A little known fact is that you can download US nautical charts and topo maps for free! Instead of buying paper charts or a cd of them, you can download them with an internet connection. Free does mean you have to do a bit more work, but I’ve found the payback is worthwhile.
Disclosure time! I don’t use a gps unit. I find chart and compass easier to navigate with and they give me a better idea of the big picture than just where I am at. Also on a longer trip, there is no concern with batteries or the failure of an electronic device.
Click here for NOAA’s webpage for the free charts. RNC or raster navigational charts is a handy TLA meaning digital chart. You can download a bundle of them from a specific area or download them one at a time. They come in a .zip file. There will be a .bsb file and a .kap file for each chart. I’ve stuffed those into one directory which makes it easy to view them with the viewer listed below.
You can also view the charts online here. Useful if you are looking for a particular chart or set of charts before purchasing a paper chart or downloading them.
These nautical charts come in a specialized format that needs a special reader. I’ve used the Maptech one, click here to down load a free version. It will need to know the directory where the chart files are located as part of the installation process.
Once everything works right, you can view the charts and scroll around. This makes trip planning/dreaming fairly easy, especially when you combine it with topo maps from below, Google earth and other internet resources.
Charts I’ve purchased for Canada, Ireland and the UK work with this viewer as well. You will find buying a cd of charts is cheaper than buying paper charts. At $20-25 per chart, it doesn’t take many paper charts to be cheaper than the dozens if not hundreds you get on a cd. Perfect when you are going a distance as you will often need more than just a few charts.
To download free USGS topo maps, click here. They come in pdf format and are the same as you would buy in a store or on a disk. Using topo maps together with nautical charts helps in those areas where the chart scale doesn’t have much detail or lacks detail of the land beyond the shoreline.
Why do companies sell US digital charts/maps if they are free to download? Well, they like to make money and few people know about these resources. To be fair, they often try to package them in convenient sets or offer enhancements such as data on ports that larger boats want to have.
Why aren’t other countries free? Turns out the US government put US charts & maps into the public domain. Until the internet, the easiest way to access them was via paper. In other countries, like Canada and the UK, they are copyrighted by the government and one must pay a royalty even for the digital version. Good thing is the price is coming down over time.
Photographer, writer, paddler, guide & instructor Bryan Hansel over at PaddlingLight.com has a good article on how to convert the .bsb files into a couple different photo file formats. Click here to see it. You can then use these photos as art, in blogs, send to buddies, etc. Better still go to a place that has a large printer like your local printer or an OfficeMax and you can print them out for $5-10, cheaper than the usual $20 for one from NOAA.
How I make these charts and maps useful for paddling is to print them out then laminate them. One could print them on waterproof paper or put them inside a waterproof chart case, but I don’t know how that works out.
The Maptech chartviewer can print the whole chart in multiple page sections allowing you to tape it together for one whole chart or cut it up and tape it together how you want it. I often print just the areas I need but this does take more time and work. Printing it to a pdf first is handy to see what you have before printing to paper. Saving the pdf also gives you the chance to print it out again or send it to paddling partners, etc.
The advantage of lamination is that it is waterproof so you can do chart work anywhere, including the rain instead of inside tents on a rainy day. They take up minimal space on your deck compared to a chart inside a case. You can do your chart work right on it. In case your plans change, you can carry extra charts & maps you may need on your deck. No more digging thru dry bags or having to open up a chart case to rearrange the chart fold (try that out on the water in rain or high winds!).
Here are some lamination tips I found useful:
- Use 7-10 mil laminating pouches than the commonly found 3 mil. It will cost more as a result but last longer.
- Use a laminator that uses heat versus cold lamination methods which are often not waterproof nor durable.
- Mark up your maps/charts before laminating. On charts put the chart name & number, magnetic variation, it’s year and the annual change. Make sure to have the longitude and latitude on the chart edges. This is the information you will need for navigating and using the charts in the future.
- Additional chart information I’ve found useful includes lines for magnetic north, tidal information (races, overfalls, current info, etc), any hazards, marine traffic, etc.
- I often put campsite and scenic info from guidebooks and other sources on topo maps. They have reasonable detail to place/locate the site.
- Use a china marker, preferable a plastic one that won’t fall apart like a paper one does or rust (click here), to write on the laminated charts/maps. This is particularly useful when doing chart work. It can also be rubbed off.