How to get FREE nautical charts

If you've ever wanted to do anything with a nautical chart, plan it now.

What might you want to do with a chart, other than, you know, navigate? Allow me to give you a few ideas.

I can't find an original source for this photo. If you know it, please let me know.
So here's why you need to at least do a little planning now. Last week, NOAA announced that it will no longer print paper charts. They will still be available through a print-on-demand service but they aren't cheap. Until now, the most economical way to do anything crafty with a chart was to find someone throwing out outdated ones (Mr. Much More Patient threw out HUNDREDS of them a few years ago; yes, I could kill him). But during the somewhat controversial change to paper charts only being available through print-on-demand services, NOAA is offering free downloads of all its charts in PDFs of high enough quality that they can be printed out full size, which can be quite large depending on the chart. The first Christmas gift I gave Mr. MMP was a framed version of the full Great Lakes chart and it is about 4-1/2 feet wide.  (Interesting note: That was almost 20 years ago and while it might sound like a great gift, somehow he thought I was getting him a puppy. Hmmm, framed chart vs. puppy. Hard to cuddle with the giant chart.)

But I digress. The point is, if you download the PDFs of the charts you might want now, all you have to do in the future when you want to use them is print them out. And I would imagine a really creative person could manipulate them to turn them into something completely different.

Maybe use them as a canvas for art like this.

Or maybe make some cool lamp shades.

Or a really cool coffee table, unique book covers, creative wedding invitations, fun gift tags or maybe cupcake flag toppers. If you have a kid who is really into the pirate thing (my nephews were nuts for pirate stuff), just think about all the cool decorations you could do for a party (maybe pin the treasure chest on the island on a chart?).

If you've taken a really special trip near the water or have a place on the water that is close to your heart, think about framing a chart as a gift or memento. We have two framed charts hanging in our house (they are in the back room that you've never seen before because it's basically a mess). One is the aforementioned huge chart of the Great Lakes, but the other is a Lake Michigan chart that Mr. MMP drew the course that his crew sailed (as well as the times they were in each spot) in 1992 when they won the Chicago-Mackinac Race overall. It's a huge achievement for a racing sailor to win that race and that chart is a great way to remember it.

OK, you're sufficiently inspired to maybe do something with a nautical chart. Here's how you get the free downloads. The free download program started October 22 and will only last three months. After that you're probably going to have to pay.

1. Start here. This link breaks down the charts by general region. Click on the catalog icon for whichever region you are interested in.

How to download free nautical charts -- The Impatient Gardener

2. The catalog will show you the region with a bunch of blue boxes on it. Zoom into the area you are interested in and make a note of the five-digit number on the border. That is the chart number you want to download.
3. Once you know what number charts you want to download, go here and click on the chart number to download it.

That's it.

Go forth and download. And then tell me what you're going to do with them.


  1. The one with no source seems like it might have come from Pottery Barn? Not sure but the lighting, furniture and bedding led me there. Although it doesn't exactly scream catalog so it's hard to say. Great post! We love anything maritime. We're landlocked in Nebeaska so that's probably why!!

    1. Coastal living is just a state of mind, right? You have to be able to dream, even if you live in a cornfield! :)

  2. Can you tell me how you got the entire Great Lakes? Do I have to download all the charts? Would love to get it all on one download. Thanks. This is such a great idea. We went to the Great Lakes for a vacation and had a wonderful time. My brother lives in Michigan and would love to get up there again.

    1. Karen, that full Great Lakes chart was one I bought several years ago and I don't immediately see that one available for download but let me look around a little bit. And nope, you don't have to download all of them. Just follow that link above and go to the Great Lakes catalog and you can decide which ones you want to download.

    2. Thank you, Erin! I do want all of them; I just didn't know if I had to download each of them individually to get the whole set (I thought maybe that's how you did it).

  3. Hey Erin, I have downloaded a couple charts to my desktop, but they are zipped files. When I click on the files, the appliation wants me to use the web to open. Do you know how to get around this, so I can print on a large printer at work?

    1. Hi Michael,
      They are PDFs, so make sure you have Adobe Reader and then set your preferences to view PDFs there, not on the web (I can't remember if that's a preference in your browser settings or your reader settings). I hope that works for you!


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