This morning I pulled out a dirty, crumpled, torn, highlighted, and dog-bitten 2010 edition of Latitude 40’s Boulder County Trails map. I have an emotional connection to this map not dissimilar to my emotional connection with every blownout pair of Motodivas I’ve sent to the Shady Acres Gear Retirement Center – aka our garage: these are the tools that carried me on countless backyard adventures. This map has taken more of a supporting role the past few seasons as I’ve largely relied on map apps – namely REI’s MTBProject and Pinkbike’s Trailforks – to navigate trails.
Which map app and why? As a case study, I did a side-by-side comparison on a recent mountain bike trip to the Phoenix area.
MTBProject is a part of Adventure Projects, including MountainProject, HikerProject, TrainRunProject, and PowderProject. According to the site’s FAQ, MTB was started in 2013. MTBProject has a long-standing partnership with IMBA, with whom they share all of their user-created content. REI acquired MTBProject when they made a significant investment in Adventure Projects in 2015. A new release of the app in 2016 made it possible to record GPS data directly in the app, as well as download GPX tracks directly from the website. The investing power of REI makes for a bright horizon at MTBP.
After downloading Arizona trails, I went in search of Estrella Mountain Regional Park. The following series of screens led me to the trail system, where I specifically wanted to ride Toothaker, among others. (There is a separate technical “race loop” that is worth riding if you happen to be in the neighborhood for spring training baseball). This is how the interface with MTBProject flowed…
Additional features that I looked for included elevation profile and directions to the trailhead. I think the most significant detail in this series of screenshots are the directional arrows that appear when I select the trail. If enough photos have been contributed, thumbnail images corresponding to waypoints along the trail appear as well.
Then I put the use experience side-by-side with Trailforks:
Pinkbike’s Trailforks site launched publicly in 2014, with the first release of the mobile app in September of the following year. Trailforks is mountain bike specific and is backed by the Pinkbike database, a trusted name in the mountain bike community. As of March 9, the app has grown to include 111,105 miles of trail, 45% of which is marked as Blue or intermediate terrain. According to TF’s FAQ’s, users are an integral part of creating the database, and “help moderate the site by voting to approve or deny new trails and report bad data.”
As with MTBProject, I also used the elevation profile and directions to find the trailhead. Something I noticed right away was that MTBP users rated Toothaker with 4/5 stars while TF users gave the same trail only 3 stars. This brings up a very important issue related to any crowd-sourced trail database: they are the collective subjective opinion of thousands of individual riders. A local AZ rider might be stoked on the sharp, chundry, rock-picking at Toothaker, while a visitor from Oregon might be disappointed by the relative lack of flow. There is no scientific standard for rating mountain bike trails against with either MTBP or TF can be measured.
TF– I prefer the map overview screen on Trailforks because the trail names are displayed. I’ve usually talked to someone local and referrals most commonly come in the form of trail names, like “you have to ride Toothaker”. It’s easier to place trails in context on Trailforks.
TF– Since both apps work without cell service (if you have downloaded the map content in the app), I have not found a need to download GPX tracks, and I tend to use these apps for way-finding while in the middle of a ride. Again, Trailforks’ trail name display wins my favor here.
MTBP– I really like that MTBProject’s 2016 release introduced directional arrows. A great trail can be ruined by either gaining or losing altitude in the wrong direction. Can I get an “Amen”?
MTBP– In our backyard, MTBProject has more current trail conditions. A strong local on-the-ground partnership with IMBA gives the advantage. Today I checked the trail conditions feature on both apps for the Nelson Loop at Hall Ranch. MTBProject had been updated 12 hours ago, and Trailforks had been updated 9 months ago.
TF– Traveling in Wyoming, Idaho, and PNW? Trailforks has more trail data. With a strong brand ID in these areas, Pinkbike is pulling more user-sourced info. This is not the case in the Midwest. Colorado seems to be a draw.
TF– Trailforks tells you who built and is maintaining the trail. Using the example of my ride at Estrella Mountain Regional Park, I learned through the app that a West Valley trail association built the trail, and they are looking for someone to adopt Toothaker. You can also make donations to local trail organizations directly through the app’s Trail Karma program. This kind of advocacy is the backbone of trail access, and certainly reflects the spirit of crowd-sourced trail data.
MTBP– MTBProject has a more thorough bank of photos. While I tend to be fairly literal and like to navigate with a map, I can certainly appreciate that photos are invaluable route-finding tools and help establish a more clear picture of the terrain. In the case of Toothaker, MTBProject had a beautiful shot of the dangerous, sun-scorched shards of limestone and angry cacti along the trail. So I added an extra 2 oz. of Stan’s to my tires, which I might not have done with out the picture. Insanely useful.
As a group, the SG crew cast a vote for Trailforks. We like the widget plug-in that offers a Boulder map overview on our website, the easy Strava link-up, and the emotional feel-good factor of an app that still leans “local”. Disclaimer: I always open MTBProject for those damn directional arrows. – ES