There is a Paucity of Mapping for many Mountain Ranges
Outside of Western Europe and the USA, finding accurate large scale topographical mapping for wilderness backpacking/trekking trips can be a problem. Often it is either difficult to source or ruinously expensive – or both.
However, there is a surprising source of high quality mapping – the ex-USSR. During the cold war, the soviet military made a concerted effort to map the entire world, in high resolution and in a variety of scales down to 1:10,000.
This staggeringly ambitious project was top secret, and only became public knowledge in the West following the break-up of the USSR. During that chaotic period, some of the paper map stocks from soviet depots were sold, either to US maps dealers such as East View Cartographic, or to individuals – in one case, as paper pulp!
The slow trickle of hitherto unknown soviet military mapping into the west piqued the interest of cartographers, who investigated the story. Much of what we now know has been researched by members of the Cambridge, UK-based Charles Close Society. There are several fascinating treatises on the subject written by members which you can find here and here.
Soviet Military Maps have Global Coverage
Only the Russians know for sure just how far their mapping initiative extended. Most of what we can see today is mapping that has leaked out, which is likely only a fraction of the total. Below are the estimates of the Charles Close Society of what was actually completed:
- The whole world down to a scale of 1:200,000
- Most of Asia, Europe, North Africa and North America down to 1:100,000
- The USSR, most of Europe, the near and far East at 1:50,000
Other scales (for example, town maps at 1:10,000) were also produced, but are of little interest to backpackers.
What is remarkable is that this was a comprehensive and unified global mapping project. A conservative estimate is that the Soviet mapping project produced in excess of one million individual maps. All of the maps are in the same projection, with the same grid system, and with a uniform colour scheme. They also have a consistent global indexing system, which makes identifying maps (fairly) easy. The russian version of wikipedia has a good overview here.
As Soviet military maps became available, a number of people scanned the paper maps and put digitized collections online, freely available for the public to download. Of these, the maps with scales of 1:200k, 1:100k and 1:50k make good topographical maps for wilderness backpacking trips.
For many mountain ranges, such as the Pamirs, the Karakoram and the Himalaya, it is the only topographical mapping you can easily lay your hands on. The maps are both detailed and (generally) accurate. For basic use – with a compass and nothing else – just print one off and you’re good to go.
Sounds Good – What’s the Catch?
Like most things in life, there are some pluses and minuses to the mapping. I’ll touch on these below, together with some suggested solutions or work-arounds where appropriate.
1) Detailed, accurate mapping
While the details of how the Russians collated their maps are unknown, it seems clear that they used a variety of sources, including satellite imagery. The resulting maps are mostly very accurate.
2) Georeferenced digital images
Most of the map image downloads are georeferenced. That is, they have an accompanying file that specifies the location of the map image in the real world. So, for map xxx, you get an xxx.jpg image and an xxx.map georeference calibration file.
One practical benefit is that you can overlay the digital map image on Google Earth, which is brilliant for planning purposes. Additionally you can load the maps into a number of mapping software programmes (eg OziExplorer) and edit them. For example, you can add trails and waypoints, or add names for peaks, rivers and glaciers. I’ll devote a future blog post to the ways and means of doing this – stay tuned.
3) They can be used in conjunction with GPS units
All soviet military maps were produced with a uniform grid coordinate system. Provided that you can set your GPS unit to the appropriate grid, datum and projection (detailed here), then you can use the maps with your GPS. Furthermore, because the maps are digitized, they can be loaded into smartphone “moving map” apps.
1) Maps vary depending on quality of scanning
The publicly available Soviet military map collections consist of scanned images of paper maps. The quality of the scanning varies, as does the resolution with which the images were scanned. In some cases, the map image is therefore of poor quality. The easiest solution is to find the same map in a different collection, and hope that the quality is better.
2) The place names are in Cyrillic script.
This is generally not a problem for backpacking use, since there are few place names (or places) in the mountains. As noted above, it is also possible to load the maps into mapping software programmes and custom-label them with place names. Or you can just write directly onto printed versions.
3) Most of the mapping dates from the 1980’s
As a consequence, the roads in particular are usually out of date. This is rarely a problem for backpacking, and is easy to update by editing the map as noted above.
4) Not all mountain trails are marked
This is more of an issue for backpackers/trekkers. While you can most likely find a map covering the mountains you are interested in, it may not have your specific trail of interest marked on it. The density of trail marking seems to vary a lot depending on the particular region. The solution? You guessed it – edit the map in a mapping programme, and overlay a gpx file of your intended route.
The map image below is an enlarged section from a 1:200k map of the Turkestan Range in Kyrgyzstan, which I visited in 2012. It shows the annotations I added to the map image. GPX routes are overlaid as green and purple lines, places as green pins and planned campsites as purple pins. You can see photo’s from the trip in the Gallery – scroll down to those images from the Aksu Valley, the Karasu Valley and below Aktobel Pass.
