This article was written by professional trail runner Ryan Ghelfi and originally published on trailsandtarmac.com. Ryan is also a member of the Trails & Tarmac coaching team with David Laney, Jenn Shelton, Camelia Mayfield, Brett Hornig, Rachel Drake, Cole Watson, Tyler Green and Alex Nichols.
It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the short window to tackle new trails and running routes in the high mountains is upon us. We’ve had a fine snow pack this summer on the West Coast USA. The meadows are green, creeks flowing and mosquitoes are feeding! For my whole life until about a year and a half ago I planned and executed all my outdoor endeavors using paper maps, ones I bought from the forest service or other third party map makers. I have collection of 100+ topo maps which I still pull out and pour over on a regular basis. But,I have had a technological awakening, and it’s made a pretty major impact on my running adventures.
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I have some guilt about what I have done. I used to be a purist, paper maps only, I would never use a phone to navigate in the wilderness, but times have changed and now I do often. I still have some guilt but I’ve discovered reasons why I think it’s been worth it for me and why it can be a complete game changer for most trail runners out there.
There are many apps and companies which exist in this space but I’ll be talking about the main ones I use (not a sponsored post, just the programs I like). I have the pro version of an app called GAIA ($36 a year). It works pretty simply. When you buy the pro version you get to access the best high quality topo maps and various other useful layers. When you are planning to go to an area for a run you simply download those maps for offline use. While you are out on the trail you’ll be able to see yourself as a little orange arrow (just like Google Maps only better). The GPS on your phone works without cell reception, so no matter how remote of an area you go to the maps still work. You can see all the official forest service trails on these maps and the detail is pretty amazing. If you get off trail and need to find it again you can pull up the map and it’ll be accurate to within about 10ft. The arrow turns as you turn so you can see which direction you need to go in about 2 seconds. Using GAIA alone and in this form is a complete game changer. But there is more.
Not all trails are on official maps. When I travel to a new town I am not familiar with one of the first things I’ll do is jump on Strava. They have a feature called Segment Explore (needs to be done on a desktop or laptop not a phone). Go to the new town and then look for green areas or places with lots of relief, then hit some of those segments that pop up. Once there you can see a bunch of people who have run that segment. You can either look at their run from that segment, or go to their profile and look at lots of their runs in general. Once you find the locals who obviously know what they are doing you can find their best runs and then download the “GPX” files for them. After that you email yourself the GPX, open it on your phone and hit the option to open it in GAIA. That track will now be saved onto your GAIA app and you’ll be able to navigate the route with ease, even if there are no signs and the trails are not obvious, you’ll get to do what the locals do every time with just a quick bit of homework before you head out.
Finally, my favorite piece of free technology, Cal Topo. This is a pretty old school site. On it you can access a bunch of different types of maps and layers. Simply exploring like this has been huge for me. I find tons of new trails to try while cruising around on my desktop (disclaimer: just because a trail is on the USFS map does not mean it’s maintained or in shape at all. Googling the trail name/number/and forest it’s in can yield better info about actual conditions on the ground). But the best part is that you can also draw lines and routes on the map. You create a route you want to try and Cal Topo will even give you the total vertical gain and loss as well as an elevation profile of your route. Once you create a route you want to do it’s a quick couple of clicks to download the “GPX” file and get it into GAIA just like you did with the files you’ve been grabbing from Strava. What’s even better, in Cal Topo you can create and share maps publicly so that friends or community members can use them as well. I’ve created a public map for the Siskiyou Mountain Club in Southern Oregon (a non profit for which I am a volunteer board member).
Was the world better off before we had phone GPS technology to help us find our way in the backcountry? Probably. There was a different sense of adventure, you could and often did get lost, and then found again. Things look longer, and you didn’t always reach the destination you were shooting for. There is something I do miss about all of that. But, the upside is cool too. I now take on bigger routes, with greater unknowns in terms of trail conditions. I know that I won’t get lost (unless the phone dies or breaks with no backup battery) and so I can take what used to be larger risks. The past few years I’ve been able to tackle dozens of new runs in remote wild places and feel confident that it’ll all work out (at least in terms of navigation).
I’m positive that if you take the time to learn these skills and practice them you’ll be tackling new trails and routes anywhere you travel. It’s a whole lot of fun. If you have questions about how to use GAIA, Strava, Cal Topo or in general on planning mountain running adventures reach out. We offer consults through our coaching business and would be happy to help get you dialed in.
Editor’s Note: Looking for more mapping tools to plan your next trail running adventure? Check out our Find a Trail tool on this website. If you live near Pikes Peak (Colorado) or Auburn (California), check out Google Street-view images of the Pikes Peak Ascent course and Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run course.