onX Backcountry: GPS Navigation App with In-Depth Trail Beta

This is a sponsored post brought to you by onX Backcountry

If you’re connected to the outdoor industry online, you’ve probably noticed ads for a new navigation app popping up in your feed recently. Listeners of Backpacker Radio will have noticed a new title sponsor by now too. So just what is all this talk over a new navigation app? Well, as the title suggests, you’ve come to the right place to learn.

I recently had the chance to speak to one of the folks on the onX development team to get a little behind-the-scenes rundown on the app, and I’ve also gotten to go out and play with it a bit myself. There’s quite a bit to say about this app, so let’s go ahead and dive into the ins and outs of onX Backcountry.

The onX Backcountry “home” in trail mode.

onX Backcountry App At-a-Glance

  • Price: Free seven-day trial; $29.99 first year, $39.99/year after that
  • Compatibility: Most Apple, Android, and Windows PC devices
  • Key features: GPS tracking, offline maps, expert-curated adventures, guidebook content, snow mode
  • Key map layers: Land management, elevation profile, detailed local forecast, avalanche forecast, slope angle, points of interest

Quick Navigation

onX Backcountry Overview

onX Backcountry is a GPS map app designed for ease of use, safety, and depth.  Released in January of 2021, it is the newest in a suite of apps created by onX, alongside already existing onX Hunt and onX Offroad. Summarized by the development team at onX Backcountry:

“Upon opening the app, onX Backcountry users can immediately see what’s possible. Trails are highlighted, nearby adventures are stylized to grab your attention, and elevation profiles and land management layers (such as Bureau of Land Management or Wilderness Areas) are clearly marked. One tap changes that map view to either 24k topo, satellite, a hybrid of both, or 3D. Localized weather forecast and recreation points (like campgrounds, river access, and must-see scenic vistas along the way) add to that experience. Everything you need to find and research your next adventure is streamlined into the user experience from the get-go.”

The topo view with a route that I tracked myself (light blue).

To understand the intentionality behind the design, it’s helpful to know onX’s four-part mission statement.

onX Mission Statement

onX exists to:

  1. Enable you to discover more opportunities to recreate and explore on public and other accessible lands.
  2. Provide the richest and most innovative mapping experience, contextual data, and guidebook content to inform your every adventure.
  3. Inspire the confidence to go farther than you thought possible, because you always know exactly where you are and how to get home safely.
  4. Preserve outdoor recreation opportunities for future generations by protecting the land access we have and advocating for more.

There already exists a multitude of navigational apps, many of which are exceptional. In this veritable sea of options, onX is striving to set itself apart. It is working to achieve this by having as many helpful features and tools as possible crammed into one convenient app with a user-friendly interface. onX products are created by adventurers for adventurers, and a variety of handy features showcase just that.

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Features

GPS and Mapping Tools

Industry-leading GPS technology is the heart of onX Backcountry. The Backcountry app may be a new player in the game, but the onX team has been playing for over a decade with their other projects. onX Backcountry features 650,000 miles of trails, 50,000 featured hikes, color-coded land management areas, and over 500,000 points of interest (with all numbers still growing). The points of interest represent a range of everything from the practical navigational spots (river put-ins, campground, etc.) to the fun things you’ll want to do in the nearby towns (breweries!). There are also a variety of map views to choose from while using the app: 24k topo, satellite, a hybrid of the two, or a 3D map.

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After tracking a hike, I was able to save it, name it, leave notes, edit the line style and color, and share it with others.

Customization

While using the maps, users have a ton of ways to interact and customize their experience, even while offline. Waypoints are a handy way to mark favorite campsites, water sources, or memorable summits with a unique marker. Users can even add photos and customizable icons for personal reference or to share with friends and family. Waypoints can also be used while off-grid in integration with Somewear, a satellite communications company, to let folks following their adventure know they’re safe and on track.

The built-in tracker is also integrated to keep track of adventures. The Backcountry App provides real-time GPS tracking even in areas without cell signal. All hikes can consequently be named and saved to keep track of personal adventure data.

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A different shot of the track I recorded, including elevation profile. The dot can be dragged around the map to show elevation at any specific point.

Expert Curated Content

One of the real standout features of onX Backcountry is the guidebook quality trip reports associated with each “Backcountry Adventure.” These are all noted on the map with either a blue trailhead (Trail Mode) or purple skier (Snow Mode) icon. And, best of all, each trip the user finds will be a customized personal trip report.

Discover mode shows a list of all the nearby Backcountry Adventures.

