location on your PC or move/copy it to your device.
  6. Tip: Many smartphone apps will look in your device’s “Downloads” folder by default for new maps, so that may be a good place to put the file, otherwise refer to the documentation of your smartphone app for instructions.

Printing a Map

Caltopo is awesome for printing and it’s always a good idea to have printed backup copies of your maps. We’ll talk about how to print scaled maps, however you can print them in non-standard scale (“fit”) format too. Scaled maps are nice because the feature size, contours, etc… will coincide with other official maps.

Caltopo Printing Options
Caltopo Printing Options
  1. Hover over the Print button (a drop down menu will appear) and choose Print to PDF or JPG.
  2. A new tab or window will open on your web browser. The left side bar contains all of the print options. The right window allows you to choose the print area by dragging and res-izing the red rectangle.
  3. Select the Page Size. This is the physical paper size you intend to print on. We’ll choose 8.5 x 11.
  4. Next choose the Scale. If you need to see a good amount of detail then you’ll likely want 1:24,000 (this is the USGS 7.5′ standard) or 1:25,000 which is the metric equivalent standard. To cover more ground per sheet, a scale of 1:50,000 will still show features clearly enough but it will be difficult to read elevations and names of peaks, lakes, etc…
  5. Choose the output File Format. Let’s use Geospacial PDF (a PDF file with georeferencing).
  6. You can choose to display gridlines and/or lat-long coordinates on the map by ticking their respective boxes, or not. We’ll leave them off.
  7. We will make sure the following are unticked: Fill Polygons, Mark Routepoints, Large Icons.
  8. At this point you can add more pages by clicking the Add Page button. The new page bounding box will appear on the map, and you can move it into position. It’s a good idea to overlap just a small amount to make moving from one page to another a little easier. Continue to add pages until you have built a mapset that you’re happy with.
  9. Click the Generate PDF button. A new browser tab or window will open and display the PDF file.
  10. Depending on your browser you can either right click and choose > Save As, or possibly use menu for File > Save As. Enter a file name and choose a location for your PDF file when prompted, then click Save.
  11. The PDF file should now be saved on your computer. You can open it in your program of choice and print it. Here is the actual PDF generated from our sample above.

Sharing a Map

A nice feature of Caltopo is the ability to share a map. This can be great for collaboration when getting several friends together and working out your route, camp locations, scoping the elevation, etc…

  1. First, you must be signed into your Google/Yahoo account.
  2. The map must be saved before it can be shared.
  3. First Method(s) of sharing a map… Click the Share This Map button. A popup window will appear with several choices…

    (A) You can copy the URL given and send it to any friends you’d like to share the map with. Anyone who has the URL will be able to see the map.

    (B) You can copy the web code to embed the map into a website or forum. Anyone who visits the site will be able to see the map.

    (C) You can share the map via Facebook. Anyone who can see your Facebook page will be able to see the map.

  4. Second Method of sharing a map… Click the Manage Map button. A popup window will appear with several options…

    (D) Share Publicly: This map will appear on the Caltopo public maps listing. Anyone who visits the listing will be able to see the map.

  5. IMPORTANT! When sharing a map either publicly or via the URL, it’s important to set some permissions. These are available with in the Manage This Map window…

    (A) URL Permssions: Choose what anyone with the URL can do. Either view the map, or edit the map (full access).

    (B) Password Permissions: Choose to set a password if you want to share the map with a broad audience but only want some users (those who have the password) to edit the map.

The Manage Permissions Window
The Manage Permissions Window

Working With Layers

Caltopo offers some excellent layering tools. You can explore them in the Layers and Overlays panel in the upper right corner of your map. Let’s run through a quick example of adding a layer.

Experimenting with Layers and Overlays
Experimenting with Layers and Overlays

  1. Hover over the Layers and Overlays button, a popup window will appear.
  2. Your base layer is shown in the topmost dropdown, you can change it if you like.
  3. Under Additional Map Layers, click in the dropdown box and choose > Normal Relief.
  4. Use the slider below the dropdown to increase the opacity to 30 (percent).
  5. You should immediately see the change on the map.
  6. Try experimenting with other base layers and stacked layers to find combinations that you like.
  7. Try some of the available Map Overlays to see what additional information they provide.
  8. These are not all necessarily visualizations that you’ll want to include in your finished mapset, but they can be useful for planning and route finding.

Tips and Tricks

  • By default you are in panning mode on the map, click and drag to pan around.
  • If you have a mouse with a wheel (hopefully you do, it’s modern times and all) you can zoom in and out by scrolling the wheel.
  • Always make sure to click the OK/Save button when editing a map item, if you make some changes and click another item you will NOT get a warning; you will instantly lose any edits you made!
  • When importing maps make sure to uncheck the option to Smooth Long Tracks. This will simplify your tracks and affects both the mileage and elevation data.
  • When importing maps there is no way to specify a folder to import into, but you can edit map items individually and change their parent folder that way.
  • Share your maps with your buddies when planning a trip and allow them to edit the map by setting the sharing permissions. This makes collaborating a little easier and you can all work off a single URL. If you decide to share your map with the public don’t forget to password protect it or change the sharing permissions so it can no longer be edited by anyone but you.
  • Don’t forget to export your maps so you have a local copy on your computer, “just in case”
  • For further info about Caltopo you might want to check out this Caltopo Video Tutoral and of course the Caltopo Blog.

Issues to Be Aware Of

Most of the issues you’ll encounter with Caltopo are interface related. You will sometimes get a notice that data is not being saved and you must reload the page before continuing… it may cost you a small amount of work but usually it’s not significant enough to cause swearing. Sometimes mouse clicks are not registered and it might take an additional click here and there. Not a big deal, but can be a little annoying when working on a path. There are no warnings when you are about to leave an editing command without saving – get in the habit of saving! Lastly, the elevation profiles can be off by a margin of 20%. This typically happens on larger paths and is due to the number of vertices. The path must be “smoothed” to compute elevation on it because of a limitation imposed by Google (who holds the database of relevant elevation data). Changes in the resulting smoothed path can throw off the reported elevations by quite a bit, but it’s very situational and totally dependent on the variability of the terrain in the vicinity of the path. This has been confirmed after talking with Matt Jacobs, creator and owner of Caltopo. He is looking into the issue; if any headway is made in this area you can be sure it will be noted here.

In Summary…

As you have seen, Caltopo is a very powerful tool. Not only does it provide excellent maps, but also excellent layering tools with useful metrics such as fire activity and slope angle shading. The expanded elevation profiles, while somewhat inconsistent in accuracy, provide some great info on exposure and aspect of the route. The ability to share and collaborate on maps is fundamental for those of us who stay connected to our friends online. And let’s not forget the printing capability which is priceless. Caltopo is still a relatively young mapping tool but it offers a lot of utility. This concludes our article about Caltopo and it wraps up our series on Smartphones in the Backcountry. We’ve covered two trip planning tools and a number of apps for your phone – at this point you should have everything you need to create maps, load them on your phone, and view them via your favorite GPS app. If you’d like to start from the beginning of the series jump back to Part I. We have some updates already planned and will work on enhancing this article as time allows. In the mean time… Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he’s not out hiking or running the trails you’ll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy.
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