Smartphone Apps for the Backcountry

Post by blogger | August 12, 2013      

I didn’t get a cellphone until I went to college, and had a simple “dumb” phone for years after that (which worked out pretty well, as I enjoyed a hardened waterproof phone that survived major abuse). A few months ago I decided to make the leap into the 21st century and upgrade to a smartphone.

I ended up with a Samsung Galaxy S4, attracted by the big screen and the high-megapixel camera. I immediately started thinking about bringing my “phone” on summer adventures and seeing what things I could use it for. I’ve been investigating a variety of apps that are useful for skiing and climbing. Here are a few things I’ve been using the phone for, and some apps that I’ve found useful.

Backcountry Navigation

Of course besides a camera, the obvious use for a smartphone in the backcountry is as a GPS (provided your phone has a true satellite GPS built in, which most do, but not all). I decided to try out “US Topo Maps”, the first app that showed up on a search for “topo maps”. At first I tried the free version, but it doesn’t allow you to download maps to the device. I ended up with paid version. I haven’t used the app much, mostly just to make sure I didn’t get lost on the approach on trips to Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. Compared to my 7+ year old standalone Garmin GPS, the S4 works beautifully. It is liberating to be able to load maps onto the device without a computer, and having a giant screen is incredible. I can imagine some problems with using a touch-based phone during colder winter months, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. The one issue I have is that the app doesn’t allow you to zoom past a certain level. You can zoom in close, but when you “let go”, it snaps back to a fairly zoomed out level. I’m told this is an issue with a lot of smartphone mapping/GPS apps — very annoying and mystifying as to why.

The basic interface for USA topo. It's fairly simple, and easy to use. It has a large variety of maps as well, including some nice ones for Washington.

Finding mountains!

One of the reasons I decided to get a smart phone was my jealousy of friends who have an app called PeakFinder. It’s simple, and fairly impractical, but at the same time, fantastically awesome. PeakFinder generates a line-drawing skyline of the mountains around you, and labels them. Its ability to generate accurate profiles is, as far as I can tell, pure magic. For years I’ve gone on trips, seen a beautiful mountain in the distance, and spent hours pouring over Google Earth trying to figure out it’s name, usually without success. It is superb to be able to pull out a gadget and have it tell you right away. If you haven’t tried it, prepare to be amazed.

Screenshot of the PeakFinder app. This is the view from partway up Dragontail Peak, looking west.

Route beta

Another great use I’ve found for the expensive gadget, especially during summer rock climbing, is as a guidebook. It’s a major pain to carry a a paper book on a climb, and even copied pages or internet printouts are bulky and easily damaged. I started out simply taking pictures of guidebook pages, and saving pictures from the internet. However, I knew there must be a better way.

I’ve started using one of the many “scanner” apps, CamScanner, to scan guidebook pages. It’s simply a camera that’s optimized for taking pictures of text, and includes some tools to straighten and brighten the resulting image. It’ll also store them all in one PDF, so they are easy to organize and find.

Some guidebook pages scanned into the smartphone.

Another helpful one is a webpage downloader, such as OffLine Browser. It downloads webpages, such as trip reports and summit post pages, along with the links (you can choose how many) and photos. It’s great to be able to browse a page of beta, complete with enlargeable photos, as if it was online. It works much better than trying to copy and paste text and photos, which can be confusing.

A summit post page viewed in the offline browser app. It's almost like you are online! The only hassle is the small ads that appear on the bottom of the screen.


Another excellent use for the data-enabled phone is weather checking, mostly before heading out. I usually go to for weather info, and dig deep into their extensive data, mostly their “forecast discussion” and the “forecast weather table interface.” I haven’t found an app yet that even comes close to offering as much information. Even the mobile version of the NOAA page seems extremely paired down. It seems the best solution is to simply browse to the standard web version of their site.

What apps do you WildSnowers find useful for skiing and climbing? Anyone have a good suggestion for a powerful weather app?


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22 Responses to “Smartphone Apps for the Backcountry”

  1. cam August 12th, 2013 10:13 am

    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.

