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What classes should I take to learn mapping skills?

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What would be the best college courses to take for learning how to map out permaculture designs?  Land surveying? Architecture?  I dont even know where to start.  I have very limited computer skills so I will need to start with the most basic classes.  What do you recommend? Thanks!
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Surveying is a great skill to have, although you'll need to have access to relatively expensive equipment for it to be useful after your class is over. Cheap total stations can be had for a few thousands and up, but you also need tripods and prisms etc. It can be done also with old school analog equipment but even that isn't cheap. Still, as a newly minted civil engineer, I found my surveying course both fascinating and useful.

GIS programs such as ArcGIS can be useful but I think CAD programs (we used AutoCAD in school and I now use it at work) are even more useful. Try and take a course on that if you can.

We were also required to take a course on drafting which was fun but irrelevant in the face of CAD software. Still, if you didn't want to or couldn't go the modern route for some reason, all basic functions of CAD programs could theoretically be performed with a pencil and drafting tools. That's how everyone did it until the 80s/90s.

Oh! But to answer your question, unless you need extremely high precision, for some reason that isn't readily occurring to me right now, you don't really need any formal training for general permaculture planning purposes. Aerial imagery (available free), topographic maps (free or very cheap), and basic measuring skills (300' reel tape measure or similar) and a pencil should be adequate for every purpose I've ever heard of in this context.
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There are a lot of things to consider when thinking about mapping:

- How big is the land you need to map?
-How basic is limited computer skills ?  For the sake of this, I'm going to assume you have internet, or can go somewhere with internet, and know how to find things on Google and Youtube. Awesome if you have more than that.
- Do you have any deep seated desire to delve into the depths of the field of mapping, or do you just want to create a design that's roughly accurate.
- Do you care about capturing elevation?
- Can you get a copy of a map of your property boundaries? Is there a local topographic map?

If this was me, I'd do the following:


If your land is a few acres, I'd not bother with taking a course or using any computer program! Grab the topo map and a satellite photo of your area, blow them up to see your property, press Print, and take a long tape and start measuring. Figure out your property boundaries on the map using the property boundary map, if you are lucky enough to have a mapped feature, or go find your stakes and measure to a landmark on the topo map. If you wanted to be very detailed, you could set up a grid using lots of twine and stakes, spaced perhaps every 5 or 10 m. Transfer that grid onto your map. Plot things from your grid onto your paper. Check that you are in roughly the right area using your satellite photo. If you want, you can latter use tracing paper to produce a "cleaner" version of the map. Take a bunch of photo copies, then start scribbling. If you want to take a class, try finding an Introduction to Orienteering course. That should teach basic map and compass skills, and you could probably make a rough map of a larger area using that.  

More acreage? Want a really "pretty" map? Want a really "accurate" map?

There are two basic types of software that would work, CAD or GIS.

GIS stands for Geographical Information Systems, and is  used for making maps and analyzing geographic data. A lot of environmental scientists and geologists use GIS.

CAD stands for Computer Automated Design and is used mostly by engineers/architects to design buildings/site layouts/equipment.

CAD has the advantage of being more precise. Most civil engineers that I know import GIS data into CAD for their background data, then do their "design" of the buildings in CAD.  

GIS has the advantage of being able to handle much more complicated data and being easier to use for analysis. For example, I can draw a line in CAD and label it a river. I can draw a river in GIS and attribute it with the water flow, river name, average river depth (even per segment of river). I could then take GIS, and run a search to highlight all areas on my map that are farther than 100 m from a river. Or shade my rivers different colours based on water depth or water flow. And maybe make another query to find all grassland that is more than 10 m from a road. Or figure out where riparian zones are so i know not to plant there. Or, I can just display the data as it is, symbolize it nicely, and print out a map.

I do a lot of mapping for work so I'm pretty biased towards the GIS world. I've found CAD to have a really big learning curve, and to me, it seems to be better for designing new things, not mapping existing.

I'd suggest downloading QGIS or another free GIS software (or CAD, if you so choose).  Watch a few intro to GIS videos. Figure out what exactly you want to convey. Download a bunch of free data (if you are in Canada or the US, there's a lot of really useful stuff available - want to know hydrology, contours, land use zoning? It's probably there, and free). Play with it for a while based on another few videos. Figure out how to create a new map, add data, edit data, and create your own data set.  Still want to use computers? Great! Go out and buy a handheld GPS with a few meters accuracy, go for a long walk, take a bunch of points, then download them and import them into your map. You may even be able to use a smart phone as a GPS if you are not as concerned with accuracy.  There are videos on how to do this too. There is a huge online community for GIS, and they are really active. I've almost never had a problem that someone online hadn't already asked, posted about, and had answered.  

If you are someone who really likes classes, I'd suggest finding a college that teaches Intro to GIS, using QGIS or another free program. ArcGIS  and AutoCAD are outrageously expensive (I regularly use >$20 000 worth of software at work), but have lots of incentives to schools, so it's what a lot of them teach. Even Intro to GIS with ArcGIS would be useful, but you would need to either finish the design while you still have access to the software, or relearn GIS with a free platform later.

I'm planning on going out and mapping with GPS this weekend, so your question came at the right time for me .

Good luck!

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Location: USDA Zone 8a
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I don't think that one class can teach someone all they need to know about maps.  Surveying may teach how to read GPS settings and mark boundaries.  Were surveyors the ones who originally made our maps?  Or Topographers or Cartographers?  Which colleges offer these studies?

To me, mapping skills are along the lines of topographic.  Reading the contours of the land.


Topographic maps are tools used in geologic studies because they show the configuration of the earth’s surface.

Understanding Topographic Maps

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