Who would’ve thought that hiking and technology would have ever gone hand in hand? Our phones and smart devices can be a gratuitous distraction, but they can also serve a greater purpose when we’re roughing it in the wild. From navigation to stargazing to first aid, and everything in between, there are a plethora of hiking apps that can come in handy when we least expect it. And there are others that can help turn Mother Earth into a natural playground as well.
Technology at our fingertips can be a great asset, but it’s also easy to get bogged down by too many virtual tools when venturing out into the wilderness. Although there are some absolutely fantastic tools available, there’s a lot of junk as well, and some of that junk still costs you the same amount of money, or more, as the top-tier ones. To help you maximize your outdoor adventures, we’ve compiled a guide to the best and most handy hiking apps for you to use on your next excursion.
Some of the best adventures are right under our noses. AllTrails is a hiking app that helps you find trails in your area, wherever you may be, curated by experts and peer-reviewed by a large community of 35 million active users. Available on both Apple and Android devices, AllTrails truly caters to exploration with over 300,000 routes around the world, whether you’re hiking, biking, or running. You can also log your travels and share tips and routes with others. The Pro account allows you to view the maps offline as well for those areas with little-to-no cell service.
While other hiking apps focus on the trails themselves, Cairn also focuses on safety and security. Providing cellular service maps so you can find where to make a phone call in case of emergencies, this handy tool can also provide you with ETAs to your destinations and elevation info on thousands of trails across the globe. Likewise, you can receive trail alerts to let you know if any hazards lie ahead and can pick several contacts to send updated location and destination information to in the event that something goes awry.
Previously called Guthook Guides, FarOut is the best tool for thru-hiking and long-distance backpacking. From free all the way up to $80, the guides are each downloaded individually to use offline and come equipped with points of interest along the way, with plenty of details and photos for each one. Each guide also comes with information on towns you’ll come across along the way, as well as alternate routes and side trails. There are over 100 guides to choose from in the United States alone, with nearly 300 worldwide, each of them peer-reviewed by other users.
First Aid by American Red Cross
Don’t ever find yourself in the middle of nowhere without the proper information on how to treat the most unexpected injuries or illnesses, both big and small. For everything from broken bones to asthma attacks, the American Red Cross’ First Aid app offers step-by-step advice for many of the most common afflictions you can have, with illustrations and videos to help. Even if you’re not out on the trails, this free app for all smartphones is a good one to have handy just in case you need some quick tips. There are also quizzes you can take to keep yourself informed for when disaster strikes.
Sometimes organic discovery is fun, but also there’s a comfort in knowing that a route has been traveled before. Available on both Apple and Android operating systems, Gaia GPS is simply one of the best hiking resources out there. Similar to AllTrails, this app provides navigation through countless routes, available in either topo or satellite maps. You can also gather your speed profile and elevation data along the way, and find nearby campsites. There’s a premium version as well, which unlocks offline accessibility and adventure maps for biking, skiing, and even off-road driving.
Geocaching by Groundspeak
If you’re not familiar with geocaching, think of it as a global treasure hunt, or even a tangible version of Pokemon Go. Users from all over the world plant caches in containers such as film tubes or shoeboxes and then hide them in discreet locales. After the GPS pinpoint is logged online, the user uploads clues on where to find the cache. Whoever finds one can then add their own treasure to the container or swap it out with what’s inside. This can add an extra element to hiking and adventuring, and even encourage others to do so. Geocaching is literally as old as the public’s accessibility to GPS itself, and while there are several geocache apps out there, the eponymous one by Groundspeak is by far the most used with millions of caches hidden worldwide.
Maps 3D PRO
Sometimes it helps to visualize your route before you head out. An up-and-coming navigation app that adds a spin on the traditional format is Maps 3D PRO, which brings mountains and streams to life with three-dimensional versions of your surroundings as you embark on your adventure thanks to a combination of NASA scans, Open Street Map, and official USGS topo maps. Offline access ensures that you can still navigate even if you don’t have cell service, and your trip profile informs you of your elevation and pace. You can also log and share your past adventures with others.
The National Park Service App
If you’re not a fan of lugging books and brochures about Joshua Tree or the Great Smokies every time you pay a visit, then look no further than the National Park Service’s official app. Fairly new to the app world, this free comprehensive resource was built by employees of the parks themselves and offers fun facts and waypoints for every National Park in the United States with an easy-to-use interface to boot. Each guide can be downloaded ahead of time to use offline and the interactive maps let you explore the most remote routes along the way without having to stress about getting lost.
Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder
Don’t let the bare-bones display fool you, Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder is incredibly useful and user-friendly. A companion to the National Park Service app, this is a database of every state and federal park in America, as well as a guide to national forests, wildlife refuges, historic sites, and thousands of other recreation areas. Activities and waypoints are listed for each one, with a filter system so you can find what best suits your own interests. Whether you’re hiking or road tripping, Oh, Ranger! Is an amazing resource for discovering all our country has to offer.
While some hikers like to stick to forests and hillsides, others prefer more daunting destinations. Fortunately, PeakVisor can accommodate both, using AR technology to add an edge and end goal to your next adventure. Just point your camera at surrounding peaks, no matter the size, and the app tells you all about them, with facts and figures at hand. Adding complexity to your hike, you can also better visualize the route options available with PeakVisor’s 3D topo maps, which are also available offline. Import your own GPX files so you can take custom-made paths as well.
Seek by iNaturalist
The world around us is rife with beauty and wonder, largely in the form of the Earth’s natural flora and fauna. If you’ve ever been hiking on a trail and saw a flower or insect that you just had to know what it was, then you need to download Seek by iNaturalist immediately. You can point your camera at almost any living organism and the app will identify what it is and provide information for you to learn more. Unlike other resources like this, Seek is completely free! Users with kids will love the “badges” feature that earns you merits for finding different plants and animals and completing an array of challenges.
Star Walk 2
There are countless apps that specialize in spotting planets and stars overhead, but Star Walk 2 is among the best, and at a cheap price point as well. Catering to both astronomy experts and beginners eager to learn more, the app has an incredibly simple layout for users of all ages. It comes with a calendar of astronomical events for the year and even shows you the location of the International Space Station. But most importantly, you’re able to point the camera at the sky and identify different stars, planets, and constellations on your next overnight trip, with fun facts about the night sky and everything therein.
Navigational viewfinders definitely exist, but none of them are as light and convenient — and easy to update — as Theodolite. Named after the age-old instrument used by pioneers such as Lewis and Clark, Theodolite is much more modern, with high-tech AR tools that use your camera to give you a fully-informed overlay in real-time, equipped with a compass, coordinate and altitude info, and plenty of other features. However, this app isn’t for the faint of heart. Expert explorers will benefit the most from its triangulation calculator, optical rangefinder, and sniper-style stadiametric graphs. Unfortunately for Android users, Theodolite is only available for iOS.
The 9 Best GPS Hiking Watches
If you want some added tech on your wrist to enhance your outdoor experience, check out our guide to the best GPS hiking watches.