Making your First Map

let's begin

Now that you have some familiarity with the map viewer and the tools available, let's take a look at the true beauty and power of CalTopo: making detailed and personalized maps!

The purpose of this training is to walk you through creating your first map on the web app, starting with the log in process and finishing with viewing your map on your mobile device. We will be covering all the steps in the video below, as well as how to print and view your map on your mobile device!

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How to Build a CalTopo Map

We will be covering all the steps in the video above, as well as how to print and view your map on your mobile device! Continue on for detailed explanations of these steps and more!


CalTopo or SARTopo?

The first step is to make sure that you are logging into the correct server. Currently CalTopo and SARTopo are on separate servers, which means any maps you create on a particular server stay on that server (although we are working on merging the servers in the not-so-distant future).

So what’s the difference between CalTopo and SARTopo? CalTopo is a mapping and trip planning tool for the backcountry. SARTopo has all the same layers and tools as CalTopo plus additional functionalities for managing search and rescue incidents. If you aren’t a first responder, chances are that you will be using CalTopo.

First responder? SARTopo. Pretty much everyone else? CalTopo.

Whether you go to CalTopo or SARTopo, you should now see the mapviewer. If not, look for a button in the top right corner that says "Start Mapping."

The full CalTopo map viewer page.

For this lesson, we will be on the CalTopo server; however, all the steps described below will be the same for the SARTopo server.

Login Using the Correct Account Provider

Now that you’re on the correct server, the next step is to log into your account. You can sign into your account in the upper part of the left sidebar.

If you aren’t sure what provider you used, you can find it in your welcome email from when you signed up for your new account.

For more information about CalTopo logins, visit the Your Account lesson.

image of sign in options including google, microsoft, apple, facebook, and yahoo

Sign in with any of these account providers.

It's important to make sure you sign in using the same provider and email address that you used to create your account. For example, my account provider is Google and the email I used to create my account is I would click Sign in with Google and then sign in using my Google email. Once you’ve logged in, your account name will appear in the upper part of the left sidebar.

Your account name appears in the upper left side bar once you have signed in.

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STEP 2: Add a Map Object

Navigate in the Map Viewer

You can search for specific areas or locations by using the search bar in the upper part of the mapviewer. You can search for areas by their name or any coordinate system. For this lesson, let’s search for Capitol Peak (a 14,000 ft peak in Colorado). If you type “Capitol Peak” into the search bar and press enter or click Go, it will navigate to the peak.

image of the map viewer with an arrow pointing to the search input field at the top of the page

The search bar is in the top menu bar

You should now confirm that you are viewing the correct area, especially if you search for an area with a really common name (Bridalveil Falls, anyone?).

Add an Object

Before you can save a map, you have to add an object such as marker, line or polygon. This is really important so I’ll say it again: you CANNOT save a map until you’ve put an object on that map.

You can add objects three different ways:

  • clicking on + Add New Object in the left side bar
  • clicking + Add in the upper menu bar
  • right clicking on the map and hovering over the New menu

    For this example, we will use + Add New Object in the left sidebar to add a marker for potential campsites near Capitol Lake. Click + Add New Object and then select Marker from the drop down menu. Markers are a great way to identify points of interest on your map. A marker will appear in the center of the map and a dialog box will appear in the lower right hand corner.

You can move the marker by either clicking and dragging the marker on the map to where you want it to be or entering in coordinates in the dialog box. You can edit your marker using the dialog box.

For this example, we will click and drag the marker to the north shore of Capitol Lake where we think there will be campsites. We will also name our marker “Potential campsites” by typing this into the Label field in the dialog box. Press OK to close the dialog box and our marker now appears on the map with its label. The marker also appears in the left sidebar as well in a folder called Markers.

The marker appears on the map and in the left side bar in the Markers folder

Markers and other objects have a huge amount of capability. They are fully explained in the Objects chapter.

Adding Map Objects

This video demonstrates how to add and edit a marker on your map.

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STEP 3: Save Your Map

You can only save a map after you have added an object to that map. If you add objects to a map and then close the browser window before saving the map, your data will be lost. So make sure to save your map as soon as you can!

In this example we added a marker to our map so now the option to save appears in the left sidebar and the top menu bar.

image of the corner of the map viewer with arrows pointing to the save buttons

Save your map using either of the two Save buttons.

If you click either of these options, a Save As dialog box will appear. You can enter in the name of your map, designate where you want it saved, set base permissions (which will determine who can view your map and how) and add comments about your map. For this example, let’s name our map “Capitol Peak Overnight” and leave everything else on the default options for now.

Save as dialog

Click Save to save your map. You’ll notice that the name of your map has replaced Unsaved Map in the upper part of the left side bar.

The map name appears at the top of the left side bar

Your new map will also now appear under Your Maps in your account. To access this, click on your account name in the top of the left sidebar and then the Your Maps tab.

Saved maps appear in the Your Maps tab in Your Account

You may notice that once you save your map, there is no save option anymore. As long as you have a network connection, any changes or updates you make to your map will automatically sync, similar to Google docs.

