Updated: Mar 13
When I first started hiking few years back, I was new in the US and knew literally nothing about hiking, where to buy gear or what to pay attention. Having no friends to ask, doing my own research and trial error, I've learned quite a few things along the way. I'm happy share with you everything I know and be that friend who's gonna get you started on your hiking journey this year.
These days our phones are way more than just a phone. We carry them everywhere, even on the trail. So in order to make the most of your hiking experience, I recommend looking into these hiking apps.
AllTrails is at the top of my list because it is the app that I use most frequently. I appreciate how it is integrated with Google Maps or Apple Maps so you can send coordinates to the trailhead directly to your preferred navigation app. As with all the rest of the apps on the list, All Trails is available for both iOS and Android. AllTrails offers both a free and paid version...I use the free version and it works perfectly fine for me, although it is only fully functional with a cellular signal. A trick I found is that if you open the app to your hike while you still have phone service, it will continue to work after losing service, as long as you don’t close the app or try to look at a different trail. Now if you decide to pay for the premium version, the app allows you to download maps to use offline so you can access all of the features with or without cellphone service. As of January 2023, All Trails costs about $3 every month or $36 for the year.
Other features of the app include the ability to search trails by geographic area and to filter the results by length, difficulty and popularity. Also, AllTrails provides details of the trails, such as length, elevation gain/loss, estimated time to complete the hike, and the ability to record your hike.
2. Gaia GPS
I’ve not used Gaia GPS myself, but it is on my list because it is highly recommended as a great navigational option for overnight and multi-day backpacking trips that benefit from more detailed maps then those offered by AllTrails. Gaia GPS really stands out from the other apps because of its wide variety of topographic map options based on different activities or interests.
For example the app has a topographic map specifically for activities such as snowshoeing and skiing as well as informational maps in case you were curious about the any abandoned homesteads or ghost towns while out exploring the backcountry.
The app also has integrated weather information, including smoke forecasting, which unfortunately is becoming more important for adventurers in the western United States. The Public Tracks topographic map is another cool option, as you can view routes created by other users, including data about who created it and when it was created.
As with AllTrails, Gaia GPS comes in both a free and paid version with the paid version having all of the features and the ability to use its functionality offline as long as you have downloaded the correct maps. The paid version, called Gaia GPS Premium is slightly more expensive than AllTrails at $3.33 per month and they offer a second paid plan at $3.73, which includes access to content from Outside Network and TrailForks. TrailForks is an additional app that has maps for other outdoor activities such as dirt-bike trails, which might be a better value depending on your interests.
When I finally get around to an overnight backcountry backpacking trip this is the app I am planning to use!
This is my go-to app to make any campsite or permit reservations on federal government land. The app is managed by the federal government and covers public land overseen by multiple agencies, including the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management. I’ve successfully used this app to make reservations for campsites in Zion National Park, Lassen National Park and others. I’ve been less successful with the lotteries....maybe this year will be my lucky year for a Half Dome Permit!
Once you have made your reservation, you can use the app to view or make changes to it. You can also use the app to access permits that you have purchased, although keep in mind the app does not work offline.
4. National Park Service App
This is the 2nd government app to make my list and it is the official app of the National Park Service. It provides detailed park maps and information on points of interest for over 400 sites managed by the National Park Service in the United States. If you, like me, have ever walked through a national park ark and came across a manmade or natural feature and wondered what it was or how long it was there, chances are this app will be able to answer your questions. This app is free and can be used offline, so be sure to have it downloaded in case you are caught somewhere with a question and no phone service. The app incudes self-guided tours and information about accessibility options and amenities offered. The National Park Service app also provides news alerts, updates and events in areas managed by the National Park Service. This will help you avoid driving for hours only to find that the road you are trying to use is closed for the season.
While this is a great app with detailed information about important sites in National Park Service areas, it does not provide information or areas outside of places managed by the National Park Service. For backcountry explorers or for more detailed hikes you should check out Gaia GPS or one of the other navigation focused apps on the list.
5. Cairn App
Cairn offers an option for solo travelers or for people who want the additional peace of mind that should something delay you on the trail your friends and family will be automatically notified. The safety features in this app are why I have included it on my list and how it is unique from the other navigational apps on my list. While I haven’t done any solo hiking yet, this is the app I would turn to when I give it a try in the future.
Cairn says they have a proprietary algorithm they use to estimate an ETA for the completion of a hike based on trail conditions and your speed. You can choose safety contacts and the app will automatically contact them should you be late finishing the trail. This will occur even if you do not have a phone signal.
In addition, the app offers location tracking, so you can also allow your safety contacts to track your progress if you’d like. Another feature of the app is a crowdsourced map updated by Cairn users that shows where cellphone signals may be available on the trail, so you know where to go for the best chance of having phone service if needed. Unfortunately, all of the safety features, including tracking and notification of your safety contacts, requires you to use their paid version, which costs $5 a month or $27 per year. Definitely an app to think about on your solo adventuring!
