Nature goes online: Outdoor apps become more popular

Screenshot of Gaia, a mobile application used as a GPS with topographic maps. (Photography by Tobey Schmidt/Arizona Sonoran News Service)

Want to find the perfect climb? Grab your phone.

Want to reserve a campsite for your trip this weekend? Grab your phone.

Want to track your speed on a bike ride, find a local hiking trail with a waterfall, or check the best time to go surfing at the nearest beach? Grab your phone.

The outdoor industry is becoming digital.

Folks who recreate outdoors have traditionally been known for sticking with some of the more primeval technologic tools. However, since the age of smartphones and mobile applications, those physical maps, compasses and stopwatches can now be condensed into single apps on a phone. It’s never been this easy. Nature is literally an arm’s reach away.

Here’s a highlight of a few of the most popular outdoor mobile applications.

Mountain Project

Mountain Project is essentially a mobile guidebook for rock climbers to browse areas, routes, directions and photos and to comment or advise fellow climbers.

The app offers information for areas in more than 125 countries. Users can filter through the countries, then states, regions, mountain ranges and even sections of one mountain to find walls and routes.

Mountain Project’s page of a particular climbing route in Cochise Stronghold, Arizona. (Photography by Tobey Schmidt/Arizona Sonoran News Service)

A local Tucson climber, Cullen Hamblen, uses Mountain Project a couple times a week.

“I like how it kind of gives you a sense of what an area is before you get there,” Hamblen said. “Whoever wants to can post directions, notable features, or remarkable areas, which otherwise would be hard to find if you didn’t have some advice going in.”

Information about the area can include directions to trailheads, whether the routes are shaded, and what type of gear is needed. Everything on the website is written by users.

The mobile application allows users to download the information while using Wi-Fi or cell service, which allows them to access it anytime without cell service.

Nick Wilder, co-founder of Mountain Project, said he created the website in 2006 because, “I was looking for a new programming challenge.” After he and a friend came across and learned it was getting shut down, they decided to work on Mountain Project as a hobby, Wilder said.

“It remained a hobby until a couple years ago, when the traffic got so large I realized there was an actual business here,” Wilder said. The site now has several millions visitors a year.

What does the co-founder want users to get out of his app?

“Using the map to get to the crag [rock face] without getting lost,” Wilder said. “Then, once there, pulling out the app and finding the individual routes and beta [advice] you need to enjoy your day.”


Gaia, named after the Greek goddess of Earth, functions as a mobile GPS. Areas can be preloaded, making it especially useful to people who are often out of cell range.

Gaia’s logging feature. (Photography by Tobey Schmidt/Arizona Sonoran News Service).

National Geographic photographer Bill Hatcher said Gaia is one of his favorite apps to use on his smartphone.

“You can either get satellite image maps, topographic maps or street maps,” he noted.

Hatcher thinks Gaia is a great way to take advantage of the cell phone’s satellite connectivity.

Within the app users can add notes, pictures, information and more to certain areas or locations.

“Often as a photographer I go back to places again and again,” he said. “So it’s like a pocket notebook.”


Sun Surveyor

For people who like to get out and watch the sunrise or sunset, Sun Surveyor is an app that will accurately record where and when users can expect them. They also show the phases of the moon.

Sun Surveyor showing the phases of the moon in an area. (Photography by Tobey Schmidt/Arizona Sonoran News Service)

Hatcher frequently uses this app as well, explaining that it’s good when he’s photographing rock climbing, or a certain peak or spire.

“It also has a really cool program that will — kind of like Google Earth — show you the way the shadows will fall on a particular landscape,” he said.

More Outdoor Mobile Apps


Tobey Schmidt is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of  Arizona. Contact her at

Click here for high resolution photos.

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