Wednesday, September 9, 2015

CalTopo Goes Commercial

I've spent a lot of time lately thinking about the future of CalTopo.  While I'd love to claim that I started with some kind of genius original vision, the truth is that it started as an offshoot of a hobby project I'd been working on for SAR, and grew organically from there.  As with any software project, the work started out fun and gradually became more of a drag.  Now much of my time is spent answering emails, fixing bugs, and dealing with operational issues.

In short, the first 10 hours or so a week I spend on CalTopo have all the excitement of a regular job, but without the upside of getting paid.  I only get to do the fun stuff after I eat my broccoli, and many weeks that never happens.

Happier times, when CalTopo's landing page didn't have a map viewer, you had to create a map before you could draw anything, and I didn't have any support work.

After devoting my free time almost entirely to CalTopo for a number of years, I've been getting restless.  The past year saw me delve into researching the impact of terrain on lost person behavior in SAR.  While the results may seem obvious, an entire generation of search managers has been trained using the aeronautical/maritime model of gridded area searching with little regard to terrain.  The Department of Homeland Security, which fancies itself as owning inland SAR in the US, is still heavily invested in that model, as is the current crop of textbooks.  My research project is a tiny drop in the sea of effort required to restore some sanity to the way people are found, and I would like to do more.

Another consideration is my AWS hosting bill.  August cost me $2200; rounding a bit, the costs were roughly:

  • $250 to host map tiles on S3
  • $200 to host the and servers
  • $100 of random bits and pieces, such as EBS snapshots full of GIS data that I need to keep around
  • $1400 in data charges, mostly serving map tiles


There are a few smartphone apps that license the map tiles from me; they form the bulk of the $1400 in usage costs, and also pay me just enough to subsidize the entire AWS bill.  However if they were to pull out I'd be up a financial creek: beyond the fixed hosting costs, CalTopo users alone account for $100 a month worth of map data.  This is not some forum that can be run on a cheap shared host, and while I greatly appreciate the various donations people have made, they fall well short of the site's actual monthly operating costs.

The costs involved with developing and running CalTopo - both real and opportunity, financial and time wise - have been significant.  While I still cry a little inside every time I price out a 4x4 Sprinter camper van, I don't regret the hours and funds plowed into it.  However, looking to the future, how long can I continue channeling such a large part of my life towards CalTopo?

Yeah, Baby!  If I could go back in time, would I trade CalTopo for one of these bad boys in my driveway?  Decisions, decisions.

I don't know what the answer is, but it's certainly not another 5 years.  Even ignoring the pull of other projects, I've simply been spending too much time locked away behind a desk.  My own sanity requires more weekends spent recreating rather than working.

As I see it, there are basically three options:

Keep the current model and let the site stagnate.  I'll occasionally be able to make time for improvements, but the pace will slow and large features like auto-routing along trails are unlikely to get implemented.  If map licensing fees drop off, either shut down or eat the $7k/yr in unavoidable hosting costs.

Open source the code and start a nonprofit to cover costs.  I tried the open source approach with early versions of the code, and no one ever contributed anything (literally, which is why I was able to return to a closed source approach).  With the site's improved popularity it may be a different story now, but I'm not convinced that the open source approach works well with hosted sites, as opposed to software that end-users run locally, or server frameworks like Apache.

In addition to code improvements, there are also the hosting costs to worry about.  I've seen plenty of nonprofits struggle for cash; the most effective ones either have strong local appeal or some kind of national advocacy message.  A backcountry mapping / SAR nonprofit wold have neither, and it's unlikely that I would be able to do more than struggle to cover each year's hosting costs.  That said, if anyone has a pile of money and a burning desire to help the outdoor and SAR communities with it, drop me a line at

Get serious about running the site like a business.  Beyond hosting costs, try to make enough to justify continued development and investment into the site.

After a lot of thought, I've decided to go with option 3.  While there was some hesitation leading up to the decision, now that it's made, I'm pretty excited about it.  A sharper focus on commercially viable features will ultimately mean a better site for users, with me forced to spend more time on documentation and UI improvements rather than chasing shiny new ideas.  It opens up the potential to include paid map layers, such as PDFs with higher resolution aerial imagery.  And, hopefully, it will allow me to invest more hours developing new features.

The "shared maps" layer was originally driven by commercial ambitions, but now that it exists, I think it's a great feature in its own right.

