OnX Backcountry App Review | Outdoor living


“So what do you think of boondocking? »

That wasn’t what I expected to hear from the host at Kalaloch Campground, a popular beach on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, when I asked about the campsites open. He laughed, flipped his official national park cap inside out, and described the unmarked dirt roads I would need to follow inland to get to the state forest and private forest lands. , where the rules on scattered camping are much more relaxed than at Olympic National. To park. The park’s campsites had been booked since reservations opened on Memorial Day – a trend that has accelerated in recent years, first with the increase in online camping and hiking reservations, then with the pandemic having everyone rushing to book vacations. outside. For the more popular spots, like Yosemite National Park, you’re also competing with scripts and bots as scalpers illegally resell prime spots. Going out to spend time outdoors without a reservation – even on a Monday, as I had – just isn’t a smart bet anymore.

Kalaloch Beach – no wonder this is a popular summer campsite. Laura Lancaster

But to use the information from the campground host, I had to be sure I was indeed out of the national park, which isn’t exactly marked on the side of the logging access roads . So, while I let my kid run wild on the beach to terrorize a flock of seagulls, I pulled out the latest addition to the GPS app space: OnX Hinterlands. Although I’ve used a good chunk of these GPS tools in the past, I’ve never found them useful enough to care about, either because of their clunky interface or because they didn’t tell me anything. more than the card I already had in my hand (and usually much less). Even when I figured out how to download the map to my phone before I left, I usually pulled out the paper map first.

But with OnX Backcountry I quickly found what I was looking for: the road the campsite host had mentioned – not too far from the blue dot indicating my current position on the beach – with the national park boundary against the state forest , both clearly labeled. Even better, at the very bottom of the offline map I had saved to my phone, I could see a steep, first-come, first-served campground with bright red lines indicating frequently used paths to the beach, where we ended up staying that night. I never had time to get my paper map out of the car.

How OnX Backcountry compares to the competition

Compared to other GPS-based hiking apps I’ve used, including Gaia GPS and Garmin Oregon 600, OnX Backcountry has an intuitive user interface. It only took a few minutes to learn how to find a hike, start a trail, add photos and waypoints, and then share them. Creating an offline map was also intuitive, but be careful not to switch to airplane mode until your map is finished downloading (an easy mistake to make). I only spent five minutes capturing the maps that I ended up using for a camping trip around the Olympic Peninsula – useful, since I was planning and packing everything at the last minute – saving me a trip to my Local REI for more detailed maps.

None of this will come as a surprise to hunters, of course, as the Backcountry app leverages both the platform and much of the information found in OnX Hunt (the importance of clearly labeled land ownership lines transcends the activities of outdoors). Backpackers will also likely appreciate some of the principles brought by the Hunt version of the app, such as the emphasis on limiting the scattering of personal data: if you share the trail to your favorite off-road lake with a friend, that person cannot share that track with anyone else.

Backpackers should be aware, though, that like Garmin and Gaia, using the tracking feature over multiple days will decimate your phone’s battery. Simply using the app periodically to confirm your location or to navigate a tricky section of a trail or intersection – the highest and best usage for an app like this – does not Won’t wear out excessively, but it was on track to clear my Pixel 2 in under eight hours when used with the tracking feature enabled. Android users should also note that their phones can have issues with tracking anyway – mine would stop tracking for an hour at a time, then update the track with a long straight line connecting it to the waypoint the newer – something that OnX says can happen with Androids. If tracking your hike accurately is high on your priority list, one of the best GPS watches would be a better choice.

Some of the lines in this GPS track are oddly straight.
Some of the lines in this GPS track are oddly straight. Laura Lancaster

What sets OnX Backcountry apart

However, using this app to track my location against an existing GPX track worked perfectly. Most users will find the existing trail routes in the app to be all they need – the popular ones are easily identified as thick blue lines on the trail that transition to a heatmap coloring (indicating which trails are popular ones) as you zoom in. More advanced users have the option of importing a track (GPX or KML) into the app or drawing one using the free-draw or dot-to-dot tools. Although not at the level of something like CalTopo – the ability to modify an existing track or create a high resolution download of a track or map to print, for example, was missing – users who start everything just creating their own tracks will find it much easier to navigate.

