How FarOut’s 2023 Glitches Highlight the Drawbacks of Backcountry Tech Reliance

When FarOut (formerly Guthook) came onto the scene, it blew other backcountry navigation apps out of the water. Tailored specifically for thru-hikers, FarOut removed a lot of guesswork for hikers following its mapped routes despite an early glitch or two.

FarOut’s user interface included an easy-to-follow GPX track, real-time location on the elevation profile, and intel on water and campsites. With these features, the app quickly commanded a significant portion of the thru-hiker market. In fact, there were so many hikers on there that the “user comments” became another invaluable feature. With this feature, hikers could see crowdsourced data that included up-to-date information on everything from high-water conditions to hitching beta for specific road crossings.

FarOut’s Shaky 2023

Because FarOut is such a ubiquitous thru-hiker tool, glitches or bugs can have a notable impact throughout the community. This past season, users reported a higher volume of issues than in any season since FarOut’s initial release. Starting in mid-spring, comments and reports appeared on social media, in conversation, and amongst this website’s writers and bloggers. The famously reliable thru-hiking app was being buggy in inconvenient spots, and it was driving hikers nuts.

Smartphone apps have become essential navigational tools in the backcountry. Photo courtesy of SpiceRack

Reports included maps vanishing when users zoomed in, logging hikers out during periods without reception, waypoints not appearing on the map, and the app freezing — all issues the FarOut team had never encountered in such volume.

Snow-covered trail and no map

Al Marriot thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from April 6th to September 12th, encountering software and connectivity issues with FarOut along the way. Al was one of the early hikers to cross San Jacinto when the route was entirely snow-covered. With almost no hiker prints to follow, Marriot was reliant on FarOut to stay on track.

“It was around this time that FarOut stopped showing my live location for around three hours, leading me to make educated guesses based on the topo map as to where the trail went,” he said.

FarOut’s offline maps and crowdsourced info have made it a popular, and oftentimes only, navigational tool on many long trails. Photo courtesy of FarOut

Marriot’s location eventually updated but was still slow to show his live tracking, and there were several instances on steep slopes where it showed him hundreds of feet above or below his actual location. He decided to take the safest route down and figure out his exact location once he was on more stable terrain. Marriot knows how to use a map and compass, but was not carrying backup paper navigation on the PCT.

Really, We Should All Have a Backup Plan

Tech glitches are to be expected. By utilizing navigation apps we understand ourselves to be at the mercy of both the software and the device itself. Most of the time, app bugs aren’t newsworthy, but FarOut has made itself so useful that it can be easy to fall into a sort of dependency.

Gaia GPS is a powerful and popular offline navigation phone app. Photo courtesy of Alex “GPS” Brown

This reliance on technology — including other backcountry navigation apps like onX, Gaia, and Hiiker — has resulted in less emphasis on pre-trip route research as well as on-trail navigation skills. This can be a tricky scenario when you don’t have a backup plan.

Backcountry Tech: Always susceptible to unexpected glitches

Alice Bodnar, COO and General Counsel for FarOut readily acknowledged the issues users encountered this past season.

“The map display problems were tied to Apple Maps, and our response focused on actively investigating the reports and pursuing a resolution with Apple,” said Bodnar. Following reports of the app freezing, Bodnar said their customer service team continued to work with users to request additional details to aid the team’s troubleshooting efforts.

The FarOut team began research as reports came in, discovering the root map issue was stemming from an Apple Map defect. They were able to figure out a workaround thanks to “a few very helpful hikers,” though it was challenging getting the fast intel and updates to the general hiking population due to users being in and out of service.

Bodnar also told me that the “freezing issue” was due to an unanticipated database issue that needed to be optimized, with the team undertaking an additional app update to address the problem.

READ NEXT — Which GPS Platform is Best for Backpacking?

It’s Not Just Buggy Apps… Your Phone is Fragile Too

You can argue the negatives of tech dependency in the outdoors, but it’s hard to deny the benefits of the technology itself. Crowdsourced data, location pins that help in route finding during trail detours, and accessible town information has changed the thru-hiking game, at least on many of the most popular trails. It also helps aid in complacency, allowing the app to do a lot of thinking for us and reducing the perceived need for map-and-compass skills or backup navigation.

Extreme cold is just one of the many hazards that can render a smartphone useless. Photo courtesy of Owen Eigenbrot

Software bugs aren’t the only thing that can happen when you rely on navigation apps or GPX tracks. Consider the fragility of the device itself. Phones overheat and shut themselves down. They get too cold and the battery dies. They can fall into water or get knocked off a rock, shattering the screen. And of course, they can always run out of battery. Your phone dies in the middle of a long section without resupply and you’re left with a seven-ounce paperweight and no idea where the next water source is.