Understandably, I don't expect all the users out there to share my enthusiasm.  Since I'm explaining why I need to make CalTopo commercially viable, I also want to clarify a few things:

  • CalTopo will continue to be usable as a free site; it will not be hidden wholesale behind a paywall.  As a user of the site myself, I want to be able to bring a map up on a friend's computer without having to sign in.
  • CalTopo and SARTopo will continue to be free to first responders who use them professionally, such as SAR and wildland fire.
  • Billing will be simple and transparent.  You won't have to enter a card number to start a free trial, and  won't have to time your cancelation with the end of a billing period.  You can cancel with a single click, no annoying retention process.
  • You can keep your data.  You don't have to worry about losing any of your saved maps or PDFs if you cancel your subscription.
  • If you've already made a donation, you can request to have that credited towards your account.

I'm still working out the exact details and will lay them out in another post.  However, my current thinking is a $40/year subscription that includes the following:
  • Unlimited private maps.  Free users will be limited to 5 private maps, although they can create as many publicly shared ones as they want.  If you already have more than 5 private maps, you can keep them, you just can't save any new ones until you get the total under 5.
  • Save PDF URLs for up to a year.  For free accounts, URLs will expire after 30 days.
  • Large-format PDFs.  Free accounts will be limited to 11x17.
Edit: I should have made it clearer that this is simply one option.  I'd also consider something that's cheaper but encompasses more of the site; see comment below.

One feature I'm still contemplating is a smaller cap on the number of pages a PDF can have (current limit is 15 across the board).  There may also be some additional paid PDF management functions, such as the ability to hide the QR code or point it at a custom URL.

So . . . what say ye?  What's the best price / set of features that will give me a functional free site and happy paying customers?


  1. First off, I will say that CalTopo is fabulous, and so far as I know is the best online backcountry mapping webapp available. That's not to say that Gmap4, Acme Mapper, GPS Visualizer and some lesser known ones aren't very useful too - but they simply don't provide as much functionality for me as CalTopo. It was a VERY important one of several key things that allowed me to stop using Windows and migrate entirely to Linux and then to Chrome OS for my desktop computing as it allowed me to stop using Expert GPS which is Windows only. (though I may still need Windows once in a blue moon to compile any new mapsets for my gps with either Bascamp or Mapsource) Being able to work on my maps from any browser anywhere and have all my data available is just golden!

    I am actually excited about your decision because I have worried about what my next best option would be if CalTopo went away. The thought of continued support and development of new features and better performance has me more than willing to pay. And to say "Thank you" for going this route instead of number 1. I could get behind number 2, but would still worry about the future of the site if things didn't work out well at a pretty quick pace.

    That said, I will say that while I will pay it if that is what you settle on, I do think $40 a year is a tad steep for me and likely many others and would suggest $25. My feeling is that you would get considerably more subscribers at that price point. Whatever you ultimately decide though, I would like to apply a recent donation toward that cost. As far as the feature set goes, nothing beyond what you already have jumps out at me off the top of my head except perhaps the ability to upload custom icons to ones account rather than having to point to one with a url. That, and better performance with maps that have a large number of tracks and waypoints.

    1. Thanks, I really appreciate the feedback.

      Looking at other options out there, I think that $40/yr is very reasonable for the features offered. Gaia's premium subscription is $40, AllTrails is $50 (though frequently discounted). I don't want to have a tiered plan structure, and I do have some more (and more resource intensive) ideas cooking for paid accounts, but really - where else online can you generate a 36" wide 1:24k topo map, at any price? However, if you don't need the PDF features and the main benefit to you is supporting the site and/or additional private maps, I can see how it would seem steep for the value you're getting in return.

      I'm definitely struggling with the right balance between a pricier subscription that includes a smaller number of features, and a cheaper one that covers more. So I could see doing something like $20/yr, but at that point I think I'd want to limit free accounts to < 5 maps, maximum 8.5x11 PDFs, smaller KMZ exports, etc. It's a price that's easier to swallow, but a site that pushes you more towards swallowing it.

      That's exactly why I'm pushing this blog post out - hopefully more people will chime in.

  2. Speaking only for myself, I can say that I have created a few pdfs but it is something I very rarely use. That's not to say my needs won't change in the future, but right now my use case mostly involves using CalTopo to create gpx and kml files for trip planning, as well as upload and edit the tracks and waypoints I have created in the field afterwards. I also like to store a rather long list of private maps so I can access them from any desktop browser or share them with others, and I make very good use of the "view from here" wire imagery feature, both to figure out what I might be able to see from a viewpoint as well as to positively identify peaks in my photos that I am not sure of. I almost never print out maps, preferring to use the digital maps in my gps as well as tiles I have downloaded for offline use in the Backcountry Navigator app for Android (most often CalTopo tiles BTW!). That is definitely worth $20-25 a year to me, and I'll pay more if I have to. I definitely want to support your work as best I can to continue getting the functionality I need.

