Home > Technology

iPhone for Any Adventure? iOS 18 to Support Off-Grid Texts, Boosts Maps for Outdoor Rec

Apple will offer a variety of updates this fall, including mapping and emergency messaging features that could help hikers and outdoor athletes.
apple update illustration(GearJunkie Illustration/Shutterstock)
Support us! GearJunkie may earn a small commission from affiliate links in this article. Learn More

Backcountry hikers in the 21st century have come to rely on modern technology to stay safe. Did a sudden storm or accident place you in a dangerous situation? Then, you use an inReach GPS device or SPOT Messenger to send an SOS and ensure that search-and-rescue can find you.

Did you just realize you are completely lost? Then, you pull up AllTrails or a similar app, determine your position relative to the trail, and find your way back using the detailed map.

But a forthcoming update from Apple could give hikers all that functionality directly from an iPhone.

When Apple’s iOS 18 release launches this fall, owners of an iPhone 14 or later will be able to send and receive texts and emojis over iMessage and SMS — even when cell service or Wi-Fi isn’t available. So whether you’re in trouble and need help — or simply telling Mom, “I’m okay!” — a lack of service is no longer a barrier.

Moreover, an update to Apple Maps will include some of the best features of AllTrails, but without paying the popular app’s $36 annual fee.

With one update, Apple may offer hikers a way to save hundreds of dollars — as long as they have a newer iPhone.

Emergency SOS via satellite
Since 2022, owners of newer model iPhones could send emergency SOS messages from the backcountry. Starting this fall, they can do it with texts as well; (images/Apple)

Texting Without Service

Apple’s update includes lots of features more significant to the general population than backcountry SOS calls. An introductory video leans heavily on the inclusion of Apple Intelligence, an AI tool for improving the user experience. (The ability to “make your own emoji” seems like the biggest selling point.)

By contrast, the features for outdoor recreation were “buried,” an Apple software manager told SF Gate. But they could still have a huge impact on the niche industry of backcountry GPS devices.

So far, Apple has not revealed if sending messages without cell service will come with a fee or other limitations. But the company hasn’t charged for emergency SOS messages sent by satellite, which debuted in 2022. That feature has already saved lives, like a stranded snowmobiler.

It’s an open question if Apple’s emergency messaging will work as effectively as products made for that specific purpose, such as Garmin inReach. But those devices cost hundreds of dollars to buy, along with a monthly subscription fee.

If Apple keeps out-of-service messaging free on newer iPhones, it could offer a tempting alternative for hikers looking for the cheapest option for getting help in an emergency.

iphone Apple Maps update
The new iOS update allows users to create their own maps and access downloadable trails in national parks; (images/Apple)

Follow the (Apple) Trail

Just 8 months ago, Apple named AllTrails its 2023 iPhone App of the Year. And in a few more months, Apple Maps will try to offer users many of the same features.

For starters, users can browse thousands of hikes in U.S. national parks and save them to use while offline. The app will filter hikes by length, elevation, and route type, just like AllTrails.

It’s also possible for users to create their own custom walking routes in “just a few taps,” according to an Apple news release. Apple Maps users can also download offline maps, which AllTrails only offers in its paid version.

“They can save their favorite national park hikes, custom walking routes, and places to an all-new Places Library, and add personal notes about them,” the release said.

From the info revealed so far, it appears the updated Maps app will show elevation gains and losses and hold a “library” of saved and downloaded hikes. At least for national parks coverage, the library feature alone will give Apple Maps an important advantage over AllTrails, which offers downloadable offline maps only in its paid version ($35.99 per year).

So how will Apple’s new features stand up against outdoor stalwarts like inReach and AllTrails? Only time (and gear testing) will tell.

While some Reddit users expressed skepticism that Apple could outdo specialized map apps like AllTrails or Gaia, others welcomed the idea of saving money.

“Might be saying goodbye to Gaia and Alltrails here soon w/ the new IOS update!” Reddit user MemeMasterJason wrote Monday. “Very happy tears if so. Gaia has mostly treated me well though, it’s the cost that gets me.”

GearJunkie contacted inReach and AllTrails for comment, but did not immediately hear back.

apple watch 9 hero

Apple Watch Series 9, Ultra 2, and iPhone 15: Everything to Know From Launch Day

Apple's sales have fallen for all three quarters this year. Now, the world's largest company will give customers a new reason to upgrade. Read more…

Subscribe Now

Get adventure news and gear reviews in your inbox!

Join Our GearJunkie Newsletter

Get adventure news and gear reviews in your inbox!