Can you tell what kind of car this is? (Image via the author)

The U.S. Geological Survey has incredibly detailed topographical maps of the entire country and now National Geographic is trying to put all of them online for free downloading. Use them to plot your next off-road adventure, make art or just ponder the majesty of our nation with.

(Image: National Geographic/USGS)

These maps have roads, mountains, elevation, water bodies, and hiking trails on them. Not so much restaurant reviews and nearest-coffee joints, you’ll still need your iPhone for that.

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You can check them out on National Geographic’s maps page which basically lets you zoom in on the spots you’re interested in, then pops up links to printer-friendly “quads.”

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They’re called “quads,” which I originally thought meant they print in four sections. (Technically they print in five with one page as an “overview” map showing the selected quad in context.) The other pages are the map area you want divided to fit on 8.5" by 11" paper.

However the “quad” nomenclature actually refers to the USGS’s measurement of “7.5 minute maps,” which are one-quarter the area of older “15 minute” maps. Here “minutes” refers to the measurement of longitude and latitude. In this context those “minutes” are divisions of degrees

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As the University of Nebraska’s Astronomy department explains: “The primary unit in which longitude and latitude are given is degrees (°). There are 360° of longitude (180° E ↔ 180° W) and 180° of latitude (90° N ↔ 90° S). Each degree can be broken into 60 minutes (’). Each minute can be divided into 60 seconds (”). For finer accuracy, fractions of seconds given by a decimal point are used.”

And if you’re skeptical about the adventure-survivability of printer paper, there’s a solution for that too– “Adventure Paper”from National Geographic(!) or similar from this outfit iGage on Amazon.

Since you’re still paying for paper, ink and presumably an internet connection the maps aren’t completely “free” per se, but accessing them is. And it’s definitely one of the easiest map-printing interfaces I’ve seen.

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Over on Expedition Portal Christophe Noel writes: “As much as I love GPS units, phone apps, and other whiz-bang navigational tools, the paper map is still the adventurer’s first choice.” I assume that’s because they look a lot cooler with a leather bag and a classic Land Rover, but there’s always something to be said for a battery-free navigation solution.