  2. Lisa Dawson August 12th, 2013 10:24 am

    Star Walk is wonderful for star gazing during those beautifully clear backcountry evenings. Identifies constellations, solar systems, stars, nebula, and satellites — an amazing app!

  3. Eirik August 12th, 2013 10:38 am

    Gaia gps – for the ability to download and overlay a variety of different maps and satellite images.

    Theodolite – classic navigation tool reworked..

    Avy lab – for snow nerds: why bring a field book and your smart phone?

    uWeather – for weather nerds: kind of a clunky interface but has the ability to access quite a few different useful weather analysis and forecast charts.

    Spot Connect – to keep folks form worrying.

  4. Glenn Sliva August 12th, 2013 12:12 pm

    I try real hard to leave mine home. I go where there is no Cell Coverage so that’s good. But:

    Croswflight works without Cell Towers and is a GPS go toer (not a word)

    Sky Guide works real well for stars and planets without Cell Coverage.

    Other then that always know which drainage you’re in or going to so you can follow it out or around if you need to.

    I take my SPOT and hand held Ham Radio for emergency communication.

    Also plenty of Single Malt for special occasions or friends.

    Good review and I’ll check these out.

    Time to get the firewood ready for the winter guys. The leaves have begun up the Pan a little. Can’t wait for enough snow up high for some earned turns.


  5. Dave Field August 12th, 2013 12:57 pm

    Please pardon the potentially stupid question. Would an adroid tablet having GPS but without the phone and wifi only, have decent functionality in the BC? Would you expect adequate GPS performance?

  6. Charlie Knoll August 12th, 2013 1:01 pm

    I like orux maps for android. It allows both level zooming as well as magnification with the volume buttons. The route alarm works amazing well.

  7. Scruppo August 12th, 2013 1:54 pm

    Has anyone tried Ullr Labs MAST (mobile avalanche safety tools)? Looks pretty comprehensive, but I don’t think I like how you look upslope or down to measure slope angle instead of to the side.

  8. Scott August 12th, 2013 11:45 pm

    The weather app I use is called Wx alert USA. It uses data from NOAA and allows you to access all of the detailed settings like discussion, tabular, and satellite images.

    I use the Ullr snow app. It works pretty well as a field book substitute, it is nice that you can share observations. I imagine it could become much more powerful with more users adopting it.

  9. allen markow August 13th, 2013 6:03 am

    When you take your smartphone to bed with you, do it in comfort and style with This great smartphone nightstand made for ALL beds. FREE SHIPPING.

  10. Lou Dawson August 13th, 2013 7:25 am

    My vision is showing me the Smartphone Sleeper unit in use during a wall bivvy on El Cap, for that sponsored climber who has to share their day’s labor to the world, now.

  11. T-Bob August 13th, 2013 8:19 am

    GPS kit allows you to use a variety of maps and save sections or sheets for offline us with tracks, waypoints, and embedded photos intact,

  12. Lou Dawson August 13th, 2013 8:46 am

    Thanks for the suggestions you guys! Orux looks interesting. I’m thinking if you don’t need cloud storage of routes or an integrated desktop companion, one approach might be to base your route planning on Google Earth, export KML or GPX and import those files to smartphone for use with nearly any of these suggested solutions. The best solution probably has the easiest offline map storage, and the most robust GPS. That’s where I’ll focus in comparo. Lou

  13. August 13th, 2013 11:12 am

    Avy Lab is fantastic. I use Swackett for weather.

  14. Nick August 13th, 2013 8:51 pm

    National Geographic Trail Maps is a good one. User can toggle back and forth between topo and arial and the zoom on arial is good. Works great when out of service.

  15. Colin W August 14th, 2013 1:17 am

    Lou, I mentioned Orux on your last map roundup. I played with it on a recent seven day backpacking trip in the Evolution area of the Sierra. Laid out a bunch of waypoints on Google Earth and exported the .kml to my phone. Orux allows you to overlay a .kml onto any map in the app. I saved a good-sized USGS topo of the area offline onto the phone (there are a TON of datum options that you can save through the app). Out in the wild, I opened the app, clicked to overlay the .kml, and everything was there. Super easy and I’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of exploring it.

