Review – Backcountry Navigator

I’ve always been ambivalent about interactive electronics in the backcountry.

Technology, of course, has very much been part and parcel of the backcountry experience.

But non-interactive technology is more or less an improvement upon existing types of gear or equipment.

Wool sweaters, waxed cotton tents and a Dutch oven over wood coals has been replaced by nylon down jackets, cuben fiber shelters and three-ounce canisters stoves using titanium pots.

The newer gear and clothing is lighter, more efficient and less bulky, but it is functionally the same as the older gear.

Voyageurs at Dawn, 1871 by Frances Anne Hopkins. The Voyageurs had a certain "je nai se quoi" more so than I however...

Voyageurs at Dawn, 1871 by Frances Anne Hopkins. The Voyageurs had a certain “je nai se quoi” more so than I however…

Interactive technology? It can very much change the wilderness experience itself.

That is not to say I am against technology in the backcountry (beyond the obvious examples I gave before): A smart device makes a pretty good P&S camera, can have many books (be it for reference or pleasure), allows a person to take notes and so on.

It is the interactive part I’be been a bit skeeved about at times because of the cultural ramifications.  When there is more and more push to be reached 24/7/365, I try to fight it in my own small way.

Naive perhaps. And not for everyone and all situations (A check in every few days does wonders for the home front in many cases for many people)  But that is me.

Which is my usual rambling way of saying I’ve been hesitant to use a GPS esp with mapping technology.

I can read a map. I can use a compass. I am comfortable using such to plan and execute a route in the backcountry.

Why use one? Esp when I am doing my own route and not a very specific trail such as The Colorado Trail?  (Which is among the trails that has one of the excellent Guthook apps available for it now).

But then I read a recent update of Chris Townsend’s article on Smartphones & GPS in the Hills.

Chris Townsend is an outdoors person. Not only a thru-hiker hiking along a narrowly defined path and the skill set that goes with it.  Or an athlete who happens to perform his athletic endeavors in the backcountry for a set goal.

Rather, he is a well-rounded outdoors person. A person who has done some really interesting treks, and who also writes in a pragmatic, straight forward and in an even-handed manner.

So when I read  the article referenced above, it made me re-think my ambivalence to a GPS and accompanying mapping software. Plus, as an outdoors person I really should know what tools are available and how to use them properly.

Both Androids and iPhones can function as very good consumer grade GPS units at this point. In airplane mode, and with judicious use of the activating the GPS for updates, a mobile device can last a reasonable amount of time in the backcountry assuming no heavy use of other apps on the device.

On a recent trip, I decided to give the popular Backcountry Navigator a try.  It has received good reviews, was only $12 and works with CalTopo rather well.

I was not interested in whether Backcountry Navigator is best app of this type; I was more curious as to see this type of app used in real world conditions.

The app was easy enough to use at home pre-trip. Simply choose the map you want to use as you normally would use CalTopo, select the portion of the map needed for a trip and save it to your phone for later use in airplane mode. Naturally you can also import .GPX waypoints  and some other powerful features pre-, post- and during the trip.

For my trip, I did what was perhaps the simplest use of Backcountry Navigator  but arguably the most useful: I downloaded a portion of the Cloud Peak topo maps and decided to use the phone in airplane mode with the GPS in spurts. There is no doubt of where I would be in relation to the terrain.


Screenshot from my Android on the way down Cloud Peak.

So, how did it work?

Easy to use. Nice to know my old-fashioned map reading is reasonably accurate and could see how such a device would be useful for foggy conditions or whiteouts (Hut trips anyone? Pre-make a .GPX waypoint before the trip).  I could zoom and out of the map easily enough. If I was feeling saucy (which I was not), could even map out from where I was to where I wanted to go. Tres chic…

Of course, using a mobile device has limitations. I like the wider view of maps (presumably a lightweight tablet in the future would remedy that somewhat), a map is more robust, does not require batteries , does not fail in very cold or very hot weather and I treat a map a lot more rough than the mobile device. And since the device is dependent upon satellite coverage, some heavy tree cover or using in a narrow canyon could make device use problematic. And a mobile device, and possible accessories,  are some more pieces of crap to potentially make a simple activity less simple.