Paper Maps: Not ultralight, but worth the weight

Reliance on technology isn’t anything new and isn’t without controversy in the real world as well as in the backcountry. But hikers in the backcountry don’t have the luxury of pulling over on the side of the road and reloading Google Maps. If you lose access to the app, you might be out of service for days.

Paper maps are far from obsolete and are helpful for planning as well as on-route navigation. Photo courtesy of SpiceRack

Riley Seeholzer flip-flopped the PCT this past year, from April 6th to September 16th. He started noticing issues with the app a few weeks into his hike, most frequently when he was out of service.

“If I looked for service and didn’t have it — with FarOut open in the background while my phone was roaming — I would go to open FarOut and the map would be gone,” Seeholzer said. “I wouldn’t be able to access it again until I got back to service.”

Once Seeholzer realized what was happening, he contacted FarOut, then limited his use of the app to town days, taking notes on the upcoming water carries while he had service. Seeholzer was already familiar with onX, and ended up using that app for the majority of trail navigation.

“Looking towards the future, learning how to use a paper map would be useful,” Seeholzer said, while acknowledging that he does have some map-reading skills.

Most hikers don’t set out on the PCT or AT thinking they’ll need a map and compass. The trails are well-marked, deeply trodden, and populated with other hikers. Some sections of the CDT present a different story, similar to less-maintained trails, high routes, or routes that link together existing trails. For these trips, map-and-compass skills become a necessity, not a backup option.

Most Hikers Probably Aren’t Carrying a Paper Map

Hikers relying on GPX tracks but looking to increase their own navigation skills can practice on a marked route or a trail, using the GPX track as backup. Practicing navigation skills where it isn’t a necessity leaves a larger margin of error, and checking your work against a digital track is a good way to drill skills.

In a simple poll via The Trek’s PCT social media page, the vast majority of respondents said they regularly used apps like Gaia, onX, and FarOut. 66% said they knew how to navigate with a map and compass, but only 33% of respondents said they often carried a paper map along with digital navigation.

Who has the skills?

We also put together a slightly more detailed survey, asking people about their backpacking experience, map-and-compass skills, and age ranges.

Distance-wise, this was a somewhat self-selecting survey. We posted it on our Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail social media pages. Just over half (52%) of respondents said they’d hiked either the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. The next most popular trails were the Colorado Trail, Arizona Trail, and Continental Divide Trail.

Trail navigation apps were unsurprisingly prominent, with 88% of respondents saying they often or always used navigation apps, and 19% said it also helped them decide what trail to hike.

Overall, 45% of respondents said they “could navigate with a map and compass if they had to,” which was our second-lowest option for proficiency. 14% said they had “no idea how to use a map and compass,” our lowest proficiency option.

This did break down differently by age bracket — of the respondents over the age of 45, 42% named themselves as “highly skilled” with a map and compass, as opposed to 18% of overall respondents. Very few respondents in the 45-plus age bracket said they had lower-end skills.

Map and compass skills aren’t becoming obsolete by any means. The number of people who listed themselves as “at least proficient” was somewhat surprising (and heartening). But the convenience of backcountry navigation apps does make the more traditional skills seem less urgent, especially for the most popular thru-hiking routes.

Do a Gut Check Before Your Next Trip

Relying on mapping apps and backcountry GPX tracks is nothing to be ashamed of. The apps were developed for this purpose, so it makes sense we’d rely on them. However, it might be worth taking a step back and doing a gut check: how reliant are you on this technology? If the app glitches, you lose service, or your phone dies, will you know where the next water source is? Can you navigate the route if your GPX track fails? Can you read a topo map?

Having a map as backup navigation is only helpful if you know how to use it. Photo courtesy of Owen Eigenbrot

Nobody wants to think they’ll find themselves stranded with an app or phone failure, but if the industry’s most prominent navigation tool can experience challenges, it’s a good reminder that relying solely on technology comes with drawbacks.

“Our current metrics and field reports show that FarOut is stable,” said Bodnar, “But we make no assumptions and continually monitor user feedback to ensure reliability. Our commitment remains to provide a reliable tool for our customers’ outdoor adventures.”

And FarOut is reliable, as much as any software can be. In fact, it has such a good reputation that every hiker I spoke with was adamant that they would use it during future hikes. The app is too helpful and has too much value in the crowd-sourced database for one glitchy season to matter in the long run.

“This was the most difficult software bug we have encountered in our 12 seasons of operation,” Bodnar told me. “While tackling the problems, we never lost sight of the human impact these failures caused — after all, we are a small team of hikers ourselves.”

Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm.

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Comments 11

  • Sparky : Jan 2nd

    For a single hike person (AT) and not have done major hikes before, is there an advantage in the Gaia GPS Premium?

    • Daktari : Jan 3rd

      LIKELY the “glitching” started with the AT version of the App, Far Out is well known to drink the ATC Kool Aide, and the ATC management is well known to be violently against ANYTHING helpful to Hikers!

  • Pine Nut : Jan 2nd

    Technology has also come a long way in preparing those backup paper maps. With a free CalTopo account, I was able to create a set of highly readable maps for the PCT at fixed scale and sized for 8.5×11 printing. Printed double-sided, I’ll be carrying three sheets of paper for each segment between resupplies. That’s just over one ounce of extra pack weight for peace of mind in the circumstances you describe. It was also a huge improvement over the USGS maps I was previously planning to print, which became unreadable when reduced to similar size.

  • Drew Boswell : Jan 3rd

    A thought provoking and necessary article. Good job.

  • Carl McDonald (Tin ManFL) : Jan 3rd

    Two things: My experience on the CDT this past year (’23) tells me that Far Out was considerably behind on trail changes. This seems like a new thing related to the recent sale and name change of Far Out. In my opinion their field work is seriously lagging behind. Finally, blaming Apple for I–phone software freezing and blanking on supported maps seems pretty lame as I-phone users are their largest market.

    • Alice Bodnar : Jan 3rd

      Hi Carl, We work closely with the CDTC to create the most up-to-date CDT guide available. I’m sorry to hear that you found it lacking in places. We do updates as soon as we know about them and we just launched a new Flag / Report feature so that we can get these updates on a more timely basis. We are 100% employee-owned; you can check us out here: Our company has never been sold to anyone and we have never taken a penny of investment money (other than our own savings, of course). We blame ourselves for the freezing issue. The disappearing line issue truly was an Apple error, but we were able to find a work around. Thanks for your comments! -Alice Bodnar, FarOut

  • Don't Care : Jan 3rd

    I had a hard time getting rid of redundant gear on the AT, but did it pretty well. Except for navigation, where I carried an Android with FarOut, a Garmin Inreach , the full sized version so I have a map screen even without my phone, and section maps from Anti Gravity Gear, and a compass. Not much extra weight compared to the peace of mind. I can get a message or SOS out anywhere I have clear sky, find roads and stuff even when I’m far from the trail, and choose a direction if I have to step off the trail. But Far Out can find me a cheeseburger. I love FarOut.

  • Pale Rider : Jan 5th

    I also experienced the aforementioned glitches with the FarOut app during my 2023 NOBO AT thru-hike. About once or twice a week, the trail disappeared entirely while zooming in for a closer look although icons like water sources and shelters were still visible. That rendered one of the most critical functions of the app totally worthless, i.e., being able to pinpoint your location in relation to the trail in the event that you wandered off trail. That particular glitch occurred less frequently the further I progressed north. The other glitch that occurred more frequently, and is still an issue to this day, is that the background screen turns dark black instead of the usual light-colored background when the phone is either out of cell service range and/or placed in airplane mode. The app is advertised to work offline but the black screen occurred whenever either of these two conditions existed. The trail was still visible as well as on-trail icons but, with the black screen glitch, road crossings, road names, and in-town features became invisible. This latter glitch was especially problematic when heavy rains this season required a number of road-walk work-arounds to avoid dangerous river crossings. It was often anybody’s best guess on which direction to go and what road you were on because the app was no help whatsoever. I was in regular contact with a rep from FarOut about these glitches but, despite the usual recommendations (turn the phone off and back on again, uninstall and reinstall the app, install regular updates, etc.), I still experienced the black-screen glitch. I have the Iphone 13-Pro so it’s not like my phone isn’t capable of running the app. I did find the app useful on trail and would use it again for future hikes but certainly hope that FarOut addresses these issues before someone who relies on the advertised capabilities of the app gets in serious trouble (or worse) on trail.

  • Saunter : Jan 6th

    I’ve thru hiked the pct seven and a half times in the last eight years without Guthook/Farout. The only time you may “need” a paper map as a backup, is going thru the Sierra section with complete snow coverage alone, and before enough have gone before you to create a trail thru the snow (I’ve done it multiple times). It’s very simple to download multiple map apps onto your phone, in case one fails. Most folks hike thru snow covered areas in groups, so the gps system would have to fail for multiple hikers, with multiple phones to be without electronic navigation. Possible? Yes, but extremely unlikely. Most of the comments on Farout are made by first time inexperienced thru hikers, making comments that are often incorrect, creating a situation where you can’t trust the comments for anything important anyway.


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