Knowing where you are and where you’re heading are keys to successful training runs and trail adventures. Multiple apps can support your real-time navigation efforts and help you find or design routes. Understanding the basics of navigation is key to staying on route. However, mapping apps can help you explore new trails in your area. They are also great for pointing you to popular, safe, accessible options when you are traveling. Here are some insights on apps commonly used by trail and ultrarunners.
Strava’s platform melds social media, navigation, and physiological metric tracking. Users can sync multiple training tools to their Strava accounts and, in turn, utilize Strava’s analysis tools for tracking fitness. Strava’s Segments, one of their most popular attributes, can create challenges built into runs and helps users track improvements by matching efforts on repeated routes.
We should also note that CTS has a long-standing partnership with Strava that includes making training plans available on their platform. CTS Coaches also use TrainingPeaks software to analyze and prescribe workouts for coached athletes, and TrainingPeaks Premium accounts are included in CTS Coaching packages and the Trainright Membership.
Social and safety features
Strava offers race performance analysis, just be sure to label your activity as a ‘race’. Strava’s Beacon attribute provides live tracking. Many runners – and their friends and family – appreciate this for peace of mind.
The social aspect of Strava connects users with other members, allowing users to join group challenges and use other’s routes, all downloadable in GPX format. For runners who may be moderately familiar with their local trail network but would like to venture onto new trails, Strava provides good insight into what trails are accessible. This can be especially helpful in higher elevation when snow levels and melting are considerations.
In addition, users can get a sense for the most popular trails via Strava’s heatmap features. However, keep in mind that the heatmap feature does not indicate whether users typically use a trail in a particular direction, nor how trails are most frequently connected into loops or routes.
Although there is a free version of Strava (which does include Beacon), many features mentioned above require a Strava Premium membership, currently listed at $59.99/year. In our view, the subscription is valuable, particularly because of the combined benefits of mapping, live tracking, social connection, and basic training data analysis. Ideally, your training data is also synced to a TrainingPeaks Premium account for more advanced analysis.
Alltrails is a somewhat entry level application. Simply stated, it’s a digital guidebook for trail users. Alltrails lists the most popular routes in an area, complete with ratings, comments and photos from users. The user-generated content can be insightful for understanding current conditions, including snow, mud, high water crossings or wildlife.
Now, the downsides. Alltrails won’t reveal your location on a given trail. There are now downloadable map options, nor does it utilize GPS services. It’s good for gaining a general understanding of trail networks in a new or unfamiliar area, but its real-time navigating tools are essentially non-existent.
Part of the Adventure Project family, Trailrun Project is a crowd-sourced app owned by outdoor retailer REI and offers a variety of tools and aids for trail adventures. The routes are largely US based, though there are a small handful of internationally designated trails. Routes are given star ratings and difficulty ratings.
When using the app, tapping the trail reveals the elevation profile as well as distance. Many routes, typically the more popular ones, include user submitted photos and comments. The app allows you to track your location along the route because it has GPS enabled capabilities. Just be sure to download your area (by state in the US) ahead of time if you plan to be out of cellular service range.
Each route is also reviewed before being posted to ensure users will be recreating in legal areas. Largely because of the crowd sourced approach, Trailrun Project is good for accessing local knowledge to find some dirt in metro areas.
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The Trailrun Project app is free, although you must submit your email to have comprehensive access. Lastly, while the go-to app for ultrarunners in the Adventure Project family is Trailrun Project, Hiking Project and Mountain Bike Project occasionally reveal trails that may not be included in Trailrun Project, depending on the area.
Owned and administered by Outside, Gaia GPS allows users to create their own routes. You can also download maps for offline use (more are available via the paid membership). Although it can be a hassle, Gaia GPS members may also upload GPX files from other sources into the desktop version and then sync with the mobile app for backcountry use. Users can choose from a handful of base maps then overlay with a variety of options including US Forest Service and Public and Private Land (US based).
Tracking progress along a route in real time is provided and Gaia GPS has two separate operating systems, one for iPhone users, the other for Android users. A clever tool built into their mapping capabilities allows users to create a loop from a partially completed route. Just be aware Gaia GPS will finish the route as a loop using the nearest trail. This is nice, but who doesn’t love running a loop versus an out and back option?
For mapping and navigation afficionados, Caltopo boasts nearly every navigation tool ultrarunners could want. Like Gaia GPS, users can create their own routes by hand as well as upload GPX files. There are thousands of open-source Caltopo maps available. One downside, however, is that there is no search engine and specific trails can be time consuming to locate.
Users have the option of many overlays. These include Forest Service, slope angle shading, satellite and hybrids of these options and the elevation profile can easily be analyzed. Fire history and weather forecasting are available for users creating their own maps. Customizable markers can be plotted along a route to designate anything from water filtration stops to especially steep areas.
Caltopo’s elevation profile not only illustrates elevation changes, but also tree and land coverage as well. Runners can record a route in real time or check in occasionally using the ‘Marker at GPS’ feature. It’s also easy to download and print a PDF version of a Caltopo map ahead of time. Although that sounds archaic, printouts don’t run out of batteries.
Like Gaia GPS, Caltopo offers free and subscription versions. The latter allows users to download areas for offline use, a major advantage for runners venturing into the backcountry.
What are the downsides? Caltopo features a robust set of tools for route mapping but it is not the most user-friendly in the list. You’ll need to invest time up front to understand how to effectively utilize the product.
There is no shortage of apps designed to make all aspects of our lives easier. Similarly, outdoor apps appear, evolve, and fade away all the time. The list above is not comprehensive. We recommend having a core group of apps you use frequently and understand thoroughly. Then explore new apps to see if they have features that add value. Keep in mind that your needs may may evolve over time as your training and trail adventures change.
Also remember that apps should not take the place of basic map reading and orienteering skills. Be sure you know how to align your compass (digital and analog) with the map on your screen to ensure you’re traveling in the intended direction. Understanding how to integrate your app(s) of choice into your training can keep your trail adventures safe, exciting, and appropriately challenging.
By Darcie Murphy,
CTS Ultrarunning Senior Coach