  3. I think $25 - $30 would be quite reasonable given the feature-set and interface of the site. Limiting free users to smaller and fewer PDFs and saved maps seems like a good idea. Making some layers available to subscribers only and/or limiting the number of layers displayed at a time is something I've seen other sites do. Throwing some text advertisements on the site for free members might also help offset costs, and provide extra incentive to subscribe.

    If CalTopo had an Android app, even if just for viewing maps created online, and storing tiles for offline use, I'd happily pay $50 a year. Give me the ability to create and edit maps on my phone/tablet, complete with routes, altitude profiles, etc. and I wouldn't flinch at $75 a year.

    1. I'd prefer to keep the interface clean and limit some features instead of going the ad route - to pay "well", they generally have to be pretty intrusive. Less of a big deal for blogs and such that already have lots of whitespace on the side.

      Have you played around with Avenza PDF Maps and CalTopo generated PDFs? For me it's been a pretty slick free solution; you can plug the PDF URL directly into Avenza so there's no messing around with file transfers.

      Starting from scratch with a phone app and trying to catch up with something like Gaia or BCN (my two largest map licensees) would be a monumental amount of effort - effort that I think is better spent improving the website. But I appreciate the comment, regardless - you're not the first person to ask me about an app.

    2. PDF Maps are great, as long as I have the forethought and time to create them before I leave home, and don't need any information beyond the borders of the file, or in a different layer.

      For now I use Gaia to get those sweet CalTopo tiles on the go, and manually move information between the two at home.

    3. PDF Maps are great, as long as I have the forethought and time to create them before I leave home, and don't need any information beyond the borders of the file, or in a different layer.

      For now I use Gaia to get those sweet CalTopo tiles on the go, and manually move information between the two at home.

  4. I agree that $25-30 per year would be a better price point - think you would get many more subscriptions. Caltopo is a phenomenal tool in my opinion. Alan Dixon created his map sets for the Wind River High Route and the Southern Sierra High routes using Caltopo. I think adding some sample maps to the site and/or your blog would help promote the tool. WRHR was my introduction to Caltopo.

    Thank you for creating such a useful and easy-to-use application.

  5. Caltopo has awesome features and your efforts should be rewarded. I think that $40/yr is very reasonable for the features offered.

    Like a prior commenter posted give me the ability to create and edit maps on my phone/tablet, complete with routes, altitude profiles, etc. and I wouldn't flinch at $75 a year but I realize that you want to focus your efforts on the website.

    Whatever the periodic cost may be, I would like to apply a prior donation toward that cost. As far as the feature set goes, higher resolutions aerials would be nice and the ability to upload custom icons to ones account rather than having to point to one with a url.

  6. I am surprised that it has taken this long for you come this point. I have no problem paying $40. CalTopo is worth every penny compared to other alternatives that cost more. If that is what it takes to keep CalTopo alive and moving forward with improvements, I'm all for it. Please, no advertising.

  7. I'm a new user of CalTopo and love the site. I'm happy to support you with donations or subscriptions. The map printing is what really amazed me; the quality of the maps are great too. I like the idea of storing my tracks in a location that can be shared and won't disappear if I don't pay a subscription.

    GaiaPro is $40 per year, but that includes the smartphone application and GPS tracking/routing. Ironically, it also includes the CalTopo maps. There isn't a CalTopo app is there? How do you see CalTopo working as part of a complete toolset? (remember I'm new, so be gentle). It appears people use CalTopo routing and map tiles in conjunction with Backcountry Navigator. What do you do?

    My initial thoughts are that $25 a year seems reasonable to support the site and the tile development. I don't want to get into a situation where I pay Gaia $40/year for the GPS and CalTopo $40/year for the website.

    1. Yes, I can see how subscription double dipping would be especially problematic for a more casual user.

      I generally use either a printed map and/or a CalTopo PDF imported into Avenza's free PDF Maps app. You can plug the CalTopo URL directly into Anveza, and it will plot your location on the map and record tracks and waypoints.

      That requires doing some research and generating a map at home, and it's not as full featured as Gaia or BCN. But it works for me, because I do a lot of careful research before leaving the house and I'm not recording waypoints and photos along the way.

      For a power user, the full toolset would be a CalTopo subscription and either a standalone GPS or something like Gaia/BCN on a smartphone. For the at home planner, it's a CalTopo subscription + Avenza or a paper map. For someone who just wants to show up at a trailhead and go, it's probably the free features on CalTopo and a paid smartphone app.

      Just my opinion, obviously.

