Monday, November 25, 2013

Mountain and Backcountry Smart Phone Apps

Over the last couple of years, smart phone technology has developed at a pace that is unprecedented.  Engineers who develop phones are only part of the story though. Application developers are the other part of the story. And yet another part of the story are developers who create programs for outdoor enthusiasts.

There are three kinds of apps for backcountry users and climbers. The first kind is for entertainment. Sometimes they have useful beta, but not always. The second type provides pre-trip planning beta.  And the third type provides onsite beta.  There is value to all three types of apps, but those that present beta that has value in the moment provide the most bang for the buck.

Recently guides have been spending a lot of time trading ideas on apps for backcountry use.  Here is a short list of apps that some guides are beginning to carry:

Mapping and GPS Apps

A backcountry GPS is no small purchase. Most run between $100 and $400.  However, the smart phone applications that many are using these days work almost as well.

When I was first told about this GPS option, I thought that it wasn't for me. I thought that you had to be in cell phone range for these to work. That is absolutely not the case. In the proper settings your smart phone GPS application will work even when you are in airplane mode.

Trimble Outdoors Navigator and US Topo Maps

These two applications represent the gold standard of GPS backcountry app technology.  While each of these programs have their quirks, they both work well even when you are far from 4G technology. Indeed, I have to say that I often find that these programs operate more effectively than my (admittedly old) GPS unit.

Google Earth

The ski guide who told me about this uses Google Earth to find potential ski runs in the backcountry. Mountain Rescue volunteers and professionals also use this app to develop search plans in complex terrain.


Though this isn't really a backcountry app, it can certainly get you from one place to another. I've been using mapquest regularly to get to towns or landmarks near climbing areas that I've never visited before. The application "speaks" to you, telling you where to go and when to turn. It's a must have for the traveling climber.

Medical Apps

Wilderness First Aid

In this day and age it seems ludicrous to carry a book into the mountains, whether it be for personal reading or for reference. There is currently at least one free first aid app available and dozens of apps that you have to pay for.


Weather Bug Elite

Like most weather programs, there is a free version and an upgrade. I really like the Weather Bug Elite. In part it's because this program not only provides the weather, but gives updates on where lightning strikes are taking place. Unfortunately, this program doesn't work without connectivity.

NOAA Weather

At the American Alpine Institute, we use NOAA regularly to determine where to run trips and programs. We look at the telemetry to determine everything you can imagine. Like the Weather Bug, the program doesn't work without connectivity.

Camping Apps

Campground Finder and RV Parky are two apps that I use to find campgrounds nearby. The downside of each of these is that they don't seem to be able to find the same campgrounds. So, if you show up to a campground and it's full, you might need to use both programs in order to find something suitable.

These programs use the GPS in your phone to provide you with camping options. It's too bad that there isn't an app that also shows good free or hidden campgrounds...

When I've pitched these programs to people in the past, they've become worried that they only list places for RV camping. This is not the case. Both programs provide info on both RV and tent camping options.

Skiing and Snow Apps

Avalanche Forecasts

The Avalanche Forecasts app provides information on avalanche conditions in the Northwestern United States. I haven't dug very deeply, but I suspect that there are apps for other regions as well.

BCA Assessor App

This program helps you with both your avalanche assessments and tour plans. I haven't used the app yet though, because it's only for Iphones and I have an Android. However, those who use it certainly like it.

Ski Report

The Ski Report app provides "on piste" information from ski resorts all over the place. The information provided from a ski resort may help you to decide whether you want to visit the resort or play in the backcountry nearby.


Mountain Project

For a small  fee you can download Mountain Project. If you're not already aware of this resource, you should be. Mountain Project is an online guidebook built by users all over the world. The app allows you to access tons of route beta through your phone...  Just don't drop your phone when you're up there reading about where the next pitch goes!

Climb Tracker

I've been looking for some kind of a fitness app for the rock gym, one that I could track my progress on as well as my other training activities. Unfortunately, the app that I really want doesn't exist. What does exist is an app called the Climb Tracker. It's a very easy to use app for you to keep track of the routes you completed. You could use this to track everything you've done as almost a climbing resume, or you could use as I have been, to track gym training...


This is more of a standard app than a backcountry app. It is a program that allows you to take notes and then sync them to all of your devices. And notes can include anything from photos, to web clippings, to maps. I regularly put information into my Evernote notes on my computer in order to have them on my phone when I'm in the field.

Magazine and Book Downloads

There is something to be said about ebooks and magazine subscriptions in your phone. You can get Climbing magazine through your phone as a subscription based service. You could also download any instructional books or documents that you might need. Many guidebooks may now be purchased as ebooks. This could make the weight in your pack go down significantly.

What do you use?

We're incredibly interested in finding out what others are using on their phones in the backcountry. Please let us know either here in the comments or on our facebook page.

And lastly, if you intend to use your smartphone in the backcountry, bring spare batteries and potentially even a solar charger... The last thing you want is to run out of juice!

--Jason D. Martin


Anonymous said...

I use an GPS app called "Alpine Quest" (Android only). The interface takes a little getting used to, but I find the features to be exactly what I need, and the Development team is very responsive if I find a bug or put a request in for a feature.

David said...

For topo/GPS I use ViewRanger... absolutely the best App I have tested with USGS 24k, USA Trails, and Satellite imagery. For avalanche stuff- Avy Lab for recording observations and sharing online, Theodolite for accurate slope measurements, Mammut Safety for their clinometer. SoloSOAPNOTE for SOAP notes. MyRadar for great live radar maps, UWeather for more advanced weather maps.

Jason Martin said...


You are a goldmine! Thanks for your contribution!


Jason Martin said...

We just received this comment in an email:

I am avid reader of your blog and think Jason does a really great job with it. He recently discussed mountain and backcountry apps. He mentioned if we had others to suggest we send them in. The one I think deserves a spot on the list above many others is the MotionX GPS. This app allows you to track your progress, mark waypoints, and download custom offline maps when you don't have cell service. I use it fairly often when I'm out.

Ivar Eisma said...

Powfinder & Whiterisk & Avirisk. Most other apps I use are for Europe only: Tourenatlas, Ortovox app, Swiss Map.

But use Google Earth a lot too, it works really well on a phone. And you can buy little battery boxes that take normal AA alkalines and plugs into your phone.They are much cheaper than a spare phone battery plus you always have spare AA's for your beacon now.

iOS App Development said...

google earth allows you to cache air photos and terrain data. I use this a ton, as sometimes it’s better to know whether you’re in the chute you want to ski or in another one. more and more, I use it instead of a map.

Unknown said...

Good blog and I'm with you - I've totally ditched my (old) GPS and even Altimeter/watch (which is too big anyway and ended up more often off my wrist and on my rucksack strap)and replaced with smartphone apps which are as good if not better. Two points though not to forget:

1. Always, always have a map and compass, know how to use them, and use them!!! Smartphones (and GPS') can and do fail, and if you haven't pulled out the map at some point on the trip you could well be in trouble. Used together with a Smartphone app like google earth can really enhance the trip

2. Smartphone apps that rely on GPS signals eat through your Smartphone's power, so I always have a small, fully charged, battery backup which can give me 2-3 full Smartphone recharges

As to best apps, most are free or cheap so buy and find the ones that work for you - and they're getting better all the time.


smart phone said...

They are much cheaper than a spare phone battery plus you always have spare AA's for your beacon now.