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Finding and Using GIS Data

The AGS Library's Guide to Finding GIS data and working with it for your specific project needs

Topography CAD

Preparing GIS data in ArcMap for use in AutoCAD

Step). Find GIS data

Use this guide or help from to find GIS data that will suit your project.

The data will probably be in shapefile (.shp) format. Shapefiles actually consist of multiple files, as pictured below. This image depicts one contour shapefile for the city of Milwaukee. 

Step). Bring shapefile into arcMap

ArcMap is available on all of the computers in the Learning Commons in the Golda Meir Library, and in the following computer labs:
Computer Labs with ArcMap

You can also request a free student license from your instructor. For help obtaining a student license, email us at 

Once you have access to ArcMap, open the program.

  <------- arcMap icon

You should see something like this:

You can click out of the Getting Started window, or choose a blank map. 

In the menu on the top, click the "Add Data Button"

Navigate to the correct folder where your shapefile is saved.

You should see all of the shapefile files appear as one. Double-click that file to add it to the map. You should see your data appear now. 

How to Clip Data to an Area of Interest

A big consideration when exporting data for AutoCAD are size limitations. ArcMap does not like to convert large amounts of GIS data to .dwg format. The smaller the area of your focus, the less likely you are to run into trouble converting your data.


This guide will show you how to use the ArcGIS Editor tool bar to quickly create a new layer with an extent of your choice, and then use this layer to clip any vector data you are interested in working with.

Let's get started.

Below, please find the "before stage". This is an unclipped elevation data layer that we will use to demonstrate how to clip any vector data layer to a specific area:



Step). Add a basemap

After loading your data in to ArcMap, adding a basemap will allow you to more easily identify what area of the map you are looking at. 

1). Next to the Add Data button, there is a small dropdown arrow. Click this arrow. 



2). Click "Add Basemap".

3). You will be able to choose from various basemap style options. Typically, "Streets" is a good one to choose for quick reference. 

4). Click "Add" to add your basemap. 

Now you can see which area is covered by your contour lines.


Step). Create Clipping Layer

In order to clip your gis data, you will have to create a clipping layer the size of the area you are interested in, to clip the data layer with.

To do this, you will need the editor toolbar.

1). Access this toolbar by clicking Customize > Toolbars > Editor


You will also need to know the projection of the GIS data you wish to clip. 

2). To find this, right-click the shapefile in the table of contents, and select properties. 



3). Under the "Source" tab, take note of the coordinate system. 

Now that you know the projection of your GIS data, you can create your clipping layer. 

4). In your catalog tree (on the right), right-click the folder that your data layer is in, and select New > Shapefile

5). Name your file "clipping," make the feature-type "polygon," and give it the same coordinate system as your GIS data.



6). Add new shapefile to map by dragging it from the tree into the map. You will see it appear in your table of contents, but will not see a visual change in the map, because it does not have any geography yet. 



7). On the editor toolbar, choose "Start Editing"



8). In that same drop-down, now select Editing Windows > Create Features



9). Select your clipping layer and choose rectangle under Construction Tools. 



10). Create a rectangle around the GIS data you would like to keep. Double click when you are done to finalize your shape.

11). Click Editor > Stop Editing, and save your edits, using the editor drop-down button.  


Now we are ready to clip. 


Step). Clip the data

1). Select Geoprocessing > Clip

2). Populate the clip tool with the following preferences:

Use your gis data as the input feature.

Use your new rectangle as your clip feature.

Save to a place you can easily access it. 

3). Click "OK" to run the tool. 

Now you have GIS data for just the area you are focused on. 

Step). Export to CAD

The final step is to export the gis data into a format that works with AutoCAD. 

1). Right click on the new clipped data layer in the table of contents and select Data > Export Data > Export to CAD.

2). Make sure the correct data layer is selected as the input feature, and save the file in a place that makes sense. Select "OK"

You should now have a .DWG file that will work with AutoCAD software. 

If you have any questions, please email us at, or fill out the AGSL Data Request Form