Not long ago, my girlfriend and I set out for a 20-mile mountain bike ride in the Gila National Forest, in southern New Mexico. We had plenty of food and water, but we were armed with only vague directions and a mimeographed trail map from a local bike shop. The ride is remote but straightforward—just follow the dirt track—until the end, where a sharp left turn onto a connecting trail would return us to our starting point. “Can’t miss it!” the shop employee told us cheerily. “The turn is totally obvious!”
We missed it. Soon we were schlepping our bikes along a steep, unrideable goat path while a violent thunderstorm unleashed hell from above. A couple soggy, sketchy hours later, we found our way back to the car, but not before my companion directed some strong language at my poor navigation skills.
There might be something poetic about getting lost in the outdoors in this age of unrelenting connectivity, but only if you intend to, which we, for the record, did not. Enter Fatmap, a new mobile app that may be the most ambitious adventure tech to hit the market since sat phones.
Dozens of apps provide mapping, GPS navigation, topographic data, and other tools to find your way around the outdoors—AllTrails, Ramblr, Strava, TrailForks, and MTB Project, among others—but none offer the kind of three-dimensional depth and detail of Fatmap. Think Google Earth, but with five times the resolution, offline functionality, and detailed route info for skiing, biking, and hiking, even in the most remote corners of the backcountry.
A regional version of Fatmap has been around since 2015, but in May 2018, the London-based company released its global map, along with a strong initiative to get users onboard. The more users, the more shared route info.
Created initially to serve ski mountaineers in the Alps, the detailed big-mountain imagery caught on quickly with high-profile players like extreme snowboarder Xavier de le Rue and British mountaineer Kenton Cool, both of whom are now ambassadors for the company. The new Fatmap extends to every continent and includes a number of routes for hiking and mountain biking. North American content is currently limited but growing quickly. The ultimate aim is to create a worldwide database of routes that any user can access at any time. You can use the app for free, but offline access requires a $7.99 monthly subscription or a yearly discounted option for $40.
The app works by uploading a given route to your mobile device before you set out on your adventure, although the map imagery is so detailed that you can conduct thorough reconnaissance from your laptop before you leave home: Zoom in, zoom out, spin, tilt, fly over, etc. For example, I once skied the Mabreés Couloir, a 7,000-vertical-foot line on the Italian side of Mount Blanc, near Courmayeur. The terrain is massive, confusing, and intimidating, and almost everyone skis it with a local guide. But when I looked up the route on Fatmap, the line was easy to see. Provided your skills and fitness are up to snuff, the app provides all the navigation info you need.
Of course, as anyone who spends time outside, particularly in big mountains, will tell you, it’s one thing to read a map—digital or otherwise—at home, and quite another to read one in the field while moving from point A to point B. I wanted to try Fatmap in action, so I reached out to Greg Heil (no relation), chief editor of mountain biking for Fatmap.
Heil is based in Salida, Colorado, and suggested we check out the nearby Monarch Crest Trail, a 32-mile scenic high-country ride that tops out above 12,000 feet. It’s a popular route but is crisscrossed with jeep roads and hiking trails, including the Continental Divide and Colorado trails, and requires savvy navigation in spots. Before we embarked, Heil showed me a few other cool Fatmap features. You can draw your own map using a plotting tool, dubbed “Create Your Adventure,” and add photos, written descriptions, and geotagged highlights. Or you can upload GPX files and plot your line that way. Routes can be shared with others on the platform. Eventually you’ll be able to record a ride, ski tour, hike, or do some other outing and upload directly to Fatmap, but that’s still a version or two away.
“We’re trying to create an entire adventure platform,” Heil says. “If I’m going somewhere and I want to discover a new ride, this is where I’d go to find the info.”
On the morning of our ride, we caught a shuttle to the trailhead and rolled out, climbing above treeline with expansive views across the Presidential Range and into the Arkansa River Valley. Heil let me lead, even though I’d never been on the trail before, encouraging me to use the app for help. The trail was obvious early on, but sure enough, we soon ran into a three-way intersection with no clear option. I pulled out my phone and zoomed in to the red dot showing our location. The intersection where we were paused was easy to see, as was the white line indicating the correct path along the far-right fork. It was as simple and intuitive as navigating city streets on Google Maps.
A couple hours into the ride, I started suffering from the altitude—headache, nausea, dizziness, all the classic signs. I felt bad enough that we decided to shorten the ride and take an alternative route, rather than the longer classic ride, back to our cars. Here again was another great aspect of the app: safety. Our alternative route eliminated a stout final climb that surely would have left me in bad shape; Heil was able to show me exactly how big the ascent was (several hundred vertical feet) on Fatmap’s 3D elevation layer, which convinced me to swallow my pride and take the conservative exit. By that afternoon, relaxing at a pizza place in Salida, I was feeling better and grateful for the shortened outing.
There’s a certain charm to rugged, old-school self-reliance, to paper maps and chatting up locals for inside info—even, at times, to getting into a little trouble. But I’ll still take a detailed digital map, reliable route info, and an added margin of comfort and safety every time. Still want to go old school? You can always keep your phone in your pocket.