A major trend this year resulting from COVID-19 has been people taking up mountain biking. As more folks get out on the trails, many local trail clubs, municipalities, and parks have realized a need for adding more trails to accommodate more users. This boom in new trails being built means riders, both new and expert, will need to learn where trailheads are along with optimal routes. No one likes inadvertently riding trails against the flow, turning fun downhill sections into grueling climbs full of other riders blazing past you (with smiles on their faces).
Fortunately, there are a handful of apps available for the iPhone 12 that can help both novice and expert riders find their favorite new trails with less frustration. Let’s saddle-up and find which one is best for you!
Geared mostly toward tracking your ride than planning it in advance, Strava offers one of the simplest user interfaces with big, intuitive buttons. That said, if you want to plan a route in advance, the easiest way is with Strava’s web browser version – the iPhone app is mostly optimized for recording rides.
The route planning features on the native app are more geared toward planning road routes, despite offering the option to filter for dirt surfaces. It’s far more robust and user-friendly on the web version (on a computer) if you’re trying to create a mountain biking route.
On the web version of Strava, there's a simple point and click on the map interface to start building routes. Clicking anywhere on the map creates a waypoint, which can then be adjusted to fine-tune your route. You just keep adding waypoints until the route connects to itself, and then you get the estimated details for the route.
There’s also a search and add feature – look up addresses and landmarks and add them to your route. You can also fine-tune your routes to meet your needs – hilly or flat, paved or dirt, most popular or most direct. There’s also stats like distance and elevation, plus an estimated completion time based on your recent activity.
You can view what segments are nearby and add them to your route. Using the map layers feature, you can discover the most popular routes with the Global Heatmap. When you've created a route you like, you can save it to later pull up on the iPhone app to navigate from.
Most of the details found on Strava are for their segments, as opposed to individual trails. Segment and route details include:
- Distance - 1.12mi
- Avg Grade - -10.2%
- Lowest Elev - 2,832ft
- Highest Elev - 3,445ft
- Elev Difference - 613ft
- Number of Attempts By Number of People
- Elevation Gain - 571 ft
- Elevation Loss - 2,779 ft
- Moving Time - 26:59
- Surface Type (paved, dirt, or not specified)
- Elevation Profile - click and it reveals...hover to see details at any point of the route
Aside from pre-mapping your ride in advance, if you already know the general location of the trailhead, you can just open up the app when you arrive and it will pop up the segments in the area (as long as you have cell service, keep in mind).
The app is definitely oriented toward recording rides for competition among oneself, friends, and locals, rather than discovering the character details of trails like green/blue/black ratings or photos of prominent trail features. It’s a great app for tracking, but planning isn’t its strength.
Good for Riders Who:
- Care most about tracking their performance on rides and gauging their competitiveness against other riders (or themselves)
- Ride a lot in the same areas
- Enjoy trails oriented toward max performance rather than scenic views and easy terrain
Pricing: $59.99/year or $7.99/month – 30-day free trial with access to all features
If you’re looking for the best app to plan your ride down to the tiniest of details, you really can’t beat Trailforks. There is a treasure-trove of information about just about any trail you’d ever want to ride. Just check out this list of details you can find for planning your next mountain bike ride (or trip):
- Green, Blue, Black, Double Black ratings
- 5-star rider rating scale with the number of ratings
- Topographic layer
- Points of interest
- Trail popularity
- Trail conditions
- GPS tracking
- Strava Segment Leaderboard integration
- Ability to mark as Ridden, Check-In, and Save
While you can research all this information about any trail in the United States for free on the web browser version, the map area you get with the free version of the iPhone GPS app for mountain biking is only “city-sized.”
For example, if you’re riding around Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, you’ll be able to view the Pisgah Ranger District in Brevard, DuPont State Forest, Green River Game Lands, and Bent Creek Experimental Forest. However, you won’t be able to view any of the trails near the Old Fort section of Pisgah NF, such as Kitsuma, an iconic trail in the area that most riders would be bummed not to have included with DuPont, as they’re similarly approachable for newer riders. You also won’t be able to view the Grandfather District of Pisgah, which is far more dependent on maps for navigating.
