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App as Map


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.

Gaia GPS 

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

Wolverine Publishing

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

Trimble TopoCharger

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.

4 Responses to “App as Map”

  1. Snowbound

    “a phone offers greater reliability and convenience”? In 2014, battery life kills reliability, especially if you want to save your phone for emergency calls. Poor sunlight viewing hurts convenience. And (thankfully) 3G towers are not on every peak (yet), so internet is not everywhere in the back country. So I’ll hang on to those paper maps and guide books for a bit.

  2. Douglas Sproul

    Hi Snowbound. Those are good points that you have shared. I hear you, especially with the sunlight issue. At times, that certainly can be a bummer. My two cents: Hanging on to maps, guidebooks, compass, etc. is logical. All of our tools are just that; tools.

    Being the author of a mobile guide, I’ve had all kinds of feedback and have learned a lot from hearing peoples’ strategies and opinions regarding backcountry travel and technology. An interesting perspective is that even a map is technology. Or how about skis or climbing gear? One thing that I have noticed is the natural tendency to resist change, especially when it comes to electronics in the field.

    When a couple of friends pulled me along on the Rogers Pass to Bugaboos Traverse, we had 1:50,000 topo maps of the entire traverse as most people do these days. The first group to do this traverse did it sans maps. I thought about that often. I wondered “did that technology ruin the experience/adventure for me?” Speaking for myself, certainly not. As of yet, no piece of technology is going to actually ski or climb the route for us.

    When I have tried to point out to people that anything can malfunction (e.g. A map blowing away in the wind) it is often met with immediate resistance just for what appears to be a misunderstanding of what a tool is capable or incapable of. It wasn’t too long ago that we all had this same discussion about GPS devices.

    Thanks for your thoughtful input. Being the author of these mobile guides has been a neat journey filled with learning. Hearing what people like you have to say helps a lot. You might want to know that the guide I created does not rely on cell towers. It does however have the option to load the guide into a GPS app. It’s pretty neat and to summarize, I believe that people like you may actually dig it. Or, maybe not.

    Hopefully, device manufacturers can develop a solution for the sunlight issue in the near future. Till then, I’ll keep my paper map, pics and compass in the same pouch as the smartphone.

    See you in the hills,


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