Note: Check out this updated article: Print NOAA Charts for Free.
Printing your own NOAA Marine Charts is easy, produces a map exactly the size needed, and provides exactly the coverage needed. These are a few of the reasons to print your own, but equally compelling is that at 36″ to 60″, commercially produced NOAA Marine Charts are too big for practical use in a sea kayak, and buying them is expensive. If you were to buy an updated NOAA Marine Chart from the only approved print-on-demand on-line dealer, you’d spend $26 per chart plus shipping.
The great news is that you can download NOAA Marine Charts for free and with a little hacking convert the charts to a format that can be manipulated using a standard image manipulation program, like Photoshop. This allows you to make a chart the size and with the coverage you need.
Note: You should have an understanding of computers and image manipulation programs for this project.
Downloading NOAA Charts for Free
NOAA charts are available for free in two formats: Raster Navigational Charts (RNC) and Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC). The later are for use in computer programs and plotters, and RNCs, which contain a digital image and cartographic information, are the charts that will convert into a format that is usable by image manipulation programs.
- To download RNCs, proceed to the NOAA RNC Download agreement page. You’ll need to agree to NOAA’s terms to continue.
- Select from the two options. If you know your chart number, it’s much easier to download it from a direct link, otherwise proceed to the option that allows you to select and browse from a map.
- The map viewer is slightly confusing. Zoom in using the zoom tool. When ready to pick maps, switch to the select tool, click on the map, and push the “Add to Chart” button.
- After all the charts are in the cart, press “Place Order.”
- The next screen allows a selection of a chart with updates or updates only. Uncheck “Updates Only.” Press “Order Selections.”
- The NOAA website willÂ spend some time compacting and packaging your order. Do not navigate away from the page until the “Download” button is shown. Then download it.
- Unpack the .zip folder to extract the charts. With Windows, right click and select “Extract All.”
After you download the program, extract the files as in step 7 above. Once extracted view the folder the files are in. The two most important files are bsb2png.exe and bsb2tif.exe. These two programs will convert your RNC to either a png or a tiff. I like png files, but either file will do as long as the image manipulation program that you are going to use will accept the file.
Both of these programs are command line programs, so if you don’t remember working in MS-DOS, spend timeÂ reading more. Basically, you’ll only need to know how to change directories in DOS, which is the CD command.
To run bsb2png.exe or bsb2tif.exe, you’ll need to open up the command prompt. Go to the Start Menu, Click Run, and type “cmd” and press enter. At this point both the command prompt window that appears after pressing enter and the Windows Directory Explorer will be used.
- At the command prompt, navigate using the CD command to the directory that contains your downloaded charts.
- Click back on your desktop and using Windows Explorer find the folder with the bsb2png.exe file in it.
- Right click the file and select copy.
- With Windows Explorer find the folder with with the charts and paste the file into it.
- Back in the command prompt window type “dir”. This will show you the files in the folder. You should see a chart number xxxxx_1.KAP. Where the xxxxx is is the number of the downloaded chart. This is the main chart. You may also notice charts numbered xxxxx_2.KAP. These are usually the inserts on the chart like harbor details.
- At the command prompt type “bsb2png.exe xxxxx_1.kap xxxxx_1.png” and press enter. Let the computer work and it’ll spit out a png image file of your chart.
The next step is to open the png image file into your favorite image manipulation program.
Format and Print the Chart
Next, open your favorite image manipulation program and open the png image file in it. I use Photoshop, but GIMP is a free program that works the same way.
- Adjust the dpi of the image to 300dpi. You’ll find this in the Image Resize dialogue. Make sure not to change the overall pixels of the image. Resizing the dpi makes the scale correct. You can actually increase or decrease the scale of the image by either making the dpi higher or lower, respectively. This won’t add detail to the map and if you increase the dpi the text on the map will be smaller and harder to read.
- Next, open the canvas size dialogue. Change the canvas size to the size of paper. Most printers don’t print completely to the edge, if yours doesn’t consider making the canvas size the printable size of your printer.
- Now move the chart around using the move arrow until you find the section that you want to print. Align it within the canvas.
- Save As a jpeg using the Save As command. I label each new jpeg the name of the chart and a letter designating its part. Example: xxxxx_a.jpg, xxxxx_b.jpg
- Repeat step 3 making sure that you have some overlap between the last section you saved.
- Once everything is saved, print using the Windows Pictures and Fax viewer making sure that Windows doesn’t scale to paper size.
- You can select all the jpegs that you’ve saved double-sided to save paper and make your chart load lighter.
Carrying Maps on Your Kayak
There are many different map cases available. These are two which I’ve used on 100s of miles of paddling trips. Both have worked great.
- SealLine Map Case: I like the 12″ x 16″ size which works perfect if you print your map on 11″ x 17″ paper using a canvas size of 11″ x 15.5″.
- Seattle Sports Dry Doc Map Case: A tough and simple map case that uses a quick resealable closure to keep your maps dry and easy to get to.
- National Geographic Adventure Paper: Waterproof, tear resistant, and prints on any inkjet. Nice for printing multiple charts for everyone in your party if there aren’t enough map cases to go around. I also stash a waterproof chart in the day hatch for my local paddling areas just in case I need it on day paddles. 8.5″x11″, Legal Sized, Tabloid Sized.
Free Image Manipulation Programs
- GIMP: GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many languages.
- Paint.net: Paint.NET is free image and photo editing software for computers that run Windows. It features an intuitive and innovative user interface with support for layers, unlimited undo, special effects, and a wide variety of useful and powerful tools. If you’re a Windows user, you’ll need NET Framework 3.5.
Recommended Books On Navigation
- Fundamentals of Kayak Navigation: This is the best book on the subject of sea kayak navigation. It should be on your shelf.
Other Chart Tools
- BSB Import: BSB Import is a Adobe PhotoshopÂ® plugin for reading NOAA BSB format charts. $20 I haven’t tested this.