Finding Your Way in the Woods – Avenza PDF Maps

Screen MapGetting StartedAvenza makes a simple, yet elegant app for iOS and Android devises.  The app is called PDF Maps and it shows your position on a map.  Beyond that,  it allows you to download free USGS topographic maps for the U.S. as well as a variety of other free and paid maps from around the world.  If you happen to be mapmaker,  Avenza even allows you to sell your maps for use on its app.

Getting Started

To get started:

  1. download the app from the iTunes Store or Google Play and install on your device (phone, iPad etc.) – it’s free!
  2. purchase or obtain free maps from Avenza’s map store
  3. download the maps to the device

At this point you can open the map for the area you are in and your position will appear as a blue dot on the map.

Finding Maps

The key thing here is getting the maps you need.  The easiest way to get maps when planning your adventure is to use the web browser on your computer, go to the map store  and click “Get Maps.”  You will see a world map with Map Arraylots of markers on it.  Each marker represents an available map and many more will appear as you zoom in.  First click and drag the map to center your location.  Repeatedly double-click to zoom into your area of interest, or use the plus and minus signs at the lower right to zoom in and out.  Click on one of the markers to learn about the map.  You can make the list smaller by choosing to see only free maps.  You may also choose maps from a particular vendor, like the following:

  • U.S. Geological Survey – for topographic maps (free)
  • National Geographic – for National Park maps and state maps (paid)
  • U.S. Forest Service – recreation maps, firewood maps,   travel maps (some free, some paid)

and many others.    It is also possible to get maps from the map store within the app.

Let’s say you need a topographic map for an area you plan to explore (maybe around your home).  Choose “United States Geological Survey” and  “All Categories.”  If your area of interest is inside the United States,    you should see an array of evenly spaced icons across the map.  Each represents one 7.5 minute USGS quadrangle map.

When you mouse over the icon it will reveal the name of the map, so click the one you want.  A new page will appear displaying a preview of the map, so you can be sure it’s the one you want, and a description.  If you want to add it to your collection, click the “Get this product” button.  It will appear in your shopping cart.  Click “Cart” at the top right to see what’s in your cart and to checkout when you have all the maps you want.

Downloading Maps to Your Device

If you are getting away from civilization, you probably won’t have cell phone or data service, so you will want to get the maps on your device before you leave home.  To do this:

  1. open the PDF Maps app on your phone,
  2. tap the store icon,
  3. tap the “My Account” icon and sign in,
  4. on the “My Account” Screen, tap the purchased map to download and install it.

Now your map is ready to use.

Using Your New Map

When you are inside the boundaries of the map you have chosen,  your location will appear as a blue dot.  To see the map and your location on it, open the app, tap the “Maps” icon at the bottom and tap the map you want.

The entire map will appear on your screen with a blue dot, if you are within its boundaries.  Usually,  you will want to zoom in on the map to see the details.  Do this using the applicable finger gestures for your device.

When you leave your vehicle or campsite,  it’s a good idea to start recording your tracks on the map.  To do this, tap the map, tap the tool icon (lower right) and tap “Record GPS Tracks.”  When the map reappears, tap “Start” and a red line will track your path as you walk around. Tap on the track and you will see the track name, length, elevation change and time.  Tap the info icon to change the name of the track,  see a graph about your journey, change the color of the track, write a description of your journey, or associate photos with your track.

The Advantages of PDF Maps

There are many other apps that do some of the things that PDF Maps does.  Among them,  I often use Komoot for developing maps and graphics used in eMagazine articles and I typically use iBiker when bicycling or hiking around home.  These apps use standard topographic maps and can track you wherever you are although you may need cell phone service to download the maps on the go.

There are some advantages to PDF Maps:

  • the many specialty maps that are available – often free.  When driving on a National Forest, for example, it is important to know what roads are closed when and for what purpose.  I haven’t found another app that makes this information available.
  • standard USGS 7.5 minute quadrangles – if you are familiar with this map series, it’s really handy to carry the maps you need on your phone.
  • PDF Maps Tools – this app offers some interesting tools including a “Measure” tool where you set the target on a starting point and drag your finger to a new point to have the app tell you the straight line distance to the point.


PDF Maps has some advantages over other apps, but then, the other apps in this category, and there are many of them, each have their own advantages and disadvantages.    Consider how you would use the app and if it seems useful to you,  download it and try it out.  There is no cost to experiment and it’s easy to delete an app if you decide it won’t work for you.

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