  8. The way to cut bandwidth costs is with a p2p sharing mechanism.

  9. As one of the few, evidently, who has donated to the site, I think your work is outstanding. But I will not participate in a subscription system. I would gladly pay $200 or $300 up front in order to be done with it and to know ahead of time what my investment will be. But I won't get sucked into a system where I pay $300 or $600 or $1000 or $40 every year for as long as I happen to stay alive. I already own other options that make that an unnecessary investment. I think your work is worth charging for, but I hope you consider other options besides a subscription system.

    1. I suppose I should be perfectly happy to accept 8 years of payments upfront in return for a lifetime subscription.

      While I understand your position, and feel the same way sometimes, I'm very hesitant to offer a lifetime subscription. 8 years is a long time in the software world, never mind "forever". What happens if someone falls off a cliff, sues me for producing inaccurate maps, wins, and the LLC I formed to protect myself goes into bankruptcy? Will you come around demanding to be reimbursed for your lifetime fee? Demand a continued credit from the people who buy the LLC's assets at auction? Write it off as water under the bridge?

      It's also worth noting that although most desktop software is licensed forever, and I would go that way if I were selling desktop software, most people eventually pay to upgrade to a new version with more features. And people with 10 year old copies of Nat Geo Topo! are discovering issues running it on the latest Windows machines.

      Even when you have tangible possession of a software CD, realistically speaking, the program still has a limited lifespan, and a subscription is no different than dividing the upfront cost by that lifespan.

    2. Those are valid points. I'm not sure the bankruptcy argument works as one of your concerns simply because if you declared bankruptcy then it wouldn't be your problem anymore.

      As for it being my concern, that's a risk I'd rather take. The bankruptcy scenario is a risk...the scenario of paying hundreds of dollars more over the years in the proposed pricing is a guarantee.

      As for desktop software limitations, I'm sure you're right, but as of today, my desktop mapping software is plugging away nicely. Maybe 5 years from now you'll be proven right about it and I'll be coming back to subscribe. Or maybe something new will have come along that grabs my attention. Is that a risk you're willing to take?

      I agree with others that CalTopo is worth paying for, but I will not pay a $40 per year subscription rate. It's great to see that you're considering all of the options and the ramifications of those options, so I'm not sure I can offer any helpful insight from my armchair. I just wanted to be sure you had my opinion as a data point.

      I hope to still be a regular CalTopo user two years from now who still posts reviews about how great it is on my webpage. Good luck with finding a useful pricing option.

  10. I've been waiting for this moment. Clearly a lot of work has gone into developing CalTopo, and I'm continually amazed by the pace of improvements without a for-profit model.

    I'm glad that you are going to run it like a business. This will give you the financial resources to keep it running, and the incentive to make it even better. Most hobby projects are not worthwhile because the project owner needs to dedicate relatively more time to things that actually pay the mortgage.

    As for the cost, I struggle similarly when pricing my guides: low enough to make it reasonable, high enough to provide meaningful revenue. I think you are getting some good feedback here. You may want to consider tiered subscription levels (more than just free or paid) as well as multi-year purchase discounts.

  11. I've been using CalTopo for about a year now on a very limited basis. I really love the site, and I thank you for creating it. I really don't need or know how to use all of the options that are available and I see your need to make a profit.I have no idea what a subscription should cost but it doesn't seem quite right to charge one price for so wide a range of usage or for that matter need. I'm willing to pay but I think a tiered system would fair for different levels of use.

    1. Thanks.

      Based on feedback I'm leaning more that way - something for people who just want to store maps and print smaller PDFs, and a more expensive version with actual "pro" features like 36" wide PDFs.

  12. Matt,

    Thank you for doing this great resource. I hope you are able to find a way to keep it going. I think your approach seems reasonable. (I sent additional comments via email.)

    Mike Newman
    Arklahoma Hiker (

  13. It's inevitable, given how powerful CalTopo can be, that it'd go to a paid model. I'd be plenty willing to chip in a few bucks - example features like this would likely convince me that a subscription is worth the money -

    -unlimited number of pages to a PDF. Or, at least more than 15. I created a 100-mile trek at 24K in the Winds and it took fifteen full pages. If i wanted to plan a 200-mile route, I'd want to be able to print one map pack for the whole shebang. Understand that takes a lot of server space, however that's what the cash would be paying for, I take it.
    - Auto-routing along trails
    - More accessible user guide for features. I'm convinced I don't utilize half the functionality of the site.
    - Easy interface with Backcountry Navigator - I don't want to have to sign in all the time to view maps on BCN, and I want to be able to unlock the full potential of caltopo on BCN.
    - searchable index of user-created publically available maps.
    - Auto-generate PDF suggestions. I'd like the site to automatically create a pdf of my route as soon as I specify what scale I wanted it printed at. Dragging and dropping and adding new pages is a bit tedious

    1. Thanks. Auto-routing and auto PDF placement are both on my radar, although I think auto routing will come first.

      The 15 page limit wasn't really on my radar as a limitation. In the past year I've redone the PDF generation code to be more memory efficient, so I should be able to bump that number up no problem and will look into doing it soon. Will probably go with square inches rather than pages, so that you can print a larger number of 8.5x11s than 13x19s.