As for the battery issue, as Chris Townsend stated, treat a mobile device “just as you would for a headlamp or torch (I presume no-one is advising against one of these because of poor battery life).”  

I doubt I’ll be using such devices on my trips on a regular basis. But an electronic navigation app is  undeniably a useful tool for certain situations. As with any tool, the key is to make  proper use of the device and having the skill set to make effective use of the information obtained from the device, too.   A smart device is not effective if the person does not realize that the tight contour lines ahead means a cliff…for example.


Classic Warner Bros

More than one wag has said that map and compass use will go the way of the abacus. To that, I say bullsh**.  Rather, I think of this modern technology as akin to a calculator. A calculator certainly helps me balance my finances far easier than a pen and paper. But I sure as hell better know how to use a pen and paper to do math otherwise I’d question my skills as a well-rounded and educated adult.

In the same way, if a person does not have the skill set to use a compass and read a map (be it paper or electronic) , know how to make adaptive use of that information and simply relies on where an app or a .GPX track tells them to go, I’d question their skills as a well-rounded outdoors person, too.

I don’t think I’ll embrace live Twitter updates with a satellite uplink anytime soon for my backcountry trips. Nor do I plan on hosting live Skype chats from Really Cool Alpine Lake anytime soon, either.  Fine for others…definitely not for me.

But once in a great while, I may emulate a very experienced Scottish trekker and use a device as appropriate (if rarely I still suspect).

Happy Trails!



2 Replies to “Review – Backcountry Navigator”

  1. Mags, you know by now that I’m an experienced bushwhacker. My take is that I’d never go without map and compass.

    Also an altimeter – now that you can get a cheap Casio watch with an integrated altimeter, there’s no reason not to carry one. It makes every contour line into a backstop or handrail, and when you don’t have distant objects to sight on, you can tell a lot from altitude and aspect of slope.

    But I find that I fire up Backcountry Navigator on almost every trip, leaving the smart-ass phone in ‘airplane mode’ and mostly refraining from looking at the display? Why? To have track recording going. It’s a little extra safety margin (not much, given battery life, but a little) if I have to backtrack. And the track is useful after the trip for map making. I find map making to be enough fun that I carry some extra weight in the form of a big external battery so that I can map even on a week-long section.

    And maybe the map-making will help someone. I routinely upload tracks to, from which other sites do things like – that entire track of the Northville-Placid was captured in BackCountry Navigator and cleaned up with software like JOSM and QGIS.

    With BackCountry Navigator, I also like the ability to use a custom map. The other side of putting the data in OpenStreetMap is that I can use other people’s data, plus government databases, to make a crowdsourced topo. Since the USGS topographic survey program has been defunded since the first Bush administration, and no new topos have been produced since then, this is definitely the 21st century way to get decent up-to-date maps. If you look at and change the dropdown at the upper right to ‘Kevin’s Map’ (scroll all the way to the bottom to find it), you’ll see what I see on the smart-ass phone. You can look at CalTopo, Google Terrain, and such like for comparison. I’m missing a few things for want of data (building outlines, benchmarks, and such), but I do better on land cover (thanks, Landsat!) and on trail routings, since I have ones that were generated by hikers hiking the trail with GPS, rather than by some cartographer penciling in an often ludicrously inaccurate interpolation among a few surveyed points.

    Welcome to the future!

    1. All very good points, esp about the contour lines. I will say off-trail navigation is generally easier in the Rocky Mountains vs the East. I suspect if I was bushwhacking on a more regular basis (vs merely off-trail hiking), I’d have looked at this sooner.

      Also, an excellent point about lack of updated maps. That is going to be problematic going forward and a person will need some of sort of device for truly updated maps (or, buy a commercial map such as the NatGeo series).

      All a tool in the end. Still need the skill set to use it and make use of it (as opposed to following a pre-defined track)

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