How to Select Charts: A Cheat Sheet for Boaters

NOAA has a massive library of charts, which they continually update. With so many charts available, how do you know which ones you’ll need?

Here are two key pointers to get you started:

  • Get only the charts you need. Clearly, your charts should cover the entire route you will travel. But since for many boaters there’s a storage issue (as well as costs) associated with charts, you don’t want to load up on more than you actually need.
  • Ensure your charts are up to date. Charts are continuously being updated based on information from a variety of sources. Depending on the area of boating, you should consider updating your charts regularly.

We’ve created the “cheat sheet” below to help you select the right charts for your next voyage.

Chart Selection By Region


  1. Get each of the 1:80,000 scale charts between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: 1:80,000 scale charts provide end-to-end coverage from the Canadian border in Maine to the Mexican border in Texas. Each offers about 50 miles of coverage along the coast. They are presented North-Up (which makes it easier to “get your bearings”) and provide sufficient detail for safely navigating in the near coastal area they cover.
  2. Optionally, select more detailed charts for harbors you intend to visit.
    Explanation: There are more detailed charts (e.g. 1:40,000, 1:20,000, 1:10,000, or even 1:5,000 scales in some places) that provide coverage along the way. These charts mainly provide supplemental coverage of local harbors or regions. You may also want these more detailed charts for those harbors you intend to visit along the way.
  3. If you intend on traveling the ICW, select the corresponding 1:40,000 scale strip charts.
    Explanation: In some places, more detailed charts of 1:40,000 scale provide contiguous end-to-end coverage. They are rotated to align with the shoreline, focus near the coastline, and include the ICW. They don’t need much width, so they are printed end-to-end, side-by-side, to double the overall length of coverage. If you intend on taking the ICW, add the appropriate 1:40,000 charts to your list.



  1. Get each of the end-to-end contiguous charts (generally around 1:200,000 scale) between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: Much of the Pacific coastline is devoid of harbors in Washington, Oregon and California—so there’s little reason for NOAA to provide detailed charts. Therefore, the end-to-end contiguous charts are generally around 1:200,000 scale in these areas. If this is part of your planned voyage, you’ll want these charts—each of which is presented North-Up and covers 100-150 nautical miles North-South.
  2. Optionally, select more detailed charts for harbors you intend to visit.
    Explanation: For those few harbors along the way, there are more detailed charts. Given the distance between them, you’ll probably want to get all of those you consider stopovers.
  3. If you intend on cruising the Puget Sound or interior Washington and the region, select the appropriate 1:40,000 scale charts.
    Explanation: There are lots of charts available for these areas. Your decision of which to get will be based on which waterways you intend to traverse and which islands and harbors you will visit. The larger area coverage is best reflected in 1:40,000 scale charts.
  4. If you’re planning to visit any islands off the coast of California, you don’t need any additional charts.
    Explanation: There are a number of islands, such as the Channel Islands off San Francisco, Catalina and San Clemente, where 1:20,000 scale charts are available. However, since these islands are all well within the coverage of the respective 1:200,000 scale coastal charts, you don’t really need them.



  1. Get each of the contiguous charts between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: The contiguous charts are 1:120,000 scale, North-Up in Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, and 1:80,000 in Lakes Erie and Ontario. NOAA creates charts for the U.S. side, and CHS (Canadian Hydrographic Service) creates charts for the Canadian side. The CHS charts provide contiguous North-Up coverage and vary from around 1:20,000 to around 1:80,000 scale.

Do a lot of boating in various US regions? If you boat locally in a number of regions around the country, you may want to consider getting one of NOAA’s small-craft folios. Each folio contains a collection of charts showing the extended shorelines in various scales and orientations, with generally greater detail than is available on other charts.


One Response to How to Select Charts: A Cheat Sheet for Boaters

  1. […] the right charts to cover your route is only half the battle. Once that’s done, you need to choose your formats. […]

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