The Frograil Railfan Map Source
Of all the resources a railfan needs, perhaps the most basic is a map. As a general rule, the better the map, the better the railfan experience. There is no more frustrating feeling than hearing a diesel horn blaring, and you don't know how to get trackside. There are a variety of maps available, both printed and downloadable.
On-line Topo Maps
The U.S. Geological Survey has produced topographic maps that show roads and railroads in great detail for over 125 years. It is now possible to download those maps in 7.5-minute and 15-minute quads and larger through the Map Store. There are also newer digital maps available through the same site.
For those who are interested in what an area used to look like, or where lines were at one time where there is only a trace of a right of way, historical topo maps are useful. The USGS is making its collection of historical collection of maps available for download via the same interface as the current map collection. Another source is MyTopo, which is making a collection of historical USGS maps available. It is mainly states in the northeast that are available, covering a variety of years.
There is a variety of on-line mapping options available to anyone with an internet connection, but any more the default mapping option is Google Maps for directions, aerial views, site views, and terrain. With Google maps, you can get directions to a tour location, view a specific site with either a satelite or aerial image (quite recent, also, depending on the source), and get GPS coordinates for a point.
DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer, Software
DeLorme is a company that has been involved in creating paper maps, software, and GPS units that make navigation much easier, whether at home planning a trip or out in the field.
The DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer is an 11" x 15-1/2" book with topo maps and travel information available for each of the 50 states. They can be ordered direct from DeLorme, from Amazon, or purchased at Barnes and Noble and other bookstores. If you sign up for an account with DeLorme and opt to receive mailings about special offers, one of those offers might be a half-price deal on all atlases.
If you don't have a GPS unit (vehicle or hand-held) with maps, an alternative is to purchase "Topo North America" from DeLorme to install on your home computer or laptop. It provides detail to the USGS 1:24,000 topographic quad level.
The DeLorme's are for use in the rural areas we railfans explore. For major metropolitan areas, something like the DeLorme format is necessary, but at a much higher resolution, so ADC's atlases. will be a real help to the railfan. The company that publishes the ADC atlases, the Kappa Map Group, produces a variety of map products that could prove useful in planning a railfan trip.
As most railfans know, Rand-McNally does not include railroad lines on its otherwise excellent road maps. There is only one offering from R-M which is worthy of inclusion in the Railfan's Library, the spiral-bound Large Scale Road Atlas. When you plan a railfan vacation or excursion, you'll generally want to get a multi-state overview of where you're going and how to get there. This atlas is good for that, and the fact that it's spiral bound adds tremendously to the usefulness of the book.
The Next Exit (TNE) is both a book and a website that tells you what services are available at each exit for every Interstate highway in the country. Going to need gas in 200 miles? TNE tells not only that gas is available at exit 215, it tells you what they are: Exxon, Racetrack, Sheetz, etc. Restaurants, Wal-Marts, motels, hospitals, and more are included. If you're taking a several-day railfan outing, you don't want to be without this book and this link. Note that use of the website requires paying for a one-year subscription to obtain a user login.