If I had the cash I’d probably talk Alice into wallpapering the house with USGS topo maps of my favorite hiking areas. I’ve always liked maps–atlases, National Geographic maps, road maps you used to get free at gas stations. Everybody is fascinated by something and I fell for maps. A few years ago when I finally wandered into the internet one of the first things I looked for was a map section. As with all internet things, the good sites come and go. What used to be free is now nearly always a paid service, and the free stuff has a big banner watermarked over the front of it which at least partly obscures the details. USGS maps are still the best, and they still cost money.
Partly I recommend the USGS maps because of the quality of the paper. Like money, the stuff those maps are printed on can take a lot of abuse. Folding, smearing and even a bit of damp won’t ruin them. Put them in a ziploc bag and it’s secure information even if you ford a river.
Download a free map and you have different problems. It’s just paper, and it will disintegrate in the rain. Actually there’s an amazing difference in the longevity of free maps–they usually last the length of the trip, and I suppose that’s what counts, but you get what you pay for. Maybe you get less, because the printer doesn’t work for free.
I’m going to recommend one source, however, because I do still think about the cost of things as well as the weight, when I go hiking. If I can save a few dollars I will.
If you have a good computer and broadband internet, NASA Worldwind will give you free access to topographic maps of nearly anywhere. Snap a copy with a freeware snapshot generator like MWSnap, and you have information.
The down side is that Worldwind takes awhile to load. If you want a detailed map of a particular area you’ll have to allow about half an hour for the program to load equivalent information for the two hundred miles surrounding it. It’s a quirk of the system that there’s no guarantee when the program will get around to mapping what you want to see.
Here’s a tip that may help–I actually talked with a couple of engineers who understand Worldwind but they didn’t say anything I understood, so I came up with my own solution. If you zoom in to the location you want (the program works much like Google Earth) the program focuses on that region. It may or may not load all the detailed information for it, however. If it stops loading, back out with the zoom until it starts again, and let it do whatever it wants for awhile. Then zoom in again. The detailed information download should resume.
WorldWind uses many different sets of satellite and map information, so you can get a lot of different views in different formats. Worldwind also displays locations in 3d, so even with the topographic maps you can tweak the view to actually show terrain shapes rather than only contour lines. That’s a huge leap forward for hiking mankind. Shift to another data type like Orthodigital and you can generate an exaggerated 3d view of the same place. Other data banks generate photographic detail in the same way Google Earth does.
If you want to explore the place you’re going on vacation, without as yet stepping foot there, WorldWind gives a very accurate bird’s eye view.