    Other apps:
    GPS Essentials- Generally solid diagnostic app.
    Avalanche Conditions Report- Has a fantastic widget, which is mostly why I use it. I can quickly glance at the bulletin in the morning without using a web browser. The developer is a guy on TGR, if I recall correctly.
    ULLR’s MAST- Already mentioned.
    MTB Project- Summer sport.
    Locus Free- Another really solid app, similar to Orux. Haven’t used it as much lately, but for no particular reason. Maybe I like the Orux interface better?
    Ski Tracks- Vanity app.
    Weatherbug Elite- Has a lot of functionality. Overlays precip on GMaps.
    1Weather- Similar to Weatherbug, although I haven’t used it as much.

  16. DFrizzle August 14th, 2013 10:09 am

    Been following your site for a little more than a year now and really enjoy it. Thanks!

    I use Backcountry Navigator Pro ($10 when I bought it)…it’s got great topo maps and I’ve found it to be quite accurate. I used it hiking in the summer and hiking and skiing in the winter. I’ve found my phone and the app to be totally workable backcountry skiing when it’s pretty cold/snowy.
    I also use RunKeeper as an app to keep track of my progress/pace/elevation/etc. I don’t always trust it’s final elevation gain total but do really like that it plots the course directly to google maps and I can later look at the topo or satellite map to review the hike/ski.
    Been looking for an app like Peakfinder…will have to check it out.

  17. Ed Soehnel August 18th, 2013 4:47 pm

    I use Arcus for android. iPhone version is Dark Sky. Amazingly accurate in forecasting precipitation for your immediate location.

  18. Backcountry Billy December 13th, 2013 8:05 am

    C’mon man. If you need or want gadgets in the backcountry, stay at home and travel via Google Earth. Handle yourselves appropriately. A compass needs no battery, a map can’t have a glitch. GPS and google earth the internet have ruined sailing, surfing, skiing, discovery and adventure.
    But go ahead and buy your gadgets, bring them to the backcountry, or on the sea. Beat me to the pow, or the waves, blog about it, brag about it, tell everyone what you did, where you did it, post pictures, tell everyone how they can do it, then bitch about the crowds of cooks over running your secret spot on your next post. I could go on but I think you all can smell what I am steppin’ in!!

  19. Adam Hicks December 13th, 2013 9:12 am

    Billy, quite the Luddite. Some might see a compass and paper map as technological innovations that ruin the backcountry. I believe the ones that ruin it are the one that complain about it being ruined.

  20. Lou Dawson December 13th, 2013 9:16 am

    Real men go with a sketch pad and transit, and draw their own maps. I’m not a real man. (grin)

  21. B.J. October 16th, 2015 1:46 am

    I do agree somewhat with Billy, I have always hated people discovering my little home town and all the powder stashes, swimming holes, undeveloped hotsprings etc. and then posting to the whole world what a great place “they’ve” discovered”. We have a policy in small towns wherein you do not brag about the un-skied slopes available, and the best fishing holes,lakes etc., because it just invites more urbanites to come and “discover|” our little piece of heaven and basically ruin it. While I don’t mind taking advantage of technology for safety’s sake, and taking nice photos and videos, just keep it to yourself, or be very vague about where it is, especially when posting it or uploading onto Youtube. Sure tell your best friend about it and share it with them for a nice trip, but you have to realize that by telling the world, it won’t be there the next time you come, and you have to deal with the bad karma of ruining a beautiful little place that the locals who have been there for generations were always willing to share, as long as it is kept quiet. The technology is useful, appreciated but not meant to use as a tool to tell the world where the little gems are, or the little gems won’t be there for your’s and our kids to experience in the same way you did.

  22. Lou Dawson 2 October 16th, 2015 6:52 am

    Yeah, I’ve always felt there was a balance with all this. As a guidebook writer and publisher I’ve not shied away from sharing routes. As simply a human being who likes to see other human beings enjoying themselves, I’ve not hesitated to make suggestions about places to go. On the other hand, there are indeed certain places and stashes we tend to not publicise.

    One thing I’ve always been on guard about with myself is not becoming a NIMBY about public land that’s everyone’s to enjoy…

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