When planning a trip that involves off-road travel—whether to camp, hike, or just see nature—you likely scour the internet for available information, ask friends for suggestions, and lean heavily on your own previous experience. That process will undoubtedly get you somewhere, though it’s also limiting and time-consuming. But what if a simple smartphone app could enable you to navigate virtually every off-road trail on the continent?
That’s the mission of OnX Offroad. I just spent the day exploring trails near my home in southwest Montana with the app’s developer, Rory Edwards, and the manager of its new Trail Guide program, Chris Cordes.
I first discovered OnX Offroad a year ago, when the app was still in beta release form. (It’s now priced at $30 a year and available for iOS and Android users.) Even then it was enormously empowering. By adding data points, like opening dates and trail widths, to a comprehensive map of the dirt roads and vehicle trails that exist across public lands, the app better enabled me, an experienced off-road traveler, to find new places to visit.
OnX’s goal is to add first-person guidance to as many miles of those trails as possible, letting users access not just navigation data but up-to-date conditions and difficulty ratings, along with photos that accurately represent both of those challenges, as well as any notable scenic views or other attractions the trails might offer. Combined with the locations of campgrounds and cabins (clicking those icons takes you to the relevant reservation services) and local weather forecasts, you’ll have everything you need to plan your next adventure.
And that brings us to a problem. By making off-road travel through national forests, BLM land, and other types of public land more accessible, OnX Offroad will be drawing more people to visit these areas, which risks turning spaces that may once have been little known to only locals or experienced travelers into ones that may draw large crowds.
Cordes and I chatted about that as I helped him record information on the trails we were driving. He suggested that, rather than amplify usage on a limited number of well-known trails, the potential the app holds is to spread usage across more miles of more trails. Not only would this reduce the impact of new travelers on a specific area, but it could also help relieve pressure on already overcrowded trails by guiding users to easily find lesser-known spots in the same areas. The app currently provides over 410,000 miles of accessible trails.
He points to the Mojave Road, which crosses the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California, as an example. A couple of decades ago, a historian pioneered an off-road route across the preserve, retracing an ancient Native American trade route, and published a book that offered the public enough direction to find it and drive it themselves. Given the area’s proximity to Los Angeles, San Diego, and Las Vegas, as well as information sharing on the internet in recent years, the route has become crowded. The desert it traverses is fragile, and there are very few spots appropriate for camping along it, both of which are problems. But OnX might have a solution to the traffic.
Before the app, travelers armed with that original guidebook were confined to a single route through the preserve. Exploring side trails and alternative routes was challenging, given the remote nature of the area and the limited amount of fuel most vehicles are able to carry. There was no way for drivers to know if one of those alternative trails might simply peter out into empty desert, forcing them to turn around, or if obstacles along one of those other routes might leave their vehicle stranded in the middle of nowhere. This app now includes dozens of trail options in the area. Users who encounter traffic along the route, or those who simply want to plan an adventure more off the beaten path, can use the app to navigate them. Cordes says that should help relieve pressure on the Mojave Road itself.
What Cordes, Edwards, and I were doing back in Montana was creating guidance for two new routes. The task involved recording our path in the app and taking pictures of the entrance and exit points, along with any scenic features or significant obstacles along the way. Once he got home, Cordes added all the information, as well as a description and difficulty ratings, to the app’s database.
OnX visually displays trails in red (closed), green (open), and now blue, which represents guided routes. To test the availability of those blue trails, the company just launched a Trail Guide program and is soliciting the participation of experienced off-road enthusiasts to help add more trails to the app. Those trail guides will need to demonstrate a history of responsible off-road driving via their social-media accounts and complete a course in responsible off-road recreation through Tread Lightly. Guides who upload at least three new routes a year will be rewarded with industry discounts for off-roading gear and other perks.
To maintain the quality of its guidance, OnX does not plan to allow general users to add their own routes, photos, or information to its database. Click on a blue route in the app, and you can be sure that everything connected to it is reliable. Users can turn to the app to easily share routes, waypoints, and their location.
Cordes also emphasized that while OnX is ranking trails by difficulty levels and describing the obstacles on them, the app does not recommend what equipment is required to successfully travel them. Trails are listed as available to general vehicle categories—dirt bikes, ATVs, high-clearance 4x4s, and normal road vehicles—their difficulty is rated from one (easiest) to ten (most difficult), and a basic description of obstacles (water crossing, ledges, side slopes, etc.) is provided. But what you need to traverse such obstacles remains a function of your own experience.
Will all this fundamentally alter the way in which people access the outdoors through the system of dirt roads and trails that crisscross public land? Undoubtedly. But my experience with OnX’s other app suggests that it will change it for the better. In 2013, the company compiled information on land-ownership boundaries and hunting districts into a simple navigation app for hunters—OnX Hunt, which has since transformed the sport, informing users of available areas or access corridors that were previously totally unknown, while helping them navigate the often labyrinthine regulations that govern hunting in this country. By allowing hunters like me to find new areas, the app also helps us spread out across public lands, relieving pressure on popular places and amplifying the quality of our experience. OnX Offroad promises do the same for general outdoor enthusiasts.
The app has already helped me share my passion for wildlife with a friend. Cordes just relocated to Montana permanently, after spending a few years enjoying #vanlife across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. While chatting during our off-road trip, he mentioned that one thing he was really hoping to see here was a real live moose. His girlfriend is fascinated by them and has yet to see one in the wild. A few nights later, I was out hunting and stumbled across a mountain lake full of them. I pulled up the app, marked the lake on the map, and, once I was back in range of cell-phone service, sent that point to Cordes. The lake itself is a five-mile hike past a trailhead that’s 12 miles down a maze of Forest Service roads. But with OnX Offroad, he only has to click on the waypoint I sent him, and he’ll find all the information he needs to successfully visit it on his first try.