6 Smartphone Apps for Smart People Outdoors


Let’s face it: we live in a connected world. For a time, nothing irritated me more than people bringing cell phones along when recreating outdoors. I loathed the guy perpetually yapping on his cell phone about some big business deal at the trailhead. However, since the advent of the smartphone, your handheld’s become more than a chat device. It’s a powerful wilderness tool— capable of saving your butt.

Road Ninja

Maverick gas stations claim they’re “Adventure’s First Stop.” Not really. Adventure begins at the first wrong turn, whether it’s on the road or on trail. I made a wrong turn headed to Fruita for some mountain biking and wound up in a hell that could only be described as Cafe Rio (it was the only option visible from the exit ramp). Enter Road Ninja. Half a mile down the road were two local cafes that not only had better food, but didn’t have a 30-minute wait. You can also use it to find the least expensive gas and get coupons from local retailers. Now you don’t have to risk being “that guy” by holding up the road trip while a family of nine choose their fixings at a make-your-own burrito chain joint. That would be a road trip fail, and ninjas don’t fail.

Free, iPhone and Android, roadninja.com

MTB Project

Ok, so you’ve safely made it to the trailhead. Up next: getting on and staying on the right trail. Gone are the days of a five-pound guidebook taking up half the space in your backpack. A decent workaround for awhile was hard-to-read photocopies from said guidebook, usually with two key sentences obscured by the Xerox machine. Thanks to MTB Project the only planning ahead you need to do is download your trail of choice at the carpool lot. This app has trail maps and turn-by-turn directions for a huge catalog of trails tied into your phone’s GPS. I used it on a dozen trails in the Fruita area last month and was impressed. The info is crowd-sourced, so you can add trails in your area to the database. I would still pack a printed map, as phones can run out of battery power, or be rendered obsolete by a punctured water reservoir. Yes, that happened to me.

Free, iPhone and Android, mtbproject.com/mobileapp

Mountain Project

If you’ll be climbing walls instead of biking trails, there’s an app for that: Mountain Project. Originally a website with tons of useful beta, descriptions, and personal accounts; all the info can now be downloaded to your handheld device—incredibly useful for remote areas. Not sure if you are on the intended 5.7 crack or the 5.11 suffer-fest a few feet apart? Yeah, me neither. Open this app and check out a few beta photos of people on each route and you’ll know in an instant where to rope up. Bring it along on multi-pitch routes for beta once off the ground without needing to tear pages out of the guidebook to save weight on route. One gripe: a lack of overview maps for a specific crag as well as climbs being organized alphabetically instead of based on the order found on the wall, so don’t completely abandon your trusty climbing guidebooks just yet.

$7.99, iPhone and Android, mountainproject.com/mobileapps


Since biking is on the mind, one very popular and controversial app is Strava. This app, which at its heart is a fitness tracker mixed with GPS, breaks down a trail into multiple segments (think climb to saddle or descent to creek) and tracks your progress from one ride, or run, to the next. You can earn PBs (personal bests) and share your top times with other users. This is where the controversy begins, as some people claim app users ride too fast or don’t yield to uphill riders so they can earn the record for one or more trail segments.

Free, iPhone and Android, strava.com/mobile

Gaia GPS

Another app that works well in areas that do not have cell or data towers is Gaia GPS. On a recent excursion to the Grand Canyon, we expected to have a late departure time, a recipe for a sure arrival at camp in the dark. The Big Ditch isn’t a place you want to be stumbling around blind corners at night, so I loaded a map of the area we were headed onto my phone before leaving. The process of loading a set of waypoints is pretty interesting in itself: you email the app a GPX or KML (Google Earth) file, which are both widely used formats shared around the web, and the track opens in the app. Bam! Turn-by-turn directions are right there! Even hours away from cell towers, a phone’s GPS capabilities still work. The GPS chip is independent of data, WiFi, and cell signals, so your phone remains a reliable navigation device. When darkness fell that evening, I could refer to my LCD screen and that warm fuzzy feeling of the glowing blue dot being right where it was supposed to be.

$20, iPhone and Android, gaiagps.com


One of the hard and fast rules of the backcountry is to always tell someone your itinerary. Yodel turns your iPhone into a safety beacon by allowing you to send text or email messages to designated contacts that include your location, which pops up in a friend’s Google Maps, along with an estimate of when you’ll return. Yodeling was originally used by Swiss mountain climbers to communicate their location on the mountain to other climbers and the villages below. This technique may work on some foothill trail runs in Salt Lake, but using the app will extend your reach and not cause other trail users to call authorities claiming they’ve found the village idiot (you). If there is an emergency, Yodel also features an SOS function that sends an emergency message to all contacts in the app’s Contacts directory with location coordinates, then auto-dials 911 or a designated emergency contact. Hopefully, everything goes according to plan and Yodel is only used to share your location with your buddies for bragging rights.

$0.99, iPhone, thefactoryslc.com

On a recent long mountain bike ride, my newbie partner got a flat tire. Since the rest of us had (rudely) ridden too far ahead and didn’t hear our phones ring, our rookie learned to change a tube for the first time on the side of a trail by watching a YouTube video. Luckily, she was in an area with a strong enough cell signal and could make a smart use of technology! However, even on trips to Havasupai or the Salmon River, where you are far from cell towers, I always pack my phone for its other features. I’ve found that I appreciate my phone most when it cannot ring, but all the smart features run. Oh, and that guy on the trailhead closing some great business deal? Yeah, he is still annoying.

Maximizing Your Smartphone Battery Outdoors

One not-so-smart feature of the smartphone is battery life. Most of these apps drain your battery like crazy, so backup juice is a necessity. Here are our favorite options.

Mophie for iPhone or Android. This hardshell case is also a battery pack. It charges along with your phone via USB, which you can plug into a solar source or wall outlet. The Mophie doubles your normal battery life and adds some shock protection. mophie.com

Goal Zero Solar Chargers. Use these power sources to charge not only your phone, but a variety of electronics, from a renewable power source—the sun. GZ has a variety of products; search your local retailer or online to find your perfect match and you’ll be able to power up on any wilderness adventure. goalzero.com


About Author

Nick Como escaped the skyscrapers of NYC for the tall peaks of the Wasatch. Climber, skier, canyoneer, mountain biker, and lover of food. Just don’t think of offering him pizza with pineapple on it.

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