In the last 10 (or so) years, as internet and information have become more accessible, services like Google Maps, Open Street Maps and the like have started offering open source mapping that threatens traditional mapping services. The increasing quality of the open source maps led to an explosion of web-based mapping and annotation services to create your own routes, map notes and more. In some countries, such as the USA, the locally surveyed maps by the government are also offered free and have resulted in the same offering of web-based applications. In the UK, the mapping and maps products are controlled by Ordnance Survey – a government owned public company. In early 2015, Ordnance Survey started offering their own map annotation web application: OS Maps online. This post is about how to use that service to print your own maps using OS Maps to save time, money and weight*.
* Please note that this is focusing about OS Maps Online for UK maps online, but most countries have a local version – just scroll to the end.
Why make and print your own maps?
In the UK, there aren’t many map publishers, and the ones there are offer only specific products and scales. For many years I relied, like everyone else, on the existing maps: I either used them as they are or bought them and cut out what I needed for my trips. This method proved to be a bit of an issue at times, especially when I was left with too many “partial maps”, but more than anything it lacked the flexibility I needed for some of my trips.
In my 2015 Cape Wrath Trail trip, I took a wrong turn in some point, climbing up the wrong gully (I later learned it is a common problem there), and ended up next to the wrong loch. That, for itself, is not the end of the world; you can always find another route, or retrace your steps. Except that I couldn’t – I only had a 1:40k map of the actual trail and 1:25k inserts in the guide. In reality, I couldn’t find my location: I had no map to see it and no internet connection to see more. Since then, I decided I want to create my own maps, and use them according to my needs: 1:25k at hard to navigate areas, 1:50k when the trail is clear and 1:100k for an overview look; no one made those.
To get a set of maps that would allow me the best, simplest and easiest navigation, I had to either buy and carry (or cut) many paper maps, or find a way to create ones for my needs. In the USA the habit of printing your own maps for the very long thru-hikes has been active for many years, but in the UK it still seemed reasonable to buy the paper maps and cut them (ask any hill walker, they’ll tell you). When I found that I can start printing maps in various scales according to my needs in the size I want using OS Maps, I got hooked and have been using this option for the last 6 months.
Since starting to use OS Maps online, I’ve been able to carry a mix of scale maps for my Pennine Way trips, easily plan short overnight trips and start working hard to create my own combination of maps for my 2016 Cape Wrath trip.
About OS Maps online
OS Maps is an upgrade to the previous Ordnance Survey online service: OS Getamap, now offline due to an old and not updated platform. The service is either a web based app (PC/Mac) or a mobile phone app (iPhone/Android) and aims to offer the below services (from OS Maps website):
Plan your next adventure with high definition online maps and aerial imagery, then plot a route to check distance and elevation profile, add notes and share with friends. Once you’re ready, print your map on a selection of scales or download offline maps to take with you.
This means you can look at Ordnance Survey maps in their 1:50k or 1:25k scale, with the added option of using OS OpenData maps for any other scale or aerial views. This, of course, comes with a catch: OS Maps is a subscription service with the following options:
- Registered user – getting basic printing options using the Open Street Map and aerial maps only.
- Subscriber – gets all the registered users’ functions, including access to all 1:25k and 1:50k maps for the whole of the UK (including zooming in on those!)
The prices are £8 for a month, £16 for 3 months and £20 for a year. I tried the one month option when I just learned about OS Maps and quickly signed up for the year subscription, as I found that it is extremely cost affective.
All users can also:
- Create routes (subscribers can also use an automated route creation service)
- Create driving instructions (similar to Google maps)
- Find public routes (subscribers can get professional routes too)
- Add notes to maps
- Print waypoints
- Print on A4 paper (also A3 for subscribers)
As a whole, this is a great basic service to get the most from Ordnance Survey maps, but it is very much still a service in development in terms of map annotation and route creation. To OS Maps’ credit, they do ask for feedback with a feedback form that is easy to use and seems to be taken into account (I have already sent a few suggestions myself).
I see how OS Maps can become an amazingly good tool, but at the moment it has some real drawbacks. Despite this, I still find it very useful to use for printing maps for specific trips when I know what areas I will be walking in. The ability to print (with some “play” on the files) maps in 1:25k or 1:50k of specifically the areas I need, is extremely useful.
Using OS Maps online
I suggest, before starting to use OS Maps, that you read their quick guide: it is simple to read, goes over the main features and covers the basics. I want to take you into the more advanced ways to get the best maps for your needs, go over the best process to print what you need and some additional formatting tips.
OS Maps’ best feature is the ability to print any section of the UK on a 1:25000 and 1:50000 scale, either on an A4 or A3 paper. A few initial recommendations for printing set-ups:
- Focus on using A4 paper – this is for ease of printing (more common to find) and ease of use. A4 sheets are very easy to browse when it is windy, though you do need more sheets for longer trips.
- Always print map to scale and not fit map to page – keeping the map to scale will insure you get the most out of each sheet in terms of details and ease of use.