  14. $40 a year is a steal! I consider Caltopo to be one of the most useful web apps out there. I ditched my desktop based mapping tools in favor of Caltopo and would gladly pay for any subscription model.

  15. I'd be up for $40 a year to keep this incredibly useful tool going.

  16. How about an organizational option as well at the $250/yr level with yearly statewide updates included for offline and GPS use? I am not at all opposed to showing adverts to free users so long as they are confined to the currently un-used white space on the left.

  17. Good for you Matt. I have been using your topo Forest Service for awhile. I hope you are able to make some money with all the time you put in.

  18. I'd be happy to pay $40/year for the service. If you are a commercial business will you need to remove or license the Open Street Map layers? I use those a lot because it's often the most up-to-date information, depending on the area and amount of contributed user data of course.

    Did you consider Patreon as a payment processor? It might save you some hassles. I support other sites through Patreon.

    1. Caveat: IANAL.
      OSM data are free to use commercially but credit is required and any derivative works must use the same license as OSM does.

      "We require that you use the credit “© OpenStreetMap contributors”."

      That said, OSM layers are vital to what I do since I heavily update OSM in areas I later create maps for.

  19. Wish I hadn't been out of the country the last month because I think I have a feasible solution. Why not incorporate as a non-profit and pay yourself a salary? Kind of like Wikipedia. I would donate a LOT more than $40 if I could write it off. Another idea is to get together with other folks who do similar things like Richard Smith who did the Caribbean maps ( That would expand the database, and then those folks could get paid also from your non-profit.

    1. That would, actually, be my ideal way forward. But I can't exactly snap my fingers and raise salary-level nonprofit money, and once I go down that path (set up as a nonprofit), there's no going back if I can't continue to raise funds on an annual basis. If the right set of circumstances presents themselves, its always possible to switch from commercial to nonprofit.

      My exposure to nonprofits has mostly been through SAR, but I've seen a number of teams struggle to buy equipment, much less raise the sort of money that would pay for someone's time. Without a strong local focus (county SAR team, city youth programs) or advocacy message (protect the wilderness, stop malaria), fundraising feels like it would be an uphill challenge, and I don't want to spend half my time fundraising instead of working.

      But I guess it depends on how many zeros come with "a LOT more than $40", and how many similar sources I could find. I certainly can't see it working on sub-$100 donations from your average user, which never totaled very much.

  20. A smaller one time fee option would be nice. I'm a very occasional tripper and would happily pay $5-10 for a single map with unlocked exporting for say 3 months (to cover the planning period). But then I may not use it again for 18months. At that point I would pay again.
    Or perhaps $0.50 page for 11x17 export option?

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  22. I volunteer for an non-profit that grooms 50k of nordic ski trails in Colorado. I recently resurveyed the trails, QC'd in GE,imported trails into a Caltopo gradient shaded topo map, exported to a geo-ref pdf for Avenza, and made an interactive shared map with popup trail descriptions. An amazing end product and easy to produce. You have a great product but a lot of people have never heard of Caltopo. I will promote your site at an upcoming REI class. I think the non-profit approach is a good idea but I would also subscribe as I use Caltopo to produce geo-ref maps for mountaineering trips using your gradient shading maps and the Avenza app for navigation.

    1. If there's a question in there, sorry if I'm not seeing it. Othrewise, thank you.

  23. Hi Matt,

    You've created a great website and it's been very useful during my hikes this past summer. I recently upgraded to the $20/month plan and I hope it goes to good use. I appreciated the transparency in your post about what goes into managing Cal Topo. It's been very generous of you to devote your time up until this point.

    I've read through most of the posts containing criticism from free users about using a subscription model. Personally, I wouldn't pay them any attention to their comments. They seem like the type of people who share Netflix accounts with 8 of their friends and enjoy free samples day at Costco. Good luck ever getting those type of people to pay for anything besides the latest iPhone.

    Keep up the fantastic work. I'm more than happy to pay for this product.

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