Hiking apps can be excellent resources for the trail. For example, did you know there are now apps that can teach you about plants, animals, and stars just by the snap of a picture? Or how about an app that automatically notifies your loved ones in case of an emergency? Yes, there really is an app for everything. But, do apps really belong in the backcountry? To take a deeper look, let’s talk about what hiking apps can do and dive into reviewing ten of the best ones on the market today.
The Gist: Trail maps, reviews and more for over 100,000 different hiking, running and biking trails so you can find and navigate new trails anywhere.
AllTrails is an app that gives a brief description of a hike and regularly updates with reviews, photos, and trail details by fellow hikers. It’s a great tool to use to discover new hikes, and you can search by location, skill level, distance, total elevation, etc. The free version of this app is best for less technical hikes, but if heading into the backcountry, a membership would be best. A membership tracks your GPS location and lets you download maps for offline use. Plans begin at $30/yr. or $60/3 yrs.
- Easy to use
- Regularly updated trail reports
- Excellent search capabilities
- Create your own routes and save them
- Sync with friends' accounts
- Pro version is pricey if not using it all the time
- Recent updates have reportedly caused slow load times, maps closing out unexpectedly, and the app freezing
The Gist: A popular offline GPS app for thru-hikers, Guthook Guides provides detailed navigation guides for specific long-trails all over the world.
The app was created by former PCT thru-hikers, while guidebook authors and trail organizations developed the Guides that are used on Guthook. The app has tons of GPS-enabled maps available for download to be used on/offline (given that you're downloading from an area with service). Each guide gives in-depth details about elevation points, upcoming waypoints, tent sites at camps, hostel reviews, privies and more. There are also various map settings to choose from including topo maps and satellite maps. Another cool feature is you can actively see where you’re at on a trail, so you can map out how far you are from something.
- Best navigation app for thruhikes
- Works offline
- Marks upcoming elevation climbs
- Build your own route feature
- Trail updates from fellow hikers postmarked with dates
- In-depth descriptions/comments of campsites, water sources, parking areas, post offices with pictures
- GPS enabled
- Search tool for nearby biking and hiking trails
- Must have reception to view different segments of a map
- App’s free but the maps cost around $4.99-9.99 per trail section
The Gist: A navigation-based app that offers a variety of mapping options.
The free version of the Gaia GPS app is straightforward and lets you discover trails, record routes, create waypoints and see your elevation and trip stats. You can also enable grid overlay options like distance, latitude/longitude, etc. A paid membership offers a TON more features. You unlock over 50 base maps including detailed routes like the AT and John Muir trail. You can also use the maps and GPS navigation while offline, see hunting overlays of public and private land and you can print maps for free.
- Records routes
- Route planning
- Customize the app to specific activities you do
- Records trip stats with minimal battery use
- Gives a fully detailed trip stats report
- Built-in compass
- Marked hunting zone and public land overlays
- Premium version needed to use maps offline
- Limited with a free membership, only have access to the default Topo map
- Yearly memberships range from $19.99-$39.99
The Gist: A safety hiking app where you can share plans with friends and family, find cell coverage and track personal stats.
Perfect for putting your loved one’s minds at ease, Cairn lets you share your route with a “safety circle” before you head out on the trail. Then, if you don’t return by the time you said you would, the app automatically sends notifications to your loved ones and gives your exact GPS location so they can find you. This works even if your phone turns off or gets broken. You can download and save up to 5 maps at a time and use them offline. The app also has a cool feature that charts out all the spots with cell service on a trail.
- Maps out cell reception areas
- Tracks your GPS coordinates
- Satellite or topographic maps
- Maps your progress to your contacts (however, the map only updates your location when you have cell service.)
- Lists ETA of hikes
- Driving directions available directly from the app
- Not free, however, there is a 30-day free trial
- Can record your trips, but it uses a lot of battery power
Map My Tracks
The Gist: A popular health, fitness, and navigational app, Map My Tracks records performance and syncs to an online community of over a million.
MapMyTracks is a fitness-inspired app that uses GPS tracking to record total distance, average pace, elevation gain, calories burned, heart rate, steps and more. It breaks down fitness details into easy-to-read reports that you can save or share with friends or the Map My Tracks community. Another cool feature is the app’s “Goals,” where you set a distance/activity goal and the app breaks down the total distance needed each month to reach that goal. You can also create a “favorites” list of hikes/loops for easy reference.
- Straightforward and easy to use
- Capable of syncing to MapMyTracks.com which has further details about your performance
- Sharing capabilities across all devices
- Challenges available within the app’s community
- Can “Pin” photos to your activities like a digital scrapbook
- Great fitness app, however, not to be used in place of a trail guide
Offline Survival Manual
The Gist: A fully accessible offline survival guide covering 29 different categories of wilderness survival tactics.
This app is a full in-depth manual that will teach you how to start a fire, build a shelter, tips, and tricks on getting food, packing survival kits and so much more. The app even has a psychology section that talks about strategies for managing stress, isolation, and fatigue. The guide is fully accessible to use offline, and it was developed to teach hikers of all skill levels useful survival skills in the wilderness.
- Lighter than a guidebook
- No sign-up required to use the app
- Variety of survival information
- Regularly updated
- Minimal battery use to read guide
- Ads occasionally pop up while using the app
- Not available on iOS
Available for Android.
Walk the Distance
The Gist: A step-counting app that automatically tracks your progress as if you were completing popular destinations.