Saving Your Map

This video walks you through the process of saving your map and viewing it in Your Maps.

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STEP 4: Working with Layers and Overlays

Base Layers

Base layers do exactly what their name implies- they form the base of the map and you add overlays and map objects on top of them. You can view one base layer or you can stack multiple base layers on top of each other.

To change which base layer(s) are on your map, hover over the base layer name in the upper right hand corner of the mapviewer. A drop down layer menu will appear. Click the Base Layer drop down menu to select the base layer you would like to add to your map.

Use the Base Layers dropdown menu in the Map Layers menu to quickly and easily switch between base layers

You can add additional layers on top of that base layer by clicking + Stack Additional Layer and selecting the additional layer that you would like to add from the dropdown menu that appears.

For this example we are going to keep it simple and only add one base layer to our map. Hover over the base layer name in the upper right hand corner of the mapviewer. Click on the Base Layer dropdown menu and select MapBuilder Hybrid. Notice that the base layer is added to your map and the objects already on your map are unaffected.

Switching between base layers does not affect the position of existing map objects

See the Base Layers Chapter for more details.


Overlays provide additional data and go on top of the base layer(s) of your map. They can provide information on land ownership, weather conditions, motor vehicle use maps and much more!

Let’s add Slope Angle Shading to our map, which is a popular overlay for planning backcountry travel routes. To add this overlay, hover over the base layer name in the upper right hand corner of the mapviewer. The dropdown layer menu that appears shows the overlays. Each overlay has a blank box next to it; in order to select that overlay, simply click the box. Let’s click the box for Slope Angle Shading and add it to our map.

a colorful overlay displayed over the mapbuilder hybrid topographic base layer

Slope Angle Shading overlay displayed over the MapBuilder Hybrid Base layer

Notice that the slopes are now colored based on their slope angle. Keys for these colors appear in the drop down layer menu and in the upper right hand corner of the map viewer. For example, a slope that is shaded red on the map has a slope angle between 35°-45°. You can add as many overlays as you would like to a map.

Changing Layers and Overlays

This video demonstrates this process in action. Again, notice that the marker already saved to the map is unaffected.

The Overlays Chapter has more information.

Preset layers

Preset layers are combinations of base layers and/or overlays already made for you! Preset layers now appear on the bottom of the Map Layers menu on the right side. We aren’t going to go into preset layers here but feel free to explore these and see what each one offers.

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STEP 5: Print your Map

Many users will want to take their maps into the field with them. The CalTopo Mobile App and the print function on the web are the two primary methods of doing this. Once you are happy with your map, you can print your map by using the Print menu in the upper menu bar. Click Print to PDF or JPG in the drop down menu that appears.

Find the Print Menu in the menu bar at the top of the page.

A new tab will open and a transparent red box will appear over your map. The red transparent box is your print area- anything that is in this box will appear on your printed map. You can change the boundaries of the red box by clicking and dragging the arrows that appear at each corner.

In the left side bar you can change settings and details about the PDF or JPG you will be generating. For this example, let’s give our map the name “Capitol Peak Overnight” by typing it into the Title field. We will leave the rest of the settings on default. Click Generate PDF at the bottom of the left side bar to generate a PDF of your selected area.

Change the title and other specifications in the CalTopo Printing menu. Adjust the red box to change the print area.

PDFs of maps will also appear in your account under Your PDFs until their expiration date. To access PDFs saved here, click on your account name in the upper part of the left side bar and then select the Your PDFs tab.

Saved PDFs appear in the Your PDFs tab in Your Account

For more information about printing and related functions, visit the Printing Chapter.

A Quick Guide to Printing

This video walks you through how to change your print area and the settings, as well as generate a PDF.

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STEP 6: View the Map on your Mobile Device

You can also access maps that you create on the web from your mobile device. In order to do this, download the CalTopo app on your mobile device from your app store.

For this example I will be using an iOS mobile device but the steps would be the same for Android although some of the icons do differ. When you sign in, make sure you log into the same server (either CalTopo or SARTopo) and the same login method as you did on the web. When prompted, select Sync Account to sync the maps you made on the web with your mobile device.

To access the maps in your account, click on the three bar menu in the upper left hand corner. Click Your Maps and all the maps in your account will appear. To select a map, simply click on the map name. As long as you have a data connection, this will load and open the map in the CalTopo mobile app. Let’s click on the map we made “Capitol Peak Overnight” and voila! You should now see this map in the map viewer on the mobile app.

Below is a video demonstrating the log in process, how to sync your maps to the mobile app and how to view the map you just made on your mobile device.

If you have a data connection, any changes you make to objects (add, edit or delete) in the mobile app will be automatically updated on the web. If you don’t have a data connection, changes will be updated once a data connection is reestablished.

You can also access your map offline by downloading base layers for offline use. Check out the Offline Use lesson in the Mobile Specific Functions and Tools chapter for instructions.

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