It might seem like an irony to head into the wilderness for adventure and a break from society, only to bring your phone with you. But some apps are designed to help us get outside.
“Why can’t people just go outside and do something? Who needs an app for that?” responded David Anderson, a mountain biker and general outdoor enthusiast from Barre, when I posted in the Vermont MTB Riders Facebook group earlier this week, seeking to crowd source a list of the best outdoor apps. “Airplane mode!” chimed Brian Mohr. The avid backcountry skier and renowned outdoor photographer from Moretown let me know he prefers to go undisturbed in the backcountry, when I posted the same question in the Backcountry Touring in the Northeast Facebook group. But Luddites and jokers aside, a number of apps are useful for exploring the outdoors.
Smartphone users can access maps, trail locations and trail guidebooks for planning a trip, or for navigation or recording their tracks while they’re out, sometimes even without cell coverage or using data. Smartphones can also help with safety, from monitoring weather to helping the user be found or rescued. For those concerned with being lightweight or minimalist in their approach to gear, the one-stop technology shop provided by a smartphone is appealing to backcountry skiers, mountain bikers, road cyclists, hikers, runners and trail builders, alike. I surveyed them all to find out which apps are at the top of their list.
Aside from the name, Guthooks Guides (https://atlasguides.com/) are appealing to hikers and backpackers looking to replace their bulky paper guidebook with a sleek and lightweight smartphone. It saves weight and hassle. The guidebooks include everything a paper guide would, like written descriptions of trails, distances between landmarks, and directions to water sources.
The Guthook Guides app is free to download and is available from iTunes and Google Play, but guidebooks need to be purchased within the app. The cost for guidebooks ranges from $8.99 for a section of the Appalachian Trail to $39.99 for the full guide to the entire Appalachian Trail. The guidebooks included are from all over the globe, including the Long Trail in Vermont, the Tahoe Rim Trail in California, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and even the popular Camino de Santiago in Spain. The guides are made by Atlas Guides, a company that also produces CycleWayz, a series that provides the same kind of information for bike touring.
Both sets work offline, meaning cell service isn’t required, which is an important feature if you’re going to depend on these apps in remote locations. Connie Carson, from Hampton, New Hampshire, used the Guthook Guides app when she hiked Vermont’s Long Trail this summer. “It was flawless,” she said.
“There are some places where the LT isn’t well marked,” said Carson, “and on two specific occasions I got slightly off trail. Of course, instinct kicks in pretty quick when long distance hiking and I knew I was off, but Guthook was invaluable both times in setting me right.” Though she still carries a paper map, “having the best of both makes me very happy.”
When it comes to reading maps, several apps are available, but a few rise to the top for outdoor enthusiasts because of their features. Avenza Maps, which is available on both iTunes and Google Play, allows users to import up to three high-resolution and georeferenced maps as PDFs for free, and additional map storage capacity is available for a fee. It’s the mapping app of choice for Dan Schall, of Marshfield, who is a Geographic Information Systems professional with Vermont Agency of Transportation, a mountain biker, and a volunteer trail builder in his community.
The Avenza Map app allows users to see where they are in real-time and also to track their waypoints as they move, making it a great choice for planning new routes — a key feature for trail builders, says Schall. But, most importantly for a mapping professional or anyone who is planning and building new trails, the recorded tracks can be easily exported to use in professional mapping software. “For a trail builder with a bit of background in GIS,” he says, “Avenza can provide an easy way to get your trails documented and ready for mapping.”
GAIA Maps is another popular option for reading maps and recording routes. Louise Lintilhac, who is an editor and digital producer with Backcountry Magazine, and an avid backcountry skier and mountain biker, uses this app on her backcountry skiing excursions and, recently, when she traveled in France. The app allows her to view high-resolution maps offline and gives the ability to overlay maps from different sources, like US Topo, National Geographic Trails Illustrated, MapBox Outdoors, and others. As with Avenza Maps, she can also navigate and record her backcountry routes, or she can use it to find her way around France.
“Plus,” she says, “it’s not linked to any social media, which is nice, and it will track your location without using your phone’s data, which is great when you’re traveling internationally.” The app is free to download from iTunes and Google Play, but advanced features like offline access are purchased with an annual membership fee ranging from $19.99 to $39.99 per year, depending on the features.
When it comes to finding existing trails, there are a number of options, such as Trailhub, which includes trail conditions and closures, and a broad range of activities from fat biking and mountain biking to hiking and snowmobiling. Users can search by location and activity, and the app is free to download from iTunes and Google Play. The service is not free, however, to trail groups and managers.
Managers of Pine Hill Park Trails in Rutland like Trailhub’s features, especially for opening and closing mountain bike trails, depending on trail conditions. But there are other options for mountain bikers, like Trailsforks and MTB Project that offer the same information for trail users and services for trail managers, for free. All three options are available in iTunes and Google Play, and all allow users to find new trails when they travel, track their location on-trail, and use maps offline. Trailforks and MTB Project also include active online forums to chat about trails in different parts of the world. Powder Project is the on-snow equivalent of MTB Project, including an online forum and maps of backcountry ski trails that are searchable by location; it’s also available for free on iTunes and Google Play.
For hikers and backcountry skiers, PeakFinder, available for $4.99 in both iTunes and Google Play, allows a user to identify all the peaks in front of them using their mobile device. Using the camera and GPS on your phone, the app provides an Augmented Reality experience, showing the name and elevation of the mountains in front of you. Users can even take pictures and include the peak information to share with their friends, later. The technology is based on pre-loaded maps, so the app can be used offline.
For the statisticians among us, Map My Run and Strava both allow users to record stats like distance, speed, total elevation, pace, calorie burn, and more. Strava takes things a bit further with the option of competing against other users, allowing riders or runners to claim the fastest time for certain routes or trail segments. For those interested in distance and elevation, but less interested in calorie burn and competition, standard apps like Google Maps and GMap are easy options.
A safe and fun excursion can’t be planned without a look at the weather, and apps that allow you to track the progress of incoming storms can be helpful in the backcountry. Whether it’s predicting where the best snowfall will be for making turns or avoiding exposed ridgelines during a lightning storm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather app is a go-to for many, as is Weather Underground, both available to download for free.
While they don’t take the place of your favorite well-worn paper guidebook, or old-fashioned exploring, intuition, and good old map-and-compass skills, these smartphone apps can enhance the outdoor experience — just be sure to put your phone down long enough to enjoy it. And, a word of caution, it would still be wise to carry paper maps and a compass — and know how to use them — when traveling in the backcountry.