What every outdoor sports app gets wrong

People are rejuvenated by the outdoors, and they crave any chance to spend time there. So much so that aspiration is a big part of loving the outdoors. We think of ourselves as “outdoorsy people” because we want to spend more time doing the activities we love while exploring a world that fascinates us.

I don’t think outdoors-specific apps support aspiration well. Which is weird, because when you think about say, an REI store, it’s nothing but 100,000 square feet of possibilities. Everyone you pass by in an REI is thinking “things are going to be different when I get these new shorts and this perfect water bottle before my next hike.” REI is a store that caters well to aspiration, but outdoor apps rarely support it.  

The existing landscape for outdoor apps

I use several apps for all sorts of outdoor sports I’m into. I use Gaia GPS, On X, and Trails Offroad for locating trails to drive in my 4×4. I use Strava and Ride With GPS for discovery and social features to find new loops to ride and run around my community and also to look up places I’m traveling to that I don’t know very well. I’ve got Trailforks and All Trails for MTB and hikes. I’ve used kayaking apps, swimming apps, and running apps. I know there are even more apps dedicated to sharing hunting spots, stuff for surfers, and maps of the best fishing holes.

Most outdoor apps I’ve used are utilitarian and single-purpose, focused almost entirely on performance and real-time measurement. You use an app when you run. You use an app when you bike. You record a stand up paddle board session. Then you upload your results at the end. That’s 90% of what outdoors apps do.

But couldn’t they do more to foster future adventures? Instead they answer questions like “How far did you swim? How many miles have you run?”. Outdoor apps tend to also be single-user, or when they offer social features, they’re limited to sharing/bragging about your last effort and not much else.

Outdoor apps should be community powered

“User generated content” isn’t as popular of a buzzword these days but every outdoor sport is actually made up of a community of people who often want to meet others and share what they know and apps should support those kinds of connections. Let every outdoor enthusiast post about their favorite hikes, attach photos, and leave notes for others. Add an editorial staff layer to surface the best submissions, which can be featured or elevated so others can find new activities while the authoring users can be found by other users. 

Make outdoor apps so good people browse them indoors

Do you ever launch your Runkeeper app when you’re not about to go running? Or open Strava at 10pm when you’re at home? Probably not very often on both counts, right?

An app that supports the aspirational allure of the outdoors is one that gets used beyond measuring activities. Let me look up new canoe paddling areas for this upcoming weekend. Let me search for just trail runs (as opposed to runs on pavement) near me because I just bought my first pair of trail running shoes. Let me find other cyclists in my area and see the places they are riding to see if I can find better routes than the ones I currently use. Let me search for areas I’m planning to visit on vacation someday. Let me see every layer of things known about that area so I can work those activities into my vacation. Let me get directions to any point in an activity by offering a one-tap way to open Google/Apple Maps to figure out my navigation to the trailhead.

Many sports require planning and preparation, while others are spur of the moment, but there are certainly ratings, reviews, and reports that would give people incentives to use outdoor apps more often to plan their future adventures.

So how do we help people be more aspirational in outdoor apps?

Foster aspiration in lists

Current outdoor apps don’t usually have the ability to share more than a single item or one of your previous activities on the fly. You can share a run, or a ride, or a trail, but you can’t do much with it. A few apps let you mark a trail as one of your favorites. But they could offer so much more using simple features that have been around for decades.

A list sounds generic but they’re powerful and when you zoom out on things like Pinterest, it’s just lists upon lists of images.

Imagine an app that let you track and share:

  • Your favorite bike rides when you have less than 90min to exercise in your zip code
  • The top 5 off road trails you shouldn’t miss in Moab, UT
  • 3 fly fishing spots in Montana that were featured in A River Runs Through It
  • The best trail runs near you (that you might not have heard of)
  • The best places to kayak in the town you’ve traveling to soon

I’ve yet to see an outdoors app that lets you create infinite lists, whether they’re for private and personal use, like “3 runs I want to do once I get to Hawaii this Spring” or meant for public sharing, like “The best waterfall hikes in my county” to people near you.

Also, imagine the data every app maker would get overnight from people saving their favorite places and activities to lists. You could create a list of the top ten hikes in each US state. If you notice a user searching a vacation destination you could show them the top three rides by popularity near where they are searching, etc.

There have been whole startups centered around letting people make lists, but why hasn’t any outdoor app built this kind of functionality before?

Social isn’t just about other apps

I’ve been in running clubs and riding groups and the real in-person social pressure you get in group activities is one hell of a motivator that makes me run or ride when the skies are dark and/or rainy, because I know my mates will show up at 7am freezing and wet and wonder why the hell I decided to ditch them and sleep in.

Social can be huge for an outdoor app and Strava is just about the only one I’ve seen that highlights positive social aspects, like telling you when a friend has run for the first time in two years, along with all the standard auto-posting to social features.

Add a native social network to outdoor apps, then add features that capitalize on the kind of social cohesion you might get from in-person friends in a group. Features like notifications when anyone in your group has completed a run, letting people post future dates/times for events and weekly group rides so they can meet up and exercise together, and giving out trophies to leaders each week with the most miles or hours of activity that will make them all compete with each another. 

Someone please build this

I want to see apps like this in the world because I want to use them. I want to plan tons of future rides and runs and trail drives. I want to plan out an elaborate vacation all around one of my sports a year in advance of when I can go there. I want to find upcoming local charity runs and group rides and bike races and off road festivals coming to my area of the country. I wish every outdoors app supported features like I describe here.

Finally, while I’ve got you here—I’m currently between gigs and would drop everything to work on a product I’ve always wanted to see in the world. If you’re a company that makes outdoors apps and need product planning and help to execute any of these ideas in your app, feel free to get in touch, my DMs are open.

2 responses to “What every outdoor sports app gets wrong

  1. Have you seen Natural Atlas (https://naturalatlas.com)? They have gorgeous maps and have added features like plant, wildlife, and geology tracking. I find that it’s the one resource where I could spend hours just looking through the maps.

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  2. Have you seen Komoot and GoJauntly? Those both have some of the features you’re looking for, which I hope you’re happy to find!

    I agree on the social aspect though, it would be good for apps to cater more to interpersonal communication and discussion.

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