The Best Navigation Apps for Nomadic Life

Navigation
Andy Cochrane

We left the city after work ended on Friday afternoon, windows down and tunes blaring, heading south for the desert – Hip hop and far off horizons are a healthy cocktail for the soul, especially paired with hiking slot canyons.

I picked up my friend at her Salt Lake City office with our gear already packed and loaded. We had 60 hours of freedom and there was no reason to waste any of it.

The speed limit on I-15 is 80 mph, which is about as fast as the truck likes to go anyway. After a quick grocery stop to fill our cooler with veggies, hummus, and taco fixings, the next logical question arose: where were we going to stay for the night? I’m not a big fan of organized campsites and I like splurging on hotel rooms even less. The former feels sterile and the latter goes against my dirtbag ethos.

Plus, the desert in southern Utah is vast. It includes a handful of widely-recognized national parksZion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands – equally stunning but less-visited Grand Staircase Escalante, and nearly endless public lands owned by the Forest Service and BLM. It’s a true paradise if you’re looking for solitude, and if you bring enough water.

Over the weekend we aimed to tackle a couple major slot canyons, creating a big loop back to Salt Lake. Beyond those two set points, very little was planned. Finding a campsite for the night may feel like a burden to some, but to me it’s an opportunity.

After years living out of the back of my pickup and sleeping in new places, I find a lot of joy in the randomness of it all. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes a ranger wakes you up at 2 a.m. and asks you to move.

Becoming comfortable with this much ambiguity takes time – and the right resources. I rely on a handful of iPhone apps to make my life easier, safer, and more fun.

These tools help me find campsites, trails to run, places to eat, and Wi-Fi to read emails, among other things. Combined, they save me a considerable amount of time and stress. Here’s the short list of my recommendations.

iOverlander is a crowdsourced, nonprofit project that provides details on campsites, water refills, and other necessary stops for car travel. Its original intent was to serve the overlanding community, but I’d recommend it to just about anyone who’s camping out of a car, no matter how rugged of an adventure you’re hoping for.

It’s simple, easy to use, and often my primary resource for finding a place to crash for the night. For those with larger rigs I would recommend RVParky, which does essentially the same thing for big trailers.

Trail Forks is a crowdsourced database of trails originally intended for mountain bikers, but I use it for trail running.

It gives you info on trail quality, length, elevation, and sensitive places to be aware of. It offers some of the most thorough and expansive list of trails that I’ve found. If you’re a running junkie like me, it’s certainly worth checking out. For a running-specific database, take a look at Mountain Hub or Trail Run Project, both of which offer a long list of trails near you.

Google Maps is – as far as I’m concerned – the best navigation tool out there. I use it daily to find gas and coffee, and often switch to the satellite view to scout potential camping, running, and hiking locations.

The quality and speed at which the app toggles between map overlays is unparalleled, and the expansive amount of data that Google has feels nearly exhaustive. Often I catch myself thinking that if it’s not on Google Maps, it’s not real. That said, if you want to stick it to the man and avoid using products from the software giant, the best alternative I’ve found is Waze, which works with crowdsourced data.

Yelp is my go-to for comparing coffee shops, among other important things. The volume of reviews on Yelp is superior to other platforms, giving me more user information about places – and thus helping me find the best places to work, easily. If you want to avoid downloading a new app, try using the reviews posted on Google. I’ve found them to be fairly thorough, as well.

Maps.me is my offline alternative to Google. The platform is lightweight and fast, making it great for places with little to no service. Simply download locations while in service and navigate easily when you head farther out. Similar solutions to this problem can be solved with Hema Explorer or Topo Maps+.

All Photos By Andy Cochrane.

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