Digital Navigation Tools

Words By: Jediah Porter

Most things we do in the mountains haven’t changed, in decades. This is great. Mountain travel is timeless. It is that constancy and primal nature that makes the wild so appealing; in many cases we go out to be away from technology and the other downsides of modern life. One aspect of wilderness travel, though, has seen great change in recent years. Navigation in the wild can be greatly enhanced with modern, digital tools. First, there are no rules out there. You can entirely ignore all the ensuing advice and use traditional, non-digital tools for navigation. All that has been done in the wild can be done without digital assistance. Nonetheless, I believe that digital navigation can enhance your outdoor travels while minimizing the adverse affects of reliance on technology. With that in mind, here are some fundamental, general tips for you.

1. Technology will continue to evolve.

The exact apps and websites that I would recommend right now will change. I was not an “early adopter” and I am not prone to chasing the “next best thing”, but I am already on my third preferred phone wilderness navigation app. If you’re flexible enough to try things out like this, you are flexible enough to adapt in the future. Stay flexible like that.

That being said, what do I recommend right now in November of 2020? On a computer (at home, during the planning process) I use On my phone (both at home and in the field) I use the Gaia GPS app. Transferring between them is possible and not too onerous. Each has an interface on both platforms (mobile and computer), but neither is as good as the other. I mean, the Gaia GPS app is great, but isn’t as good as Further, the Caltopo app isn’t as good as the Gaia app.

2. Yes, you can navigate with your phone in the wilderness, without cell signal.

Your phone determines your location with cell tower, wifi station “triangulation” and with GPS signal. In the wild you have only the lattermost of these, which is more than enough. GPS stands for “Global Positioning System”. It works all around the globe, provided your device has a clear view of the sky. In (or near) steep or densely forested terrain GPS location services suffer. You will need to, prior to your trip and while you still have signal, download map data for your destination.

3. Battery life matters. Screen and GPS antenna use suck phone battery. As does cold exposure.

Carry extra power and keep your phone warm. My first aid kit now contains a small extra battery and cord. My clothing systems always allow for a place to keep my phone near my body (but away from my avalanche transceiver, while winter backcountry skiing and mountaineering). Longer trips require even more power planning so make sure to take that into account when planning your next trip.

4. Explore all the different types of available digital map data.

In digital mapping lingo, there are many different types of map “layers” and “overlays” available. You can view traditional graphical maps, modern graphical maps, satellite imagery of various vintages and resolution, color-coded terrain data (slope angle, forest cover, altitude), weather history, weather forecast information and more. Explore for yourself the pros and cons of three dimensional viewing. Fatmap and Google Earth both have apps that allow three dimensional viewing of certain types of map data.

5. Old school map skills still matter.

Your phone could get broken. That screen is too tiny for real authoritative group viewing. Some valuable map data is still only available on paper.

6. By way of expansion on that lattermost point about “old school” map skills, let me expand further on contour lines, especially for backcountry skiers and their avalanche risk management.

Contour lines or “topo lines” are a timeless way of showing the three dimensions of the earth’s surface on a two-dimensional screen or piece of paper.

Other modern tools also show three dimensions. Notably, slope angle shading, altitude shading and 3d rendering can show aspects of terrain shape. I’ve been an avid backcountry skier for 25 years and an avalanche educator for 12. I think the single greatest technological advancement in avalanche safety in decades (or ever?) is the slope angle shading available on digital maps.

Slope angle shading doesn’t show anything that contour lines couldn’t show, but it shows it much more clearly than contour lines do. On the other hand, slope angle shading does not show slope aspect at all. Contour lines show slope aspect more clearly than any other digital tool. If you are a backcountry skier, learn about contour lines and how to interpret them. Mainly, topo lines are the only clear way to deduce some of the important variables in avalanche terrain assessment. Further, it will assist in your interpretation of paper maps.