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Montana’s MyTopo puts adventure on the map



The trouble began in the late 1990s. Kevin Toohill was living and working in Red Lodge. An expert in geography with a graduate degree from the University of Wyoming, Toohill was especially proficient at managing GIS data. In a nutshell, GIS (Geographic Information System) technology allows people to visualize and analyze geographic information. Toohill’s work involved extensive manipulation and analysis of maps.

Like most Montanans, Toohill’s friends included a robust percentage of pesky hunters. Once they discovered he could combine regions of several maps on his computer—and print one that showed the exact area they wanted to visit—he was bombarded with entreaties for his services. What backcountry traveler wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to forsake cutting and pasting sections of different topos together or lugging multiple maps around, only to use small sections of each?

But Toohill’s trouble with beggarly acquaintances was only temporary. In 1999 he decided to channel the endeavors into a business, and launched MyTopo ( To start, he set to digitizing all 56,000 USGS quad maps of the United States that could be cropped and digitally stitched together to create custom maps, work that continues to this day.

In 2000, marketing whiz Paige Darden came on board and reached out to local and regional outdoor writers. She connected with Bill McRae, a hunting and optics expert from Choteau. McRae referred her to John Zent, editor of American Hunter magazine. Zent ran an article featuring MyTopo, reaching 1.3 million readers in the process.

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“They listed my home phone as the contact information in that article. I had hunters calling night and day requesting maps. That article put MyTopo on the map,” Darden quips.

MyTopo’s first products—waterproof topographical maps ($10 to $160)—are still a cornerstone of the business, used by hunters, hikers, anglers, search-and-rescue personnel, and a wide range of other professionals and backcountry travelers.

Toohill and Darden spent hundreds of hours testing paper and ink for durability. “The basic test went like this: After printing maps, we’d submerge them in Rock Creek and leave them for a week to see what held up.”

The unorthodox testing technique and finished results served the business well. Major outdoor retailers and organizations—Cabela’s, Remington, Realtree and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation—began funneling customers to MyTopo via their websites. The company built on the success with increasingly sophisticated products.

“At first all we had were black and white maps with aerial photography, most of it shot in the early 1990s,” Darden says. But in 2003, partially in response to 9/11, the government instituted a program of aerial photography over the entire country, updated every year or so. The GIS data immediately gave MyTopo the capability of printing highly detailed aerial maps, in color, of a couple acres or thousands.

Today, farmers and ranchers buy the aerial images to display their property. Land managers find the maps helpful for tracking forest succession, the process of forest growth and decline that’s sometimes accelerated by phenomena such as forest fires or logging. Hunters use them to identify clearings, logging activity, burns, and other features that might indicate game or travel routes. An additional company product—a topo map with an overlay of aerial photography—makes it possible to anticipate feeding and bedding areas for elk 500 miles away.

You can also buy the maps blown up to the size you want, as I have, and gaze at them at home for stress relief ($80 for a 4-foot by 5-foot). Compared to a therapist, they’re a bargain.

In 2004, MyTopo merged with a company that created MapCard, an online mapping subscription service. MapCard software lets you export maps to a GPS unit, add information you want (from area outlines to property boundaries) and order or print maps from home.

At least one hunter enamored of the software wasn’t looking to bag an elk—the goal was bagging MyTopo. In 2011, Trimble Co., an early and highly successful competitor in the GPS field, purchased MyTopo for an undisclosed sum. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company kept Toohill at the helm.

MyTopo’s core product line now includes Terrain Navigator (the $99 consumer version) and Terrain Navigator Pro ($299 and up), an industry standard for search-and-rescue agencies, the U.S. Border Patrol, tribal land managers, federal and state wildlife departments, and engineering and oil companies.

The software enables the import and export of the data files that agencies use for projects like tracking elk migration or documenting the travel patterns of radio-collared mountain lions.

For wilderness explorers, myself included, the Terrain Navigator software and MyTopo maps—whether printed by MyTopo, inked at home, transferred to GPS or solely studied on the computer screen—are incredibly powerful tools. Hunters can upload waypoints of deer rubs marked in the field to pinpoint areas of buck activity. Fishermen can store the waypoints of productive holes on a stream, then print them on a map to share with attractive anglers of the opposite sex, a lure far more creative and effective than a hackneyed pickup line.

I use Terrain Navigator Pro to scout out new hunting territory or plan for off-trail scrambles to wilderness lakes: I trace the intended route, then analyze the elevation profile and terrain to see if it’s feasible. Although I’m a computer user with a near-embarrassing level of incompetence, I’ve found the software generally intuitive and easy to use.

In fact, it’s hard to find a downside to a MyTopo product, aside from perhaps the humiliation factor. Use these tools, and there’s no excuse for getting lost. But at least it’ll be easier to get found.

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When in roam

Montana Mapping & GPS shows the way

Hunters, anglers and hikers all have to be aware of property boundaries so they don’t trespass on private land. Not many years ago, this involved reading maps with land ownership indicated in various colors, or by sticking to the interior of immense parcels of public land such as national forests, where boundary issues are less complicated.

Thankfully, a Missoula company eliminates the guesswork. Montana Mapping & GPS ( offers a full line of custom GPS maps for Garmin GPS units: Public and private land boundaries simply pop up on the GPS display.

A couple of things make this software especially appealing. First, the color-coding for various types of land ownership is exactly the same as what you’d find on maps sold by government agencies, except you can get it electronically instead of carrying paper. Second, an upgrade lets you see not only the private land boundaries, but also the names of the people who own private parcels.

Last fall I used a couple of Garmin GPS units with this software while hunting. For the Garmin “Nuvi” model in my Tahoe, using HuntingGPSMaps was as simple as inserting a micro-SD memory card and powering up the unit.

I used a pair of Garmin Rinos in the field, with similarly impressive results. In Wyoming, my hunting partner dropped a big mule deer buck on a slender strip of public land intersecting a highway. West of Red Lodge, I killed a tender young whitetail on a small block of state land jutting into a private holding from the national forest. In neither case would I have been comfortable making the stalk without the map on a GPS clearly showing I was on public land.

Law enforcement personnel like the software perhaps as much as hunters. Mike Moore, a warden captain for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks in eastern Montana, told me “we’re seeing less trespassing situations than we did five years ago. The new GPS software is pretty darn good and there are more and more hunters using it.”

The innovative software (starting at $40) isn’t only handy for hunters: It also helps keep anglers and floaters from drifting into private property. It’s simple to install, easy to use, and keeps you on the right side of the line. That’s a good place to be.

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