“In addition to reliable navigation, all adventurers enjoy a little inspiration and local beta,” said onX Backcountry Manager Andrew Burrington. “Through recent acquisitions, we’ve been working with Outdoor Project and Adventure Project contributors to bring thousands of their hiking and snow adventures to life in an intuitive and reliable mobile experience. We’ve also partnered with Beacon Guidebooks and groups like Colorado Mountain Club to add content and connect communities across the U.S.”

Detailed trip reports come with each Backcountry Adventure.

What sets onX Backcountry apart from other apps is that all pre-existing tracks (Backcountry Adventures) are created by experts in the field. This keeps the app from getting clogged with weak unreliable tracks created by first-timers. Each and every available Backcountry Adventure is a truly reliable trip report.

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A little more of the info given on Backcountry Adventures.

Offline Maps

As is to be expected these days, onX Backcountry features reliable coverage even without cell reception. Maps can be downloaded in a variety of sizes to be accessed at any time (while still consistently showing the user’s location within a few feet). These downloaded maps still hold any customizations the user may have implemented and can be viewed in any format except 3D (for now). The available map sizes are five, 10, and 150 miles wide at high, medium, and low-resolution quality, respectively. There is no limit to the number of maps a user can download.

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Users have a sweet variety of download options.

Truly Free Seven-Day Free Trial

In a world of gimmicks, it’s refreshing to see a company give a free trial without any strings attached. Anybody can download the Backcountry app and create an account with FULL access for seven days—all without giving out any credit card info. When the trial period is over, the user will be asked if they’d like to sign up for a year, but until then, it really is a genuine free trial. The app then charges a subscription fee of $29.99 for the first year and $39.99 each consequent year.

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Comprehensive Wind and Weather

The wind and weather system in the Backcountry app has access to thousands of weather stations collecting data. This makes for a comprehensive cocktail display of temperature, sunrise/set times, seven-day forecasts, and more, all in one app.

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Just the start of the weather page on Backcountry Adventures.

 

The weather forecast info continued.

Trail Mode and Snow Mode

The Backcountry app features two distinct modes for users to choose from based on the season. Trail Mode shows hikes: shorter day hikes all the way up to multi-day treks. This seems like the primary mode for the app and likely will be for most of the audience reading here. There are already over 3,000 hiking and backpacking adventures and 30,000 expert-curated experiences across the US with more on the way.

Snow Mode is designed for users of winter trails, i.e. backcountry skiers and splitboarders. As of the release of this article, there are already over 3,200 lines and counting nationwide. Snow mode also boasts handy Avalanche Forecast and Slope Angle features.

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Snow Mode’s slope angle mode.

Avalanche Forecasts and Slope Angles

Avalanche Forecasts make snow adventures easier and safer to plan. Users can tap a specific region for local detailed information.

Avalanche risk depends on a myriad of factors, and the angle of the slope plays a key role. Users can enable the Slope Angle Layer to view detailed color-coded slope angle data to help choose routes with safety in mind.

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History

Although onX Backcountry is a brand new app, onX themselves have actually been around for a while now. In fact, this is actually the third app in onX’s suite, alongside onX Hunt and onX Offroad. It’s been twelve years now, but back in 2009, Eric Siegfried developed onX as a groundbreaking hunting project. The initial goal was to help hunters efficiently see public land boundaries while in the field. 

Hunting Roots

Siegfried had a vision for how accurate location data with plug-and-play simplicity could support hunters and explorers. His extensive work led first to the original onX Chip. This was indeed groundbreaking, as it established onX as the first land data company of its kind. With the introduction of the Hunt App in 2013, onX changed the industry by providing hunters around the country with comprehensive digital maps.

Since then, Siegfried has continued to invest in helping others have their best outdoor experiences, most notably by spearheading onX’s Access Initiatives. This part of the vision was born in 2016 when he noticed a property for sale that had historically been an access point for recreational use. He envisioned onX buying the parcel to hold onto public access, but rather quickly, the property was under contract, and access was lost. The experience led to the development of onX’s Access team.

onX Access Team

In December 2017, the onX Access Team created a vision to address access in three main ways:

  1. Working directly with land management officials to keep public land public.
  2. Analyzing mapping data to provide numbers that support a national call for public land funding.
  3. Providing funding to improve public access in specific locations.

