Digital map tools and traditional guidebooks converge in the palm of your hand.
By Ryan Stuart
Adrian Ballinger stood at the third pitch of Fantasia, a classic Tahoe climb on the granite leviathan known as Lover’s Leap. The guidebook promised there would be a piton to help with the belay, but it was nowhere to be seen. So he did as any modern rock climber would and opened the Mountain Project website on his smartphone. A recent user’s comment told him the piton was gone—and how to work around it.
Handheld devices are changing how Ballinger, an internationally certified mountain guide and owner of Alpenglow Expeditions, moves in the mountains. “I still carry a map and compass, but they almost never come out of my pack,” he says. “I think a phone offers greater reliability and convenience.” Cartographers and guidebook authors know it, too. “For the mapping industry to stay relevant in the era of digital we have to be innovative,” says Ted Florence of Avenza Systems, a mobile device mapmaker.
Florence believes the future of backcountry travel will be rich with 3D maps featuring live photo overlays, all tied to user reviews, guidebook descriptions, forums, background links, and other layers of data. Most of this technology already exists. The memory and computer power of a smartphone is just not up to the task—yet. For now, another solution lies in more specific mobile-optimized guides. The best example might be Douglas Sproul’s guide to 100 ski tours around British Columbia’s Rogers Pass—GeoBackcountry Rogers Pass ($30; geobackcountry.com). Because Sproul couldn’t afford to print a guide or build a true app, he created a downloadable file stuffed with photos and route descriptions. It links to Google Earth and topographic maps, all accompanied by GPS. “It’s one of the first guidebooks with maps that is more than an e-book,” he says. “It doesn’t just tell you where to go, or how to get there. It shows you.”
Plug and Play
GPS functions independently from cell towers, which allows access to these apps even in the backcountry.
Turn a smartphone into a handheld GPS with this Android and iOS app. Ballinger uses the cloud function to share waypoints with others. $20; gaiagps.com
This traditional publisher now dabbles in digital guides with iOS apps for popular climbing areas like Red River Gorge, New River Gorge, and Joshua Tree. $33; wolverinepublishing.com
Turn your iPhone into an off-the-grid GPS device loaded with color topo maps and a backup battery. $149; trimbleoutdoors.com
From the Early Summer 2014 issue.