Still in training mode for your upcoming thru-hike? Walk the Distance tracks your steps directly from the Health app in your phone and maps out how far you’d be on destinations like the AT, in a marathon, at a national park or walking across a major city. The app automatically saves your daily mileage in a “history” tab, and it keeps a running tally of miles walked since you first started using the app. To keep you walking-inspired, there’s also “checkpoints” that’ll notify you with fun facts when you reach a certain mileage count, and you can use the app with friends, getting notifications if they “pass” you or vice versa.
- Runs in your phone’s background
- Link with friends
- Pulls steps hourly with minimal battery usage
- Pictures and facts pop up at “checkpoints.”
- $.99/hike for destinations outside of their free options
- Best for step-tracking, doesn’t provide in-depth stats
- Not available on Android
Available for iOS.
Seek by iNaturalist
The Gist: An image-based recognition app that educates users about various plants and wildlife.
Wanting to know about a specific animal or plant you find on the trail? This app is your image-identifying answer. iNaturalist, which is the largest community for naturalists in the world, created Seek which analyzes pictures of plants and animals right from your phone and pulls info about that species. The app even uses GPS to map your location and narrow down its list of species specific to your area. The app will also tell you things like the species’ most popular season and where other users have spotted it.
- Straightforward and easy to use
- Free and no account required
- Upon opening the app, it pulls a list of common animals and plants in your area
- Earn badges as you spot plants and animals
- Great tool for learning
- The photos have to be very clear and detailed for the app to work
The Gist:Your guide to the sky, this app can identify planets, stars, constellations, satellites and other phenomena.
We love this app! If wanting to do some stargazing, Sky Guides augmented reality will give you the full experience and teach you a thing or two while it’s at it. The app fully functions offline and it can identify planets, stars, galaxies, constellations and more directly from your phone screen. You can select things in the sky to learn more about them, and you can even search for specific stars or planets. There’s also a cool calendar feature that highlights events like moon cycles or upcoming meteor showers, and another section where you can read news stories and latest findings from NASA.
- Works during daytime, cloudy days, and even indoors
- Built-in compass auto-adjusts to your location
- Easy to use
- Detailed graphics
- Notifications for astronomical events available
- One-time fee of $2.99
- Not available on Android
Available for iOS.
The Gist: A mountain identifying augmented reality app that can name over 650,000 peaks in the world.
This app can identify anything from rugged mountain peaks to small hills. It uses GPS technology for location purposes, and all you have to do is hold your phone up and you instantly have a 360-degree panoramic view with peak names right on your phone. You can click on the mountain peaks name to learn more info about it, and if you click the little bird in the corner you can virtually “fly” over to that mountaintop. You can also take landscape photos on your phone and overlay the image with the panoramic drawing provided by the app.
- Low power usage
- The app can virtually “teleport.”
- Works offline
- Daily updates on peaks directory
- Telescope button you can zoom with
- Virtually move up or down on the app to see behind mountain ranges
- Costs $4.99 to download
7 Reasons for Using Hiking Apps
1. Find new Trails. App’s like AllTrails or MapMyHike can pull a list of the top hikes in your area complete with reviews, difficulty levels, total mileage, recent trail updates, and photos. You can even set a specific criterion to narrow your search. For example, say you’re looking for a 6-mile, moderately difficult hike that takes you by a waterfall. Just set your location and enter your filters and Bada-boom! You’ve got a customized list at your service.
2. Plan a Hike. If you want to gauge how difficult a day hike or section of a trail will be, many apps tell you upcoming elevation gain, terrain type and more. Or say you’re wanting to see how many camping sites, water sources or post offices are in the next 100 miles? A hiking app can pinpoint all upcoming waypoints. Many with reviews and other insights from fellow hikers.
3. Navigate: Since cell reception can obviously be spotty in the backcountry, many hiking apps let you download and save trail guides or maps so their accessible offline. A lot of apps also come with built-in compasses and GPS navigation to find your exact location and coordinates. This can be especially helpful on trails that aren’t clearly marked, or if hiking a trail that temporarily adjoins with another.
4. Socialize: Competitor at heart or seeking hike-minded camaraderie? Many apps have “challenges” you can work towards to unlock prizes or games and competitions you can join in on to interact with fellow hikers from all over the world!
5. Learn about Animals, Plants, Stars: Curious about an animal you spotted out on the trail? Or how about if that bush you just touched is actually poison ivy? And what’s that mountain peak or star in the distance? Many hiking apps have photo recognition software where you can snap a photo and have detailed information on a species in seconds.
6. Track and Share Performance: Just like a running app, you can keep track of your personal stats for a hike. The stats will list details like pace, calories burned, total distance, elevation gain, etc., all provided to you in an easy-to-read, after hike trip report. From there, you can save your stats or share them with fellow users.
7. Stay Safe: Planning a multi-day solo hike? Using a survival app can be a good way to help give your family and friends some peace of mind. App’s like Cairn let you share your hiking route and then send notifications if you don’t check-in by a pre-designated time. There’re also apps available that act as survival manuals, loaded with tons of information about identifying animal tracks, poisonous plants and more.
Can I use Google maps for hiking?
Google Maps is great for guiding you to a trailhead or for use on a well-marked day hike. You can download maps to use them offline and there’s even a topographic option. But for a thru-hike or if venturing into an area without marked trails, you’d likely want more detailed information than what Google Maps can provide.
Will apps work without cell service?
That depends on the app. GPS tracking and trail maps can work offline for a number of apps, and with the rise of technology becoming more popular on the trail further features and improvements are likely to keep developing. However, with that being said, batteries die and phones take head-first dives into places they just shouldn’t go. So, it doesn’t hurt to always have a paper map and compass handy.