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I live in New York City, but as an avid rock climber and surfer, I've always felt pretty confident outdoors hiking to crags and searching for remote surf breaks. But as soon as I'm in the backcountry—the real backcountry, where there are no highly trafficked trails, just a vast amount of open land—I realize how much there is to learn. And for me, the biggest hurdle has always been directions. Living in a gridded city, I don't often need to practice wayfinding (unless I go to Queens, but then there's always Google Maps), and when I do get out in the wild I often find myself without any bearing. On a recent trip to Montana, however, I had a remedy for my orienteering anxiety in the onX Backcountry app.
The onX Backcountry app is easy to use, but it's also a powerful navigation tool. With a map-based interface, the app allows you to download topographical maps and precisely track routes. There's a 3D map feature—which was one of my favorites to use—that lets you plan out a route before even seeing it (check out a 3D visualization of our Montana route here). You can also leave a trail of "breadcrumbs" including picture markers (for someone like me that's key) to help you find your way back to camp or your car, and you can share trails with friends so they can follow your scrambles and bushwhacks themselves.
My Montana trip with onX started in Cooke City, a quirky town where the year-round population is 77 and fishing is the first language. There, I met our guide, Reed Youngbar of Beartooth Powder Guides, along with the rest of the group. From there, bear spray in hand, we made our way up to Woody Creek Cabin, roughly 2.5 miles from town.
We spent the first night hanging around the fire and swapping stories about how we all came to discover our love for the outdoors and for hiking. It was interesting to be in such a secluded place with people from so many walks of life—from an equestrian stunt double to a fisherman to NYC-based rock climbers—all of us equally stoked to be in the mountains instead of our normal places and routines.
The next day, before leaving the hut behind and heading into the Beartooth Mountains, we practiced using onX, exploring all of its features like tracking time and elevation, and sharing maps. Reed had hiked the day's route before and we all had the recording of the lollipop loop he made on the app to follow.
The hike we planned from Woody Creek to the nearby ridge was only five miles round trip but by the end of it if you had told me it was 12 I would have believed it. Had I spent more time looking at the 3D maps I might have been better prepared for what was to come: what started as a relatively relaxed ascent through rolling hills of brightly colored wildflowers and gentle streams through a forest turned into one of the hardest and most intense scrambles I've ever done. We ascended with the most delicate steps (and at times on all fours) on a mountain of scree until we finally got to solid rock and were able to breath a winded sigh of relief at 14,000 feet.
It took a few hours to navigate the treacherous summit ridge, and we all were thankful to put that part of the route behind us. Still, the reward was well worth the journey—it was surreal to look out over the sprawling hills and the sheer vastness of the Beartooth Mountains from the summit.
The view confirmed what onX Backcountry had already shown us during our planning session that morning: we were out here. Using onX, I could have planned this entire hike from my Brooklyn apartment before getting on the plane—it makes going out in the backcountry that much more accessible and a little less intimidating—but it didn't reveal so much that the experience of actually being there was watered down in any way.
Plus, planning and route finding is part of the fun of every adventure. The onX app lets you do that in an efficient and collaborative way, and I love that you can have a group of people all across the country collaborating and planning a route without being there. For someone like me who lives in a city but loves to be in wild places, the more planning I can do before leaving, the more time I can spend taking in the experience and disconnecting. Ironically, this app might be one of the best ways to do that.
After the scramble and the summit, we finished our hike with a splash in the river, and then a very tired crew returned to the cabin to cook and enjoy some celebratory beers in the last remaining hours of sunlight.