We are big proponents of disconnecting from technology and connecting with nature, but in our modern society it’s difficult to fully disconnect when we carry our smartphones everywhere we go.
When used correctly, smartphones can actually help us explore and connect with nature more deeply through the use of built in features like a camera, a compass, GPS, and apps that can assist with navigation, tracking, trip planning, reservations and bio-identification. These are all important tools for immersing ourselves in nature and becoming more aware of our surroundings.
Instead of leaving your phone at home, consider downloading some of these apps to enhance your next outdoor experience!
There are an endless number of apps out there that can help us accomplish a variety of things but it can be overwhelming picking apps you’ll actually use. The best apps are ones you’ll use frequently, make a task more efficient, solve a problem, motivate us, help us find balance and live a healthy lifestyle. The apps included in this list are ones we personally use and offer one if not all of these benefits:
Inspiration – An app is a great way to discover new trails, new campsites, and new points of interest in your region and across the world!
Navigation – An app with GPS can help you navigate to the trailhead and stay on course which is especially important if you’re in an area with limited cell service.
Bio-identification – A smartphone is a walking encyclopedia and virtual teacher. You can use apps to learn about plants, birds, wildlife, and constellations.
Motivation – You can use apps to track your activity performance and join challenges to stay motivated or share your activities with friends and family to motivate them through friendly competition.
1. All Trails
AllTrails is our go-to app for finding and planning new hikes. It’s one of the most well-known hiking apps on the market with over 25 million users and over 200,000 published trail guides worldwide on all 7 continents.
You can easily search hikes based on location, difficulty rating, distance, elevation gain, route type, and user rating. You can also search hikes based on tags, like trail running, biking, or dog-friendly.
Once you find a hike, you can view specific details, like distance and an elevation profile map along with links to find the trailhead, information on how long the hike should take, weather forecast, photos and reviews from users.
All Trails is also a GPS tracking app, allowing users to record their hikes, leave reviews, and post photos.
There is a fee and paid version of All Trails. The free version is enough for most day hikers. The Pro version is $29.99 per year and includes features such as 3D maps, downloading maps for offline use, and receiving notifications if you wander off-trail.
2. Gaia GPS
Gaia GPS is one of the most popular apps for backcountry navigation due to its incredible map details and GPS tracking. It can also help you discover new trails, record your route, and save your hike statistics. The app also has a built in weather forecast and can help you find camping near your hike!
There is a free and paid version of the Gaia GPS app. The free version is enough for most day hikers. In the free version, you can view both topographic and satellite maps and track your hike with cell service.
The paid version is best for backpackers or advanced hikers. For $39.99 per year, the paid version of Gaia GPS unlocks offline maps for backcountry route planning and tracking. The offline map feature is crucial for being able to navigate without wifi or cell service.
3. Hiking Project
Hiking Project is a crowd-sourced hiking app that has a lot of the same features and functionality as AllTrails. The difference is the Hiking Project provides points of interest (gems) and is limited to the US and Canada.
You can search for hikes by region, point of interest, or hike features and see stats by state, including trails ranked by popularity.
For a specific hike, you can view detailed descriptions, wildlife and plants in the area, reviews by users, and trail conditions. This app allows you to get a feel for the hike before you ever step foot on the trail.
Strava is a popular social network app that allows users to track their activities using GPS. The social sharing and clubs features help set this app apart from the others in this list. Users can connect with and follow friends, share photos, and join clubs or challenges. The app is compatible with several GPS devices, including: phones, watches, and heart rate monitors making it an easy choice for logging activities.
The free version is suitable for most users. The paid version is $7.99 a month or $59.99 annual fee. Paid features include real-time location sharing, route planning, goal setting, training logs, and a Heatmaps feature showing popular routes in your current location.
iNaturalist is one of the world’s most popular and we think the coolest nature app out there. It was developed by the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic to create a global biodiversity database.
If you’ve ever been curious about a plant, flower or animal you see on a hike, you can learn more about it by taking a photo and uploading it to the iNaturalist app. You’ll be connected with a community of over 400,000 scientists and naturalists who can help you identify your observations and learn more about nature!
By recording and sharing your observations, you’re helping create research quality data for scientists working to better understand and protect nature.
6. Merlin Bird ID
Merlin is a powerful example of using technology to enhance our outdoor experience and knowledge. Similar to the iNaturalist app’s ability to identify flora and fauna, Melin is specifically for bird identification both through sight and sound and it’s the best bird app out there. That’s right, you can use this free app to record the bird’s call and it will tell you what type of bird you’re hearing. Just like shazam!
Developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this app gives anyone the opportunity to be a birder.
TrailForks is a crowd-sourced trail database with over 350,000 cataloged trails. It’s a popular app for mountain bikers, but TrailForks is working to build up trail data for other activities like hiking, skiing, dirt biking, and more.
The free app allows you to search for nearby trails, read trail descriptions, look at photos, view trail reports, browse comments and download maps for offline use.
Trails are rated according to difficulty, so it’s easy to choose routes that are suited to your abilities. You can also find route suggestions on the best way to link up trails. One of the features that sets it apart from other apps is the ability to report trail issues like downed trees, sinkholes or other hazards.
8. National Park Service App
The National Park Service app is a must for national park lovers! This app contains information about all 423 national park units, including the 63 US national parks. You’ll find information on things to do, including best hikes, where to stay, tours, park amenities, and more.
You can explore all the national parks and create your own favorites, lists, and mark parks you’ve visited.
The app also provides details on each park’s most popular hikes, including distance and time to complete the hike. You’ll also find directions to trailheads and maps available offline for when you’re without cell service.
Recreation.gov is one of our go-to apps for reserving campsites and outdoor experiences on government managed lands in the US. Avid campers may be familiar with the app for booking campsites in National Parks and forests, but the platform can also be used to book tours, tickets, and permits at over 4,200 federally managed sites across the US.
Recreation.Gov is the official place to enter lotteries for permits to places like the synchronized fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains National park, get permits to wilderness areas, like Cherokee National Forest or buy tickets for ranger-led tours in many US National parks. You can also buy interagency passes, like the America the Beautiful National Park Pass, through the app.
Recreation.Gov makes the list because it is one of the best hiking apps for government lands. If you’re trying to book permits or campgrounds, most sites open up around 6 months in advance.
10. SkyView Lite
The SkyView Lite app is the only tool you need to identify planets, stars, and constellations in the night sky. The app uses the phone’s built-in compass to locate astronomical objects.
The app overlays graphics of night sky objects based on where you point your phone. Plus, you can read more about the object of interest, such as the International Space Station.
You can even set notifications for upcoming stargazing events, like meteor showers or planet sightings. I’ve found this app to be great for stargazing before sunrise hikes or after sunset hikes.
The free, “lite” version is great for most hikers, but the full, paid version of the app offers an apple watch app, a widget for your phone, and thousands of additional night sky objects.
The full Skyview app only costs $1.99 to purchase.
11. Google Maps
Google maps is a household name and you’re likely already using this app without being aware of all its features. Did you know you could download maps from this app for use offline? Since GPS continues to work without cell phone service, you can use Google Maps to navigate with your downloaded map.
Many popular trails in busy parks are also shown on Google Maps, which we’ve used a few times to navigate and stay on track on a new trail.
To download offline in Google Maps, go to the app, select Offline Maps from the menu, select a custom map to highlight the area, and then click download.
Have a favorite outdoor app that we missed? Tell us about it in the comments below.