However, even if you don’t want to create your own backcountry routes, the amount of detail here is impressive. For example, when I zoomed into Stehekin, Washington, the app not only correctly directed users to the Lady of the Lake ferry service (the only way out of this off-the-grid community that doesn’t involve hiking d day), but also showed the location in town of the laundromat and showers. This level of granularity has not always been replicated on the platform – many of the starting points for popular Washington Olympic Coast hikes redirected users to a Daniel J Evans wilderness information page, rather than on the official national park website, which would have explained the process of getting an overnight permit.

Part of the reason for the random information is that OnX creates its own maps from scratch, rather than from existing (and too often outdated) USGS maps. The basis for much of OnX Backcountry’s granular detail (such as the location of the Stehekin Laundromat) comes from their acquisition of the Outdoor Project – a well-known and impressive collection of user-created guides and updates of the most popular (and not so popular) outdoor trails and destinations across the country. If you’re used to the quality content provided by free apps like AllTrails, this is a serious upgrade. In addition, OnX Backcountry also has a dedicated team that updates and verifies the information on a yearly basis, based on discrepancies found by users and their own research and fieldwork. So, in theory, this app will only get more detailed over time.

Adapt on the fly

Bot-infested online reservations and crowded trails aren’t the only new trends affecting campers’ and backpackers’ ability to get out: there are also fires and smoke, especially in the West. What’s frustrating about these developments is how difficult it can be to gauge what a change in conditions actually means. Sometimes the smoke in the air is from a nearby fire; sometimes the fire is hundreds of miles away, or even in another state. Even hazy skies do not necessarily mean that the air quality on the ground is deteriorating, as sometimes the smoke is high enough to make outdoor activities safe, even for at-risk groups.

A 3D look at the Mount Rainer Wonderland Trail, with a streak of smoke to the northwest and red indicating unsafe air quality to the northeast.
A 3D look at the Mount Rainer Wonderland Trail, with a streak of smoke to the northwest and red indicating unsafe air quality to the northeast. Laura Lancaster

It’s no surprise, then, that one of my favorite features of OnX Backcountry is that it can extract real-time information about current fire locations, air quality measurements and weather conditions. of smoke on the same map, providing an overview that can promote good decision-making and peace of mind. I also liked that there was a feature to show the location of historical fires, as this provides important context to the terrain you’re likely to encounter in a given area.

One of the most promising features of OnX Backcountry is their partnership with satellite messaging service, Somewear. This partnership means they can now provide location-specific weather updates when you’re off the grid – a useful feature I’ve used on the Somewear app in the past and been impressed with. precision. More interestingly, this partnership will also allow users with separate Somewear accounts to share waypoints with each other via satellite messaging.

Data layers (trails, fires, smoke, land ownership, air quality), partnerships like the one with Somewear, and an emphasis on data security (vs. easy sharing via social media), distinguish OnX Backcountry from the existing field of popular GPS tools. for hikers and trail guide applications. And I’m excited to see where OnX pushes this platform in the future. On the Washington coast, where the occasional tsunami evacuation sign reminds you of a different kind of backcountry threat, I wondered what other layers might be added in the future. Could the satellite partnership also provide warnings to people in the event of an earthquake event, like you’d expect to get on your smartphone in the foreland? Could OnX ​​update its maps to provide information on the nearest tsunami evacuation route, including for backpackers? Could there be an option to download the tide maps offline within the app itself, and could the maps include information about the tide levels at which headlands could be safely navigated? But even as it stands, OnX Backcountry’s tools for dealing with complexity make it a solid choice for anyone already using a smartphone in the backcountry.


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