Build It YourselfTutorial

Print Your Own NOAA Charts

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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

Sample Resized NOAA chart for the Apostle Islands
Sample Resized NOAA chart for the Apostle Islands

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.

Steps:

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  1. To download RNCs, proceed to the NOAA RNC Download agreement page. You’ll need to agree to NOAA’s terms to continue.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. After all the charts are in the cart, press “Place Order.”
  5. The next screen allows a selection of a chart with updates or updates only. Uncheck “Updates Only.” Press “Order Selections.”
  6. The NOAA website will  spend some time compacting and packaging your order. Do not navigate away from the page until the “Download” button is shown. Then download it.
  7. Unpack the .zip folder to extract the charts. With Windows, right click and select “Extract All.”

Conversion Tools

The computer program that converts the files just downloaded to a usable image file is called libbsb. This an open source program freely available for download from its project page at Sourceforge.

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 time  reading more. Basically, you’ll only need to know how to change directories in DOS, which is the CD command.

Running bsb2png

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.

  1. At the command prompt, navigate using the CD command to the directory that contains your downloaded charts.
  2. Click back on your desktop and using Windows Explorer find the folder with the bsb2png.exe file in it.
  3. Right click the file and select copy.
  4. With Windows Explorer find the folder with with the charts and paste the file into it.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Now move the chart around using the move arrow until you find the section that you want to print. Align it within the canvas.
  4. 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
  5. Repeat step 3 making sure that you have some overlap between the last section you saved.
  6. Once everything is saved, print using the Windows Pictures and Fax viewer making sure that Windows doesn’t scale to paper size.
  7. 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

Other Chart Tools

  • BSB Import: BSB Import is a Adobe Photoshop® plugin for reading NOAA BSB format charts. $20 I haven’t tested this.

21 comments

  • Seems like a lot of work. You can buy a water-tolerant print-on-demand up-to-date chart, sized down specifically for the small boat mariner (13″ X 19″) for $5.95 with free shipping from Official NOAA Agent at http://www.noaachartsonline.com.

  • It is a lot of work, but the charts are as up-to-date as you can get, detail the exactly where you need it, and for someone like me with eyes that are failing, I need the larger print.

    Plus, this method is cheaper. If you have a party of 4 kayakers going to an area that requires 2 charts, buying them, even in a reduced size, will cost $48. Using the method outlined in this article, you’ll only spend $2.50 or less if your printer goes to 11″x17″. $45 saved is a good chunk of change in my wallet.

  • Thanks for the article Bryan. I found the NOAA files, but your article provided the missing link in doing something useful with them.

    It would be nice if bsb2png could assemble the multiple part charts into a single one, but that is a fairly minor complaint.

    Gary — For about 20 minutes worth of work I just got the full charts for the Washington State coast. I consider that a pretty good return on investment.

  • I’m glad you found the article useful.

    It’d be great if bsb2png would assemble the multiple part charts. I ended up using photoshop.

  • […] you’re feeling like tackling a bigger project, in addition to printing your own NOAA charts you can put NOAA charts on your GPS. You’ll need to purchase Moagu and follow the steps […]

  • Thanks for the helpful article. In preparing for a kayak trip of several months in length, I want to print charts on large format “paper” – both sides. The paper and printing done needs to be waterproof and at least resistent to UV damage. Information about what alternatives are available as well as the pros and cons of each would be greatly appediated.

    Also, does anyone know what waterproof paper and printer setup Waterproof Charts uses for the charts they sell?

    Thanks in advance for your input.

  • Most of the charts that I’ve seen are printed on regular paper. I’ve seen some printed on Tyvek. It looks like Waterproof Charts uses the same tearproof & waterproof paper that Trail Illustrated uses for their maps. I have a bunch of maps made out of the stuff and it feel plastic. I don’t know what it’s called.

    For printing at home, I’ve used National Geographic Adventure Paper. It’s waterproof and tear resistant. It comes in a bunch of sizes: 8.5″x11″, Legal Sized, Tabloid Sized I’ve used it with color laser printers and inkjets with success. As a test, I left a sheet in my car’s back window an entire summer. It faded some, but years later, I still can use the chart.

    Typically, I print both sides on regular paper and when using the chart, I keep it in a waterproof map case, like SealLine’s Map Case. The extra charts are kept in a dry bag in my day hatch or portage pack until needed. I’ve never had a problem with a chart getting destroyed from water.

  • […] program designed to read the BSB format. To make the charts usable in any graphics program or to print your own NOAA charts, you need to convert them from the native BSB format to a graphics format like PNG, JPEG or […]

  • Hello

    I am looking for North West greenland charts. But I have some difficult to found them.
    Do you know where I can find ?

    Thanks
    Jluc

  • Try the Danish Ministry of Environment. I don’t know where you’d find free NW Greenland charts.

  • Is there a way to get British charts electronically. They have the best charts for most of the world, but they are expensive.

  • As far as I know, there isn’t. The British government doesn’t release the charts for free, which the U.S. does.

  • You’re the man… easy, and clear directions… It worked the first time.

    Thanks,
    CJ

  • These are some great directions, worked perfectly. Just one question Bryan, after printing off the chart, I did some distance measurements to compare to Google Maps. I’ve done everything correctly as far as I can tell (300 dpi and the printer is NOT resizing the image) but the distances are all off a bit. I am using Chart #18484. The chart I printed is reporting distances that are ~7% shorter than the ones I get from Google maps using the line draw tool. Can I ask how you arrived at the 300 dpi you specified in the article?

  • I verified the scale using the chart’s distance scale with a ruler. I mainly printed 1:120,000 scale charts when I wrote this. At that scale, 1 inch equals 1.89394 miles. So, I verified that I was getting that on the chart’s distance scale. Two questions:

    1. Did you check the distance on the chart using the chart’s distance scale?
    2. Are you using statute miles on Google Maps and nautical miles or latitude on the chart? The difference is about 7%.

  • This is AWESOME!!! It is exactly what I was looking for and had spent a good bit of time unsuccessfully attempting this.
    My intent is to mark my fishing spots in the Chesapeake Bay on the charts each year. May I share your link with others?

  • There is so much rubbish around when searching the net for a way to make RNC charts practically useful on paper. Your article cuts through it all concisely and simply. Thanks!

  • I thought I’d share that after I had completed the png conversions with your excellent instructions, I went looking for a way to chop the charts up into paper-sized, printable pdf files. While the image editor route is straight forward enough, I figured there should be a tool designed for just this and sure enough, there is. Better yet, it’s open source and cross-platform. Check out http://posterazor.sourceforge.net/ it was designed for printing large posters as multiple sheets of smaller, printer-friendly, paper. It lets you choose the scale (and number of sheets of paper to cut your chart into). So it’s nearly perfect. If it had a command line interface so that I could script the conversion of the several thousand NOAA charts, it would be feature complete. But hey, it’s only one step shy of that.

  • […] to use free NOAA bsb charts and print them on my own. I’ve written an article about how to Print Your Own NOAA Charts using a command line bsb converter, and I’ve also used an graphical interface for NOAA Marine […]

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