6. Hiking Project
The Hiking Project is another navigational app that has information on trails primarily in the United States and Canada. I thought I would include it on the list because it offers similar features to All Trails and yet it is completely free, even to download the maps for offline use. The Hiking Project allows you to filter trails by location, distance, and difficulty and relies primarily on crowdsourced data. The Hiking Project offers “gems”, which are notable locations found on the trails identified by users. Other highlights of the app include detailed firsthand descriptions of hikes and information about plants and animals you may encounter on the trail.
The Hiking Project is also associated with other more activity specific apps, such as the National Park Project, Powder Project and Trail Run Project. So, if you end up liking the app, or you are more interested in an activity specific app, you should check them out! I’m planning to give this app a try on my next hiking adventure to see how it stacks up to my usual go-to app All Trails and I’ll let you guys know the results.
6. Google Maps
While Google Maps isn’t an app that many people would jump out and say it is an app designed for hiking and the outdoors, I find it to be very useful. For those of us (including myself) who are navigationally challenged. I wouldn’t be able to find the trail, let alone hike the trail, without the assistance of Google Maps to get me to the trailhead or campsite….I’m looking at you hidden road to Butte Lake Campground in Lassen NP!
Google Maps is great for planning a trip in advance. You can set pins to visually identify where you are planning to go, where you are planning to stay, as well as other key places such as gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants. Google Maps also has information about road closures including in the National Parks, although this is best for the areas that are closed for the winter season. You should always check the National Park Service website for up-to-date road conditions.
As an additional tip, Google Maps allows you to download map areas, so you can still use the application without phone service.
I’d classify Google Maps as a ‘get you there’ app, which is great for getting you to the trail before turning to a more trail specific app for your hike.
7. Peak Visitor
Have you ever been out on a hike and been curious to know what mountains you were looking at in the distance? I know I have on many occasions, and usually I tell myself I’ll look it up later and then never get around to doing it. This happened last month in Olympic National Park, and this would have been a great tool to identify all the peaks in the Olympics. Peak Visitor is a neat, augmented reality app that can identify mountain peaks and provide links to articles about them.
The app can be used in real-time or you can take a picture and upload it later. The app also provides 3d maps with trails, mountain huts and other locations overlayed so you can visually see where you are going. The app comes in both a free and paid version with offline access naturally only for the paid version. While this app might not be useful for everyone, if you visit the mountains often, ski or are just naturally curious about which mountains you are looking at this is a great option. I know I’m going to download it for the next time I visit the Sierra Nevada.
8. Seek by iNaturalist
Seek is similar to Peak Visitor as it uses your phone’s camera to identify plants you encounter on the trail. The app uses the picture and your location to provide you with information about the plant or insect. Was that poison ivy you accidentally walked through or something else? This app should help you find the answer. I know I have trouble identifying plants on the trail and I am looking forward to trying out this app myself. This app was developed by National Geographic and the California Academy of Sciences and can be used to identify plants, fungi, and insects you encounter on your next adventure. However, I wouldn’t rely on the app exclusively to identify safe vs poisonous mushrooms for consumption, so be careful. Using the app also allows you to earn badges as you discover new plants, which can be used to keep younger kids entertained on the trail.
I recently came across FarOut (previously known as Guthook Guides) and I thought it would be a great addition to the list. This is a great option for thru-hikers and backpackers. While the app itself is free, you individually pay for the trail guides within the app itself. The pricing depends on the trail and distance and can range from $4 to $60 with the Appalachian Trail being the most expensive guide.
I really like the fact the app provides detailed information on the main trail as well as side trails. The app provides waypoints with information on elevation, where to find water and other essential information for people on longer backpacking trips. You should seriously consider this app if you are thinking about thru-hiking the PCT, AT or one of the other trails with a FarOut trail guide. FarOut provides tons of information for a selection of popular long backpacking trails throughout the world and does not provide the widest variety of options.
It is a highly specialized app made by backpackers and one of the other apps that has more options may be better if you are planning to have shorter adventures.
Spyglass is another app that I haven't tried yet, but it looks really useful. With the app, you can turn your phone into a fully featured compass that goes beyond the standard compass offered with your phone. You can use the app to turn your phone into a sextant, gyroscope and rangefinder, so you can figure out how far away your are from an object and how high the object is from you. You can also use the app to figure out your location based on the stars in the sky. This is a really neat app, especially if you want to figure out your location without the use of GPS.
I hope you find these apps helpful in planning and making your next adventure more enjoyable. Please let me know in the comments below what you think about the apps or if you have any other apps you recommend. If you have any questions please feel free to comment as well!
Have a great time adventuring and I'll see you out on the trail!