The main requirement to have an outdoor experience is a place to go. In the United States, we are fortunate to have about 640 million acres, or 28% of the country, owned by the federal government. Most of this land can be accessed by anyone, free of charge. With so much public land, there is a good chance some of it is near you. Sometimes the biggest challenge to access your public land is finding where it is or staying on it once you’re there. Luckily, there are several options to find public land. Some of them won’t even cost you a thing (except maybe time).
There are multiple ways to find public land near you. The US Geological Survey maintains a free web map of public land in the United States (https://maps.usgs.gov/padus/). Several paid GPS apps display your location and the location of public land directly on your smartphone. For the GIS savvy, you can download a database of public land for free from the USGS or BLM websites. This article will address each of these public land map platforms in detail.
Free Public Land Maps
The Protected Areas Database maintained by the USGS includes boundaries for public lands in the United States. This information is available to view on a web map at https://maps.usgs.gov/padus/. The web map has limited functionality but will allow you to see where all the public lands in the nation are. There are multiple base maps to select from to help you identify landmarks and travel routes. If you want specific directions or navigation you will need to find another option because those features are not available on the web map. After changing base layers, turning data layers on or off, or zooming to a location, a link to the map can be created to share with others. Additionally, the map can be printed or saved as a PDF for future reference.
Mobile GPS Applications
If you want to see your location in relation to public land boundaries, a mobile GPS application is probably your best option. These applications use the GPS in your phone to display your location on a map that also shows public land boundaries. Mobile apps allow you to download maps of public land for offline use. With a mobile app, you can easily navigate to public lands and make sure you don’t cross onto private lands in areas where trespassing is a concern. Many mobile apps offer a free version or a free trial. However, to access downloadable public lands maps you will generally have to sign up for a paid subscription.
If this option interests you, check out Gaia GPS, onX Hunt, or Basemap. There are likely other options out there as well. Gaia GPS is the most general purpose of the three listed. It has a lot of good features for hikers, hunters, overlanders, and more. Basemap and onX Hunt are geared more towards hunters and fishermen but have many of the same features.
Public Land GIS Data
For those with tech or GIS skills, you can download public land boundary data in geographic (GIS) formats. Boundary data are available from the USGS as part of the Protected Areas Database. You can also download boundary data from the BLM. Data from the Protected Areas Database are available for the United States as a geodatabase (ESRI) or a shapefile. The same data are also available for individual states. Public land boundaries for individual states are also available in Google Earth compatible KMZ files. The KMZ files can be downloaded and opened in Google Earth.
There are multiple ways to find the location and boundaries of public land in the United States. The best option for you will likely depend on your purposes. If you need to know exactly where you are at all times while you are hunting, then you may want to invest in a mobile app. If you’re simply searching for a camping location the free public land web map may work just fine for you. GIS nerds (like me) may want to make web maps, or do analysis of public lands, and can download the GIS data. In the end, there’s a way for nearly anyone to find public land near them. Go find some public land near you and enjoy it!