Using the Mobile App in the Backcountry
So you’ve done the work. You learned about the terrain using different base layers, added map objects to identify potential travel routes and areas of interest, evaluated your plan using tools like terrain stats and travel time, and narrowed down your options based on the current and forecasted conditions. Now it’s time to actually head out into the backcountry!
No matter where you are, the CalTopo mobile app makes it easy to access your map, update it as needed and navigate the terrain. Let’s explore how you can incorporate the CalTopo mobile app into winter travel.
Access your maps
With the CalTopo mobile app, there is no need to export your map data from CalTopo and then import it into another app or device. As long as you log in with the same account information that you used on the web, you will see all of your saved maps (including any maps created by other users that you’ve bookmarked) in the Your Maps list on the mobile app. This makes it practically seamless to plan at home and then access those maps on your mobile device for use in the backcountry.
However as you prepare to head out the door, keep in mind that you do need to have a data connection (either WiFi or cell service) to sync your mobile map list with the server. This ensures that your map list is up to date and you have the latest version of your maps.
Many of the areas you travel to in the backcountry don’t have cell service (and for some people, that’s the best part!). If you have a mobile subscription or higher, you can download base layers and overlays, such as MapBuilder Topo or aerial imagery, to your mobile device. This allows you to use the mobile app offline in the backcountry. As long as you have layers downloaded, you can view map objects on top of those layers and zoom and pan around the map as you normally would, without a data connection.
This also allows you to put your mobile device into airplane mode while in the backcountry, which can help extend your battery life by preventing your device from searching for a cell tower. Conserving battery life is particularly important in the winter since cold temperatures can also quickly drain your battery. The other major contributor to battery drain? Excessive screen time. As much as we all want to know “How much further?”, being thoughtful and strategic about when you reference and use the mobile app is another way that you can further extend your battery life in the backcountry.
Record your track
As you leave the trailhead, recording your GPX track is a great way to track your location and create a record of where you traveled. It can also be helpful for ground truthing your original plan- did you end up traveling the route the way that you planned or did you make a detour? How long did it end up taking you?
With the CalTopo mobile app, you can record a GPX track directly on your map. This allows you to compare your planned route to the path you actually traveled. It also displays information about your elapsed distance, elevation and time as you travel the route, which can give you a good idea of how far you’ve come and how far you still need to go.
As long as you save the track directly to a map, it will become a line object on that map once you finish the track. You can add notes about how the actual route went in the comments for the line. Whether it turned out to be the pleasant option you expected or a brutal trek that you’re hoping to never repeat again, your recorded GPX track and any accompanying notes can serve as a useful reference if you head out in the same area again in the future.
Update your map
No matter how thorough your planning is, actually heading out into the backcountry will give you a lot of valuable information on your intended route and the terrain. Another advantage of using the CalTopo mobile app is that you can update your map as you travel the route. Adding and editing markers, lines, and polygons allows you to record valuable information to your map that reflects what you are seeing on the ground (if you click the links above, make sure to scroll down to see how to add map objects on the mobile app).
If you have a data connection, these changes will be automatically synced to the server. If you don’t have a data connection, any changes will save locally to your device and then automatically sync once a data connection is re-established without any action needed from you. This allows you to continually update and refine your map.
Navigate in the field
While it is important to never rely solely on one navigation tool, the CalTopo mobile app can be invaluable for negotiating the terrain. You can use your mobile device’s GPS to display your current location on the map, alongside all your other mapping information. And as long as your device has an internal compass, the cardinal direction that the top of the device is facing will be indicated by a blue arrow and numerical heading, allowing you to translate your surroundings to the map.
Trying to identify something that is further away from you, such as a peak? Turning on the heading line can be really helpful for identifying those types of features on the map, especially if the feature is pretty far off in the distance.
It is important to note that the CalTopo mobile app always has north up on the map no matter what direction you are facing. This type of map orientation is referred to as north up. The blue compass arrow (or heading line) will move to indicate the cardinal direction that the top of the phone is facing. If you aren’t used to it, it can take a little bit of practice to get comfortable; however one major advantage of using north up map orientation for winter travel is that you always know what aspect you are viewing.
Are there any layers or tools on the mobile app that you find particularly useful for planning winter travel that you think we missed? Tips or tricks? Questions or comments? Leave them below!