BILLINGS – The amount of information outdoor recreationists have at their fingertips is astounding.
It wasn’t that long ago that a handheld GPS device was considered unprecedented for the information it provided to an adventurer about their location and the surrounding terrain. Now you can get all of that and more on a smartphone, most of which have a bigger screen than GPS devices.
Montana has its own homegrown app developer of outdoor maps in onX. In a recent online presentation, the company’s Joe Risi and Charlie von Avis highlighted the capabilities of their app for backcountry snow recreationists.
For $39.99, the app can provide a variety of data, including: avalanche forecasts, weather conditions, Snotel information on snow depth, topo and satellite views, public lands, and slope angle and aspect.
Tools allow the user to create and share routes, including posting waypoints and photos. Forecasts provide weather data. Maps created on a computer automatically sync with the user’s phone. Where cell service isn’t available, maps can be loaded ahead of time to an offline folder where all of the original layers will be preserved.
“We’re trying to put it all in one place so a skier has what they need to make decisions,” von Avis said, adding there are infinite ways the app can be used.
Most important for winter backcountry users, the app provides updated avalanche forecasts and includes a colored map showing areas where avalanches are more likely to occur.
“We have nationwide coverage for the avalanche forecasts,” von Avis said.
One of the most helpful features for those new to an area is the Discover tab. Clicking on the feature provides curated information on known routes, including distance, difficulty, estimated time, the elevation of the high point, slope angle and elevation gain. Written descriptions provide more details on where to go 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 businesses like CalTopo and Gaia have planted their flag. He said their functions are 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 guides are using 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 leans on it “a bunch” when traveling in a new area, but always carries a map and compass as backup.
“It’s the old guy part of me,” he said.
Pogge also carries a paper map, in case his battery dies, as a backup.
In the Cooke City area, Ben Zavora of Beartooth Powder Guides also uses Gaia, but some of his guides and business partner Reed Youngbar are fans of onX Backcountry.
“I think all the mapping apps are pretty good these days. It is kind of what you get used to,” Zavora said.
Youngbar said he was introduced to digital map software and GPS years ago and sees the creation of apps as “a perfect marriage of desktop GIS platforms and handheld GPS.
“I have used all the major platforms over the years and they all have their pluses and minuses,” he added.
Perhaps their biggest benefit, Youngbar said, is their ability to accurately relay coordinates to a rescue party if needed. He also appreciates the slope angle to find terrain less prone to avalanches when danger is rated considerable or extreme.
Such apps are important tools when teaching avalanche courses. Yet Pogge prefers to use the programs at home to search out powder stashes and safe routes to get there.
All of Pogge’s guides carry some type of GPS device, but he tries to teach his students to not stare at their phones in the mountains. Rather, he’d like them to learn the basics of traveling in the backcountry safely.
“It’s important not to trust technology too much, therefore field verification is important for real-time decision making …” Youngbar said. “The map may indicate a safe slope angle, but the reality may be different and it’s important to trust your observations.
“I also see people get obsessed with checking their maps in the field. I think technology in the backcountry is very useful and important, but at the same time one of the reasons to go into the backcountry is to limit our exposure to technology and reconnect with nature.”
The differences in the apps may come down to what the user is comfortable with, as well as cost. Gaia has a free basic map and route app, but maps can be downloaded for offline use. For $3.33 a month ($39.96 a year) its premium features are accessible. If you are an Outside Network member, the cost is $2.99 a month with some added features.
Likewise, CalTopo’s basic features are free, with three other paid levels. For mobile devices, the cost is $20 a 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 over to hiking mode and similar information is available for those months when snow isn’t covering the ground. onX Backcountry includes a feature that overlays where there are forest fires and smoke. Gaia’s paid members can find nearby campgrounds.
Unlike some other apps, onX’s Discover information on trails is curated by the company, rather than being user-generated. To beef up this feature, the business acquired Adventure Project and Outdoor Project apps, while also working with Beacon Guidebook authors.
“We try to cultivate content that is good and authoritative before it goes into the app,” von Avis said.
Youngbar said he has concerns about ski routes being published on mapping platforms, even though it helps introduce people to new areas.
“I do like a sense of discovery when it comes to backcountry skiing,” he said. “This is a topic that I am conflicted on, too. On one hand, I realize that it’s public land and no one deserves to have sole access to a place, and on the other, I worry that the places I like to ski/guide will become overcrowded. I am biased because I was raised in a surfing culture where you don’t talk about surfing locations.”
The onX trails can also be filtered by how much time you have, the distance you want to travel, or elevation gain if you want to avoid a big climb. Like a smartwatch or phone, you can track your route, elevation gain and distance. Upgrade to the premium content and the maps include a 3D feature to provide a better visual understanding of the terrain.
“We’re trying to make maps more accessible for people who may not be as app literate,” von Avis said.
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