Climbing Logic: Useful Backcountry iPhone Apps

As a climber and mountain guide, I have boxes of electronics for my adventures: altimeters, GPS’s, avalanche beacons, cameras, solar chargers, radios…the list goes on and on. But of all these backcountry gadgets, one has recently become my “go to” device virtually every day I’m outside – the iPhone.

After resisting smartphones for years, I finally threw down for the iPhone this past December. Since buying it, I haven’t looked back. It continually impresses me with it’s sophistication and ease of use. While it hasn’t allowed me to throw away all of my other electronics it is an amazingly versatile tool that lets me carry less many days in the mountains.

Here are some tips to help you make the most of your iPhone on your next day out.


1) Topo Maps – $7.99
This app is amazing. Topo Maps allows you to download every USGS 1:24k map in the US (1:63,600 in AK as well as Canada’s 1:50k) and navigate using your phone’s GPS. Even without cell service. Drop pins, show distances and bearings to destinations, UTM’s and Lat/Long compatible. This app does more and is easier to use than many mapping software programs available for computers. You won’t be disappointed. More Info

2) Unisys – Free
My life revolves around knowing what’s going on with the weather. Unisys puts powerful forecasting tools at your fingertips. Whether you are a climber, skier, or an armchair meteorologist, Unisys will serve you well. Customizable screens with satellite and radar imagery, surface and upper air data, and forecasting models are all at your fingertips. More Info

3) Mountain Project – Free
The Mountain Project website and app is probably nothing new for many climbers, but is certainly worth mentioning. Up-to-date info with descriptions, photos, and maps to climbing areas around the world. The level of detail and comprehensiveness will vary depending on the climbing area – some are minimal while others are extensive. Depending on where you are going and what you plan to climb, this app could be an alternative to buying a guidebook. At the very least, it is a fantastic supplement to have on hand. More Info

4) Avalanche (ULLR labs) – $11.99
This is a great tool for anyone skiing and climbing in areas with avalanche concerns. This app has 4 basic functions: 1-Pull up the local avalanche forecast-no matter where you are in the world. 2-Record field data with ease. 3-Upload field data to local avalanche forecast centers. 4-Educational tools that are available at all times. One of the coolest features is using the “photo” function in snowpack or avalanche observations. Point the camera down the fall line and the screen will show slope angle, aspect, Lat/Long, elevation, and time and date. Pretty cool. More Info


If you are actually relying on your smartphone to get home safely and on time, consider some form of recharging unit. I use the Power Monkey Solar Charger. There are two parts of this system – the battery pack and a small 3’‘ x 7’’ crystalline solar panel. On 1-3 day trips I charge the battery pack with the AC wall adapter and bring only the battery pack. For trips of greater length, I bring the solar panel and the battery for endless recharging of my phone and other small electronics.

The greatest apps won’t do you any good if your phone gets damaged. To stand up to the rigors of outdoor use, I use a Lifeproof case for my iPhone. The case is waterproof (yes, waterproof) and literally allows you to shoot video underwater. The Lifeproof case is also shockproof (although I haven’t dared to drop it from the top of a cliff yet) and very low profile. Consider it an $80 insurance plan.

While I still carry paper maps and my waterproof notebook, I find myself leaving my camera, GPS, and guidebooks at home for many of my days in the mountains. Today’s smartphones are approaching the “one stop shopping” that I dreamed of only a decade ago. I do have reservations about relying on the iPhone for several functions – are all my eggs in one fragile basket? It is, however, comforting to know that if I am benighted at least I can watch Downton Abbey until help arrives.

Silas Rossi is a climber and IFMGA mountain guide based in New Paltz, NY. You can contact him at or by going to


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