The Best Map Apps For Backcountry SkiingPublished on 08/18/2023 · 9 min readLet’s take a look at 5 of the most useful backcountry mapping apps to download on your phone to ensure you stay safe and on the right trail in the backcountry!
Photo by Mael Balland
If you’re a backcountry skiing or snowboarding enthusiast, or really anyone who enjoys any kind of recreation in backcountry locations, you’ve likely moved away from paper maps and use some kind of app or software from satellite imagery and topographic maps (aka topo maps). There are hundreds of different platforms available now, from the ones everyone uses like Apple and Google Maps, to more sport-specific and feature-loaded services. Some are free, some cost money, and many of them boast different features that might be difficult to understand if you’ve never used them. So, in the hopes of clarifying some of the differences between them all, let’s take a look at some of the best, and most useful, backcountry mapping applications.
First off, let’s break down how most of these apps function. The GPS chip in a smartphone essentially functions the same way a standalone GPS device does. By pinging several satellites in a network, your device can triangulate your current location, as well as typically provide you things like your elevation and even your speed of travel. Once it has that information, all it needs is access to a database of some kind that’s able to display map information in relation to where your device has shown you to be. What’s cool about this feature of a smartphone is that it typically can function perfectly well when the phone is set to airplane mode or without internet, Wi-Fi, or cell coverage, and regardless of who your cell service provider is. The GPS chip in your phone is capable of being online and functional in remote areas, where backcountry travel often tends to take you, so as long as you have battery, you can have GPS!
Additionally, if you’re a resident of the United States or Canada on a ski trip to Europe, you can count on your phone for reliable offline use of maps well outside your home country. The thing about most map services, however, is that most of them essentially have all the same data. This means that the actual details and quality of the maps they offer tend not to vary all that much. Because of this, companies add different features to their applications that can enhance functionality and provide additional resources that others may not.
To make it easy I’ve broken down some of the top contenders into different categories:
Best Overall: Gaia GPS
Gaia GPS topped this list for a few reasons, but chief among them is the user interface. The maps look good, the various layers interact with each other properly, and overall it’s easy to use from the get-go. It’s clear they’ve paid attention to the small features like a current elevation counter and integrated compass that stay at the top of the screen and a sunrise/sunset clock that’s always visible.
Beyond that, Gaia does have both a free and paid version, and that’s another reason why it’s at the top of the list. The free version still provides great functionality and doesn’t feel as though it’s being totally throttled by a paywall. If you’re interested in the full-feature paid version, you gain access to offline downloadable maps and increased functionality, but also something else. Gaia is now owned by Outside Inc. and is a part of their new subscription service, Outside+. At around $50 per year, it’s not outrageously expensive and provides access to an incredible 40+ brands including publications like Ski Magazine and Outside Magazine, as well as other services like Trailforks and Pinkbike.
As far as backcountry travel specifically for ski touring, Gaia has all the features you’d expect, from slope angle shading, topo, satellite layering, and even snow depth and avalanche forecast overlays. All in all, it has everything you need to reach your destination, and get back home again.
- Clear and easy-to-use interface
- Elevation counter
- Slope angle shading
- Satellite layering
- Snow depth
- Avalanche forecast overlays
- Integrated compass
- Always-visible sunrise/sunset clock
- Free and paid versions available
Best All-Season: Trailforks
As mentioned above, Trailforks is now also a part of the Outside+ subscription service. However, most people will recognize the app as one popular for hikes and mountain biking. Trailforks is great for summer mountain adventures and activities, route tracking, and getting detailed information on trail conditions, but it’s not as well known as a winter backcountry navigator.
That being said, it’s no slouch in winter conditions. It boasts fully-featured map overlays with slope angle shading, avalanche risk zones, and weather forecasts for wind and snowfall, in addition to a great user interface that’s easy to navigate and get comfortable with.
Unfortunately, Trailforks does lose a few points for the fact that the free version only lets you navigate a small preset area, which seriously limits functionality without paying for the subscription.
