MONTANA – The amount of information that outdoor recreational athletes now have is amazing.
Not long ago, a handheld GPS device was considered unparalleled for the information it provided an adventurer with about their location and the surrounding terrain. Now you can get all that and more on a smartphone, most of which have a larger screen than GPS devices.
With onX, Montana has its own app developer for outdoor maps. In a recent online presentation, Joe Risi and Charlie of the company’s Avis highlighted the potential of their app for backcountry recreational athletes.
For $39.99, the app can provide a variety of data including: avalanche forecasts, current weather conditions, Snotel snow depth information, topo and satellite views, public land, and tilt angle and orientation.
Tools allow the user to create and share routes, including posting waypoints and photos. Forecasts provide weather data. Maps created on a computer are automatically synced to the user’s phone. Where cellular service is not available, maps can be preloaded into an offline folder that preserves all of the original layers.
“We’re trying to put everything in one place so skiers have everything they need to make decisions,” von Avis said, adding that there are endless ways to use the app.
Most importantly for winter backcountry users, the app offers updated avalanche forecasts and includes a colored map showing areas where avalanches are more likely to occur.
“We have nationwide coverage for avalanche forecasts,” said von Avis.
One of the most helpful features for those new to an area is the Discover tab. Clicking the feature displays curated information about known routes, including distance, difficulty, estimated time, crest height, incline angle, and elevation gain. Written descriptions give more details about where you are going and what the terrain is like.
Drew Pogge, owner of Big Sky Backcountry Guides in Bozeman, said onX is a latecomer to backcountry apps where companies like CalTopo and Gaia have already flown their flag. Functionally, he said, they’re all about the same, but onX does a better job of integrating avalanche information.
Sam Magro of Montana Alpine Guides in Bozeman said most of his mountain guides use Gaia. He likes the slope shading and angles to highlight avalanche terrain. Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, is also a Gaia user. He said he relies on it “often” when traveling to a new area, but always carries a map and compass with him as a backup.
“It’s the old man in me,” he joked.
Pogge also carries a paper card as a backup in case his battery dies.
In the Cooke City area, Beartooth Powder Guides’ Ben Zavora also uses Gaia, but some of his guides and business partner Reed Youngbar are fans of onX Backcountry.
“I think all mapping apps these days are pretty good, you get used to that,” Zavora said.
Youngbar said he was introduced to digital mapping software and GPS years ago and sees app development as “a perfect marriage of desktop GIS platforms and handheld GPS.
“I I’ve used all the major platforms over the years and they all have their pros and cons,” he added.
Perhaps their greatest asset, Youngbar said, is their ability to accurately relay coordinates to a rescue team when needed. It also estimates slope angle to find less avalanche-prone terrain when danger is significant or extreme.
Such apps are important tools when teaching avalanche courses, Pogge said. However, he prefers to use the programs at home to find powder stores and safe ways to get there.
All of Pogge’s guides carry some form of GPS device, but he tries to teach his students not to stare at their phones in the mountains. Rather, he wants them to learn the basics of safe backcountry travel.
Youngbar agreed: “It’s important not to trust the technology too much, so field verification is important for real-time decision making… The map can show a safe angle of inclination, but the reality can be different and it is important to trust your observations.
“I also see that people are obsessed with checking their cards on the spot,” he added. “I think technology is very useful and important in the backcountry, but at the same time, one of the reasons for going backcountry is to limit our exposure to technology and reconnect with nature.”
The differences in the apps can be due to what the user is familiar with as well as cost. Gaia has a free basic map and route app, but maps can be downloaded for offline use. Premium features are accessible for $3.33 per month ($39.96 per year). If you are an Outside Network member, the cost is $2.99 per month with some additional features.
Likewise, the basic features of CalTopo are free, with three additional paid tiers. For mobile devices, the cost is $20 per year, the Pro model is $50. It offers premium layers and advance planning tools. For the $100 desktop membership, CalTopo throws in desktop applications and GIS tools.
Switch to hiking mode and similar information is available for the months when snow does not cover the ground. onX Backcountry includes a feature that overlays wildfires and smoke. Gaia’s paying members can find campsites nearby.
Unlike some other apps, onX Trails Discover information is curated by the company and not user generated. To enhance this feature, the company acquired the Adventure Project and Outdoor Project apps while also collaborating with the authors of Beacon Guidebook.
“We try to cultivate content that is good and authoritative before including it in the app,” von Avis said.
Youngbar said he has concerns about publishing ski routes on map platforms, even though it helps introduce people to new areas.
“I like the spirit of discovery when it comes to backcountry skiing,” he said. “It’s an issue I’m conflicted about, too. On the one hand I realize that this is public land and nobody deserves exclusive access to a place and on the other hand I worry that the places I like to ski/guide will be overcrowded. I’m biased because I grew up in a surf culture where you don’t talk about surf locations.”
The onX trails can also be filtered by your time, the distance you want to cover or the elevation gain if you want to avoid a big climb. And like a smartwatch or phone, you can track your route, elevation changes, and distance. Upgrade to the premium content and the maps will include a 3D feature for a better visual understanding of the terrain.
“We’re trying to make maps more accessible for people who might not be that familiar with apps,” explained von Avis.