The bottom line with the free version of the iPhone app is this – if you’re someone wanting to check out trail networks that are more than an hour apart, you’ll need the paid version to view them on your ride. That said, you CAN fire up the free web version in your phone’s mobile web browser to still view all the research information you could ever want about a trail network or figure out where you’re at while on-trail – you just won’t be able to record or track your ride. At only $36 a year, it’s a steal if you do much traveling to new areas for riding. The time you’ll save on discovery is well worth it.
Good for Riders Who:
- Want to find new trails and plan routes with the most detailed information available
- Find $36 per year a good value for expertly-curated intel on trails across the country, including:
- Overall stats - highest elevation, total number of trails, average trail rating, etc.
- Pinkbike articles
- Current trail warnings
- Recent trail reports
- Activity feed
- Recent comments
- Nearby areas (particularly helpful for mountain bike travel planning)
- Local weather forecast
- Upcoming local events
- Local mountain biking directory for tours and shops
- Local trail supporters
- Don’t care about recording their rides in the Trailforks app, as the recording feature is a little glitchy for some users (auto-pausing for no reason, cutting off huge portions of their ride). Strava integrates with Trailforks, so some folks might find pairing these apps useful – Trailforks for planning, Strava for recording.
If you’re a more experienced rider who likes checking out new trails in new areas but is less concerned about unexpected challenges or hiccups in your ride, MTB Project is a great alternative for folks who prefer a totally free app.
There’s not nearly the level of intel you’ll find on Trailforks, leaving more up to chance, but if you’re riding relatively well-traveled routes, there’s usually more than enough info to know what you’re getting into. What you mostly miss is links to articles, videos, and other social content that provides deeper insight into the nuances of the trails. That said, there’s still a very robust amount of trail network details for an app that’s free.
- Downloadable maps by state
- Guidance on what direction most riders take using arrows and green/red waypoints for start and finish
- Simple user interface toggle between Top Rides and Map View based on location
- Favorites tab for quick access to pre-favorited rides, making it easy to plan a mountain biking trip
- User ratings, current conditions, and check-ins
- Green, Blue, and Black diamond trail designations
- Easily viewable trail elevation profile with a GPS dot to designate where you’re at in relation (this HAS to be the last climb, right?)
- Trail overview with detailed information written by a local rider. These are usually very good and reliable, but every so often, they can be a little confusing.
- A big driving directions button for easy navigation to the start of the route trailhead
- Need to Know section with important considerations for riders, especially less experienced ones
- Trail description and highlights written by local riders
- Ride recorder - includes miles, speed, and elevation information, but no leaderboards or integrations with Strava.
Good for Riders Who:
- Want to plan mountain biking trips anywhere across the country (for free)
- Enjoy simple, intuitive user interfaces that make the essential actions obvious without confusing the experience with too many details in one view
- Just want a quick rundown of what the trail is like, rather than do deep-dive research into articles and reviews
- Don’t care about ranking on leaderboards or tracking ride stats over time
This app has very basic trail network information, missing many of the trails primarily used for mountain biking. For example, in the Pisgah Ranger District in Brevard, NC, neither Pilot Rock Trail nor Laurel Mountain Trail is shown on the map – two of the most quintessential Pisgah trails that make up one of the best routes in the area.
When the mountain biking filter is toggled on the map, the trails revealed are ones mostly used by hikers and simply allow bikes – they aren’t known in the area as the go-to trails for good riding. This is glaringly evident in the comments section, where most of the comments are in terms of hiking rather than mountain biking.
Also missing is any information regarding trail rating systems like green, blue, or black diamonds. There are virtually none of the references used in mountain biking to indicate what type of trail to expect.
That said, if, for some reason, your area has a broader base of AllTrails app users, there might be more widely available information for mountain biking. It’s probably not one to use for planning your next cross-country mountain biking road trip, though.
Paid “Pro” Features:
- Download maps to stay on track without service
- Never miss a turn with off-route notifications
- Keep friends and family informed with Lifeline
- Know what to expect with real-time map overlays
- 1% of every subscription goes back to the planet
Good for Riders Who:
- Primarily hike, as this app is more geared toward hiking trails than mountain biking
Pricing: Annual Plan - 20% Off - $2.00 /month - 1st year billed at $23.99
Three-Year Plan - Save 33% - $1.67 /month - billed once at $59.99