Smartphones are an integral part of our everyday lives. An iPhone isn’t simply a phone. It’s an internet browser, calculator, compass, flashlight, camera, GPS… well, you get the point. Our smartphones wear a lot of hats, which is exactly why you should be using your smartphone for hiking. I know what you’re thinking: isn’t an article on best hiking apps contrary to hiking to escape technology?
Yes, but are you really going to leave your phone at home, blindly navigate to a trailhead, and hike. Probably not. So if you’re using your phone anyway, you might as well be equipped with the best hiking apps available.
Without further ado, here are the 7 best hiking apps on the market.
Your Guide to the Best Hiking Apps
So what can a hiking app do for you? Well it turns out quite a lot…
- Inspiration – An app is a great way to discover hikes in your area and across the globe! You can save hikes you’re interested in, avoiding the Saturday morning google search of “Best hikes in the Bay Area”.
- Navigation – An app can also help you find your trailhead and stay on course. This is particularly important if you’re going on a hike in an area with limited cell service.
- Learn – A smartphone is a walking encyclopedia, ready to educate you on just about anything (they don’t call it smart for nothing!). There are apps out there that can educate you on plants, wildlife, and constellations.
- Performance Tracking – Not only can you use an app to track a hike for later reference, but you can also share hike performance. I love a good competition, so tracking hikes with friends and family is great motivation.
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The most well-known of the best hiking apps, All Trails has over 20 million users and 100,000 trails worldwide. This is my go-to hike planning app. Hikes are searchable based on difficulty, length, elevation gain, route type, and user rating. You can also search hikes based on tags, like trail running, dog-friendly, or wildflowers.
Once you find a hike, you can view specific details, like distance and an elevation profile map. All Trails also provides tips and information on getting to the trailhead, facilities, and reviews from users. The reviews are a great way to get honest feedback and discover nearby spots you might have missed.
By far my favorite feature is the ability to record a hike. All Trails allows its users to record their hikes, tracking the route using GPS and time to complete. While most people use this to keep track of their personal hike records, I use recorded hikes differently.
Before I choose a hike, I view others’ hikes to determine how long it will take me to complete. This is particularly useful for hikes like The Highline Trail in Glacier National Park where you’re trying to arrange a ride at the end of a one-way hike.
While the base version of All Trails is free, they also offer a Pro version for $2.50 per month. AllTrails Pro allows you to download maps offline and sends you notifications if you stray off-trail.
2. Hiking Project
Brought to you by REI, this crowd-sourced hiking app is also great for inspiration. While a lot of the functionality is similar to AllTrails, Hiking Project’s provides points of interest (labeled as “Gems” in the app). You can search for hikes by region, by point of interest, or by hike features. With hikes mainly in the US and Canada, Hiking Project allows you to 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. Using Hiking Project, you can get a feel for the hike before you even step foot on the trail.
If you’re an avid camper, you’re probably already familiar with this app. But Recreation.Gov can be used for a lot more than booking campsites. This app is also a platform to book tours, tickets, and permits.
Many parks offer ticketed ranger-led tours, like Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park, bookable through the app. Permits to wilderness areas, like Mt. Whitney or the Lost Coast in California, are booked through this app too. Recreation.Gov is the official place to enter lotteries for permits to places like The Wave in Arizona or Half Dome in Yosemite.
You can also buy interagency passes, like the America the Beautiful National Park Pass, through the Recreation.Gov app.
The moral of the story is that Recreation.Gov 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.
4. Google Maps
There’s a very high likelihood you’re already using this app. But I’d be willing to bet you’re not using it to its full functionality. Google Maps‘ best feature for hikers is the ability to download maps offline.
Downloading maps ahead of time will ensure you’re able to navigate to the trailhead even if you lose service. Since GPS continues to work without cell phone service, you can use Google Maps to navigate with your downloaded map. Many popular trails are also shown on Google Maps, allowing you to track your progress on the trail and stay on track.
In the app, you can download a customized region. I recommend downloading the area from your home to your trailhead and the full trail area. To download in Google Maps, follow these instructions:
- Go to your Google Maps app and select Offline Maps from the menu.
- Select Custom map.
- Select the area you’d like to download offline and click Download.
5. Seek by iNaturalist
For years I would take pictures of plants on the trail and send them to my Mom asking, “do you know what kind of plant this is?”. And I’d think to myself, wow wouldn’t it be really cool if there was an app that could tell you these things. Well, it turns out there is!
I recently discovered the Seek by iNaturalist app. This item on the list of best hiking apps was developed by the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic. Seek uses your camera and GPS location to identify plants and animals you encounter on the trail.
To use, simply take a photo of your subject using the app. Seek uses your location to narrow down possible species and gives you more information about what you’ve found.
And because everything is more fun if it’s a game, you can earn badges and achievements based on the species you discover.
6. SkyView Lite
This completely free 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.
7. Fitness Tracker
Wearing a fitness tracker is an easy way to keep track of the distance you’ve covered on the trail. And it will let you know how many post-hike beers you’ve earned! While no fitness tracker is going to perfectly track distance, I’ve found both Fitbit and Apple Watch to be pretty accurate.
There are a plethora of options to track hikes. I prefer a standard fitness tracker like Fitbit or Apple Watch. If you use other Apple products, then I highly recommend investing in an Apple Watch. While Fitbit focuses more on steps, Apple Watch focuses on calorie burn, which is my preferred metric.
Gaia GPS is popular for longer, backcountry hikes. The free version has detailed topographical maps. A $20 per year membership gives you the ability to download those maps offline to take on your backcountry trip.
Final Thoughts on the Best Hiking Apps
I hope that by now I’ve convinced you that technology can actually enhance your hiking experience, not detract from it. But it never hurts to silence notifications to escape from the calls, texts, and emails for a little bit.
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