Trailblazer 

Montana’s MyTopo puts adventure on the map

The trouble began in the late 1990s. Kevin Toohill was living and working in Red Lodge. An expert in geography with a graduate degree from the University of Wyoming, Toohill was especially proficient at managing GIS data. In a nutshell, GIS (Geographic Information System) technology allows people to visualize and analyze geographic information. Toohill’s work involved extensive manipulation and analysis of maps.

Like most Montanans, Toohill’s friends included a robust percentage of pesky hunters. Once they discovered he could combine regions of several maps on his computer—and print one that showed the exact area they wanted to visit—he was bombarded with entreaties for his services. What backcountry traveler wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to forsake cutting and pasting sections of different topos together or lugging multiple maps around, only to use small sections of each?

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

But Toohill’s trouble with beggarly acquaintances was only temporary. In 1999 he decided to channel the endeavors into a business, and launched MyTopo (www.mytopo.com). To start, he set to digitizing all 56,000 USGS quad maps of the United States that could be cropped and digitally stitched together to create custom maps, work that continues to this day.

In 2000, marketing whiz Paige Darden came on board and reached out to local and regional outdoor writers. She connected with Bill McRae, a hunting and optics expert from Choteau. McRae referred her to John Zent, editor of American Hunter magazine. Zent ran an article featuring MyTopo, reaching 1.3 million readers in the process.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

“They listed my home phone as the contact information in that article. I had hunters calling night and day requesting maps. That article put MyTopo on the map,” Darden quips.

MyTopo’s first products—waterproof topographical maps ($10 to $160)—are still a cornerstone of the business, used by hunters, hikers, anglers, search-and-rescue personnel, and a wide range of other professionals and backcountry travelers.

Toohill and Darden spent hundreds of hours testing paper and ink for durability. “The basic test went like this: After printing maps, we’d submerge them in Rock Creek and leave them for a week to see what held up.”

The unorthodox testing technique and finished results served the business well. Major outdoor retailers and organizations—Cabela’s, Remington, Realtree and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation—began funneling customers to MyTopo via their websites. The company built on the success with increasingly sophisticated products.

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