Where can you find Soviet Military Maps Online?
Websites hosting collections of Soviet military maps come and go. At one time, the University of California at Berkeley had an extensive online collection of such mapping available for free download – alas no more. Similarly, Poehali.net used to have free downloads of a large collection of maps, but it now redirects you to Mapstor.com, which charges for the same downloads.
Listed below are links to a few of the better collections, all of which allow free download of maps. Just be aware, the individual digital images are quite large (~200MB) – its all too easy to very quickly amass gigabytes of data.
Each collection has slightly different coverage, so if you can’t find the map you need in one, then look in the others. Similarly, if the scanned quality of the map in one collection is poor, look in the other collections to see if it is better.
This is the most user-friendly of the download sites, since it shows the available maps overlaid on Google Maps. This makes it easy to identifying the maps you need. You have access to 1:200k, 1:100k, and 1:50k mapping.
- In the Google Maps view, navigate to your area of interest by dragging, and zoom in using the scale slider.
- On the right of the map view, (a) select “Russian Army Maps of the World”, and (b) select the scale you are interested in. Don’t leave this on “Auto” – it defaults to large scale maps.
- The available maps appear as boxes overlaid on the Google Maps view. Click any box to see a preview of the map on the right, together with a download link.
- Click on the download link, which will open another window. Fill in the CAPTCHA form. Be sure to download both the map (xxx.gif) AND the OziExplorer calibration file (xxx.map: this is the georeference file).
Appears to be a copy of the old Poehali maps database, sadly now defunct. Less user-friendly than Loadmap.net, but does allow bulk download of maps. You only have access to 1:200k and 1:100k mapping, not the 1:50k maps.
- Zoom in to the area of interest in the Google Maps windows, then click the “Select” button on the right (Note – this immediately turns into a “Stop” button, as you can see in the image above).
- Back in the map, click 4 points to define a rectangle.
- On the right, choose “poehali” in the Geo Type drop-down menu, then tick the 100,000 and 200,000 boxes (these are map scales).
- Now click “Get Maps”.
- A download link will now appear. Click this to download a zip file of map images and OziExplorer calibration files of all available maps relevant to the region you highlighted.
The least user-friendly of the lot. Also I can’t get Google Translate to work on this site. No matter, it does give you access to 1:200k, 1:100k, and 1:50k mapping, and below I explain how to use it.
- On the main page, scroll down and look for the links at the bottom left to 50k, 100k and 200k mapping (circled in red in the image above).
- Clicking any of these links will open a window with all available maps of the chosen scale shown as red squares on a crude outline map of the world (see image below).
- Navigate on the crude outline map to your area of interest by using the scroll bars on the right and at the bottom of the browser window
- Click any of the red squares to open the map image directly in the browser window.
- Now save the xxx.jpg map image direct from the browser window – DON’T change the default name (see below for why).
- To get the related OziExplorer calibration files, go back to the map selection view (see image below)
- There is a link at the top of the window (look for the word “OziExplorer”: circled in red in the image below). Click this to download a zip file containing the calibration file for every single map on the page.
- Now look for the xxx.map file that matches the name of your downloaded image file xxx.jpg (thats why you don’t want to change the default download name for the image).
There are a number of websites that host collections of Soviet military maps, but lack a graphical interface to select the appropriate one. In practice, that means that you have to know the map name before you can find and download it.
There are (at least) two ways to identify the required map name:
- Use one of the graphical interfaces above to identify the map name
- The GPSMapSearch website has a Google Maps interface: if you click anywhere, it identifies the Soviet military maps that cover that point (in a variety of scales)
In no particular order, websites hosting such collections of maps are as follows:
There are also a number of torrent downloads of Soviet military maps. I have no experience of these, so cannot comment. I have never detected any malicious content in the downloads from any of the sites mentioned in this blog post, but common sense suggests it is wise the scan each and every download with your anti-virus programme before opening the files.
Final Thoughts & Future Blog Posts
Soviet military maps are a great resource for wilderness backpackers/trekkers planning trips to many of the worlds mountain ranges outside of Europe and the USA. They are sufficiently detailed to be useful, and are generally accurate. I have used them succesfully during trips to Kyrgyzstan (the Turkestan range), Tajikistan (the Fann mountains) and India (Pir Panjal and Dhauladhar ranges, Himachal Pradesh). I believe they would also be useful across much of the Andes in South America, albeit that you would be limited to 1:200k scale mapping.
With a little bit of work, the maps can be much improved and (some) of their shortcomings overcome. This consists of annotating the maps in a mapping programme, adding a GPX route, and preparing the maps for use in a “moving map” smartphone app. I plan to devote future blog posts to these modifications, so please check back for updates.
If you have any hints, tips or how-to’s regarding Soviet military mapping, then please feel free to comment below. In particular, if you know of, or find, other collections of Soviet military mapping, I would be most interested to add the links to this blog post. You can contact me via the comments below, or directly via the Contact Us page.