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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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?
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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