Making your map
- Find your starting point: either by zooming out then zooming in on the right location or by searching a name, a post code, a grid reference (6,8 or 10 digits), OSGB reference or any other method to locate a position
- Set the layer to “Standard + OS Leisure Maps”
- Zoom in to the level you are happy with: Pink zoom for 1:50000, orange for 1:25000
- Press “Print” in the top menu
- On the left side menu, select the 2 set-ups recommended above (this only needs to happen once each session)
- Choose landscape or portrait according to how your planned route is heading (east-west: use landscape; north-south: use portrait)
This is where it gets tricky:
- Try and find the map you are looking for using the small preview map
- The map itself will have faded edges so make sure to accommodate a loss of about 7% of the edges
- Place the start/end point as close to the edge of the map as you can without losing it
- Use the preview setting as many times as you need to really get it
- Save as an XPS file (for Windows, not sure what it is on a Mac), more about this later
- Find the next section in the map you need by repeating this process and comparing the preview with the map you already created to have some overlap
- I found Culra Bothy near Loch Ericht using the grid reference: NN5228476177
- The route I’d like to walk is from Dalwhinnie (NN 63405 84906) but I don’t need any marked routes, just the trails around
- Using 1:25000 maps for easy navigation, I find that Culra Bothy is just south of Loch Pattack, which I can easily see in the map preview, so I set the Loch to be roughly in the middle top with Loch Ericht visible on the right and Coire Sron an Nid on the left using landscape
- I check the preview and print
- Next I make sure I move to the portrait setting and move the preview to see the wooded area near Loch Ericht at the bottom and as much of the trail along the loch as is visible
- I couldn’t get Dalwhinnie in the second sheet so a third is needed, getting some of the surrounding area around the village
- When I have all 3 maps, I zoom out and add a 4th map with regular view (about 1:80000) that shows the whole area I’ll be walking, just in case
- I now have 4 maps to show me the walk from Dalwhinnie to Culra Bothy and the area around
To get the best quality and easy printing, some processing should be done. I do recommend saving the maps from OS Maps using XPS files as those have very high resolution. XPS files are Microsoft’s’ attempt to have a PDF like file of their own; it never actually caught, but it does have some advantages for PC users. An XPS is a compressed file that can be expanded to its components using 7-Zip software (it is perfectly safe and you can feel free to download and install it, I’ve been using it for over a year now). What you gett when expanding the XPS file is, among other things, a high resolution image (1887×2670) for quality printing.
Using the XPS
- Right click on the file you would like to expand (your first map) and in the 7-Zip section choose “extract here”
- Go into the “Documents” folder that will have just been created, in that to “1”, “Resources”, “Images” – here is your high resolution image
- Change the name of the image (“Map 1″/”Around Culra Bothy” etc) and cut it (Ctrl-X) to the main folder
- Repeat the process with all the XPS files you saved in the folder, approving the overwrite of the rest of the files (assuming you saved the image on a different name)
- When you have all the images with the correct names, delete all the other files and folders you don’t need
- You can now print the images
Multiple images printing
If you have several maps and would like an easy to save and see file (like a PDF), grouping them makes for an easier print, especially if printing with a printing service.
- Save all your maps images as JPG (XPS saves them as PNG) using your preferred image editor. I just use Windows editor (right click on the image, “edit”, in the program: “Save as”, “Save as JPEG”, yes for losing transparency)
- Go to SmallPDF site
- Press on the “JPG to PDF” icon (middle of the top row)
- Drag the JPG images from the folder to the SmallPDF screen
- Wait until it is done uploading (yellow bar at the bottom)
- Press “Create PDF Now”
- Download the final PDF
- You can now find your Maps PDF in your “Download” folder under the name “Images”
- Rename for the name of your trail/trip
Some notes about printing
- You can print on any paper quality using any printer, but please do print in colour
- The best results are achieved when using laser printers, so use a local printing service (or print at work….)
- Using slightly thicker paper makes the maps less flimsy, so aim for 100g/sqm and up
- If using a laser printer, you can print on waterproof paper – get these great sheets of paper and use a laser printer as usual
- Print on both sides for more efficient and light maps
Is OS Maps for you?
The decision about whether to invest in OS Maps (I still recommend the £20 yearly offer), is really up to you, but as the system develops I think it will be come more and valuable for anyone planning to explore the UK. Ordnance Survey still offers the best maps for any outdoors recreation in the UK, with the most detail and the accurate topography.
Who OS Maps is good for
- Hill-walkers – if you go out on the hills at least once a month, travelling to various places and exploring new areas, getting dedicated maps is useful and cost effective.
- Trail runners – a focused map in the right scale for a quick or long run, that is light weight and easy to read – need I say more?
- Climbers – instead of getting a full OS map every time you head to the crag, just print the route to the crag at home, allowing for more flexibility.
- Microadventurers – perfect for a quick walk or a spontaneous overnight: pick, locate, print, go. Done.
- Orienteers and adventure racers – excellent for training days when you want to really get to know an area well, using a combination of maps for the best detail while keeping weight down.
- Long distance walkers – great for planning a long trail in the UK, and printing the maps with your notes. Print only the sections you need and send them forward for the next sections and send back home the sections you no longer need.
I probably wouldn’t recommend OS Maps for the occasional user as it has yet to fully develop an easy “go in and print” solution, so in these cases a paper map would be better.
I will continue keeping an eye on OS Maps and will update as new features are implemented.
If you living outside of the UK, there is a wealth of local alternatives, some using Open Street Maps and some using local surveying and mapping systems. The main ones that I found useful are:
- USA – Caltopo is probably the best home printing service out there: it is free, using the (FREE!) USGS maps in a range of scales (7.5 minute and more).
- Germany – Wanderkart uses Open Street Maps (so no grid lines) but it is amazingly detailed and regularly updated.
- New Zealand – NZ Topo Map offers a very simple and easy system to print high resolution maps in 1:50000.
- Switzerland – Maps of Switzerland offers not only printing but also trails and other land marks.
- More, much more can be found on this excellent and regularly updated list.
If you print your maps on A4 paper, a good way to protect them outdoors is by using resealable bags (Ziplock style) such as these to easily read the maps on the go. I just store all the maps in this and whip it out when needed – in rain, wind or shine, they are super easy and light.
That is it! Go play with maps, get the hang of OS Maps, but make sure you actually take them outdoors, otherwise they get all sad…..