Since these goals were set, the Access team has funded a number of land access projects and completed an extensive map-based analysis of the nation’s “landlocked” lands. Siegfried traveled to Washington, D.C. in 2018 with representatives of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to encourage senior land agency officials to reconsider how they look at public access. One year after those meetings, the Acting Secretary of the Interior signed a secretarial order requiring the Bureau of Land Management to formally consider the public access on all future parcels identified for sale.

These onX efforts are clearly paying off. Hunting and outdoor recreation access have since been secured on 14,473 acres. And, by their proximity to other hard-to-reach public lands, these acres have facilitated easier access to an estimated 9,778 additional acres.

The Development of onX Backcountry

Though onX has been on the map for some time now, their entry into the hiking/skiing sphere comes from some significant recent data acquisitions. Most notably, onX Backcountry recently purchased the REI Adventure Project apps. This is a series of 6 apps all packed with helpful data that has been functioning well for years, meaning onX now has the largest user database. Additionally, onX teamed up with Outdoor Project to include rich data and guidebook-style content. This beta means thorough trip descriptions of each Backcountry Adventure listed.

onX Today

With the 2021 release of onX Backcountry, onX is now able to cater to a wide variety of outdoor enthusiasts. They have been the frontrunners in the hunting app game by far for some time now, which is what makes their entry to hiking and skiing navigation such an exciting move.

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What Sets onX Backcountry Apart

Backcountry Adventures

The Backcountry Adventures feature is definitely one of the handiest qualities the app boasts. Thanks to the acquisition of Outdoor Project, every single one of these pre-routed trips comes with a trip description. I’ve read through a few so far, and it seems like the longer hikes typically have quite a long accompanying write-up. These descriptions include info like trip type, difficulty level, distance, best time to hike, and more.

3D Mapping

This is a really handy tool to have in a navigational app. Notably, this is particularly useful with peak identification. Sure, die-hard topo users might scoff at 3D maps, but I think most folks will find this feature useful and just plain cool.

3D maps with my own route shown in blue. The green square represents the portion of map I downloaded for offline use.

Line Difficulty Color

On the subject of maps, onX Backcountry shows the incline level of each section of all listed trails on a color difficulty scale. The easiest hiking is green, and the steep difficult stuff shows up as red. Again, this is easy enough to read on a topo map, but it does make the job so much easier.

Users can see the different levels of color-coded trail incline upon zooming in on any trail.

Points of Interest

The folks at onX really went out of their way to pack in tons of points of interest. Users are probably used to seeing trailheads and camp spots on navigational apps. It’s a surprising treat to see breweries and disc golf courses pop up. Other points I’ve found to be particularly handy are views, AT shelters, gas stations, public restrooms, nd canoe put-ins.

This is just the first of three screenshots it took to span all of the waypoint icon options.

Snow Lover Love

I may not be a skier myself, but it’s clear this would be extremely useful for snow sports folks. The avalanche forecast tool is an outstanding safety feature, and the detailed slope angles are also a huge help in trip planning.

Feature Integration

The greatest feature of the onX Backcountry app is its assemblage of so many handy features. A lot of these tools already exist, but not really in one place like this. There’s an app for downloading hiking routes with info about them. There’s an app for identifying nearby peaks. Of course, there’s an app for letting other folks track your progress. And there are countless apps for tracking the weather. What onX Backcountry excels in is keeping all of these features in one convenient interface. Instead of toggling a variety of apps to navigate and plan a trip, onX Backcountry covers it all.

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Final Thoughts

onX Backcountry is truly unlike any other navigational app currently on the market. Users can jump right into reliably cool adventures knowing they’ve all been developed by trustworthy trekkers. onX packed this app with a well-rounded variety of features streamlined for convenience. The folks at onX have a 12-year track record of good, honest work, from creating tools to help adventures and advocating for a more accessible outdoor community.

And personally, I’m a big fan of the truly free trial. Not many (if any) other companies do that. It just feels honest.

Because of that easily accessible demo, the best part for you, the reader, is that you don’t have to just listen to my rundown of the app. The Trek and onX communities appreciate your commitment to actually reading this entire article, but as with any gear or app, the best way to form an opinion of something is through personal experience. onX has made it easy to do just that without commitment.

And so, my personal final word is that there isn’t any reason not to give it a shot. Hop on onX Backcountry yourself!

DISCOUNT

Use code “thetrek20” to get 20% off your first year membership at onX Backcountry.

Check out the onX Backcountry App

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Comments 2

  • Mark S. : Jul 23rd

    Loved your review of the onX Backcountry App. Will give it a try next week on the Teton Crest Trail

    Reply

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