- Popular amongst hikers and mountain bikers
- Provides detailed information on trail conditions
- Route tracking
- Slope angle shading
- Avalanche risk zones
- Wind and snow weather forecasting
- Easy-to-navigate user interface
- Free and paid versions available
Honorable Mention in Active Use: onX Backcountry
onX Backcountry is another great mapping option for backcountry skiers and hikers and arguably has key features that Gaia and Trailforks don’t. The paid version offers offline maps, a great selection of features and map layers, and a pretty solid 3D interface available with just a few taps. They also do a great deal of work to support local avalanche centers and must be commended for that.
All that being said, at $30 per year, I don’t think you’re getting as much bang for your buck as with an Outside+ membership and the user interface is a little clunkier than some of the others. Their model could see the app getting better over time and eventually climb up this list, but for the moment it’s just a tad behind.
- Offline maps
- 3D interface
- Free and paid versions available
- Supports local avalanche centers
Best Route Mapping: CalTopo
For those who like to use different resources to plot their trips in advance, CalTopo is the best of the bunch. It offers great functionality on your computer, which can then be transferred to your phone and even loaded into other navigation apps. The number of features available to users for mapping the perfect route, making notes, plotting trails, and overall navigation is extremely useful and relatively easy to get the hang of.
The service is free and able to be linked to your Google account for tracking your maps and routes. It also allows you to upload and download maps made by others using similar software, which is a huge bonus for planning with partners.
I don’t find the mobile app to be as good for active navigation as the other options listed above, but as far as pre-trip planning and mapping go, CalTopo takes the cake.
- Great for pre-planning/plotting trips in advance
- Can transfer info/routes from your computer to your phone and other navigation devices
- Links to your Google account to track your routes and maps
- Can upload and download maps made by others
Honorable Mention in Route Mapping: Google Earth
This one might seem a little obvious, but I genuinely think that Google Earth is one of the most amazing and underutilized resources available for outdoor travel. It’s completely free, it’s easy to use, and it boasts some of the most impressive data of any navigation software.
Now, it’s pretty much useless for active navigation and I wouldn’t use it for final trip mapping like CalTopo, but it’s as good as it gets for route scouting. Second only to being able to stand in front of your objective and put eyes on it, Google Earth is going to be able to give you an idea of what to expect as far as terrain, hazards, existing footpaths/hiking trails, and the general layout of your route.
- Route scouting
- Can view terrain, hazards, and general route layout
I feel it’s necessary to say that all of these reviews and rankings are utterly subjective. I would highly recommend trying as many of these options as possible and making an informed decision on what works best for you. We all prefer different interfaces, different types of maps, and different functionality. It’s crucial to remember that the best product is the one that augments your abilities most effectively, and provides you the most confidence while out in the backcountry.
Additionally, don’t feel as though it’s necessary to pick one and stick with it. For the record, I have every single one of these apps downloaded on my phone and often cycle through each of them to gather the broadest amount of information possible. And all of the mentioned apps work for both iOS and Android, or at least have both an iOS and Android version, so once you’ve come up with a workflow that you’re comfortable with, you can adjust different aspects as necessary when you’re on the go.
While all of the apps are excellent tools for safely navigating the backcountry, none of them have an efficient SOS or rescue function. While the use of any of these apps will certainly help you minimize your risk of needing a rescue function, it is still smart to have a plan, after all, the backcountry is unpredictable and some things are beyond your control! I never head into the backcountry, where I often don't have cell service, without a satellite communication device so that I can reach Search and Rescue services if needed.
Lastly, find out what’s popular in your area and why. Not all maps are created equal, and often some services are better equipped in certain areas than others. Many wilderness areas have their own apps and services for the location, such as the Wasatch Backcountry Skiing Map or the Ski Bozeman Backcountry Ski App. Talk to your friends and partners, share data with each other, and get out there and have some fun in the mountains! If you have any questions or want to get geared up for your backcountry quests, reach out to a Ski Expert here on Curated!