Editor’s note on May 7, 2020: This article originally published on March 15, 2018. We’ve updated it with our top picks for 2020.
We believe in the power of spending time outdoors—which usually means putting your phone down and getting out there. But sometimes, your smartphone helps improve your time in the wild. We asked our community to share their favorite outdoor apps and tested them out. Here are the top eight hiking apps that will help you get out safer, smarter and speedier.
Have you ever been out on a hike and wondered which epic peak was off in the distance? PeakVisor uses your phone’s camera and state-of-the-art 3D technology to show you the names and elevations of 1,016,681 peaks around the world. You can also use this app to identify mountain huts and viewpoints, as well as hiking routes that can get you to some, but not all of, the peaks. You can input photos you’ve taken in years past to identify the peaks in your pictures, too. PeakVistor PRO, available for $2.99 a month on the App Store and $4.49 on Google Play, lets you experience the same features and functionality offline.
2. Gaia GPS
Although there’s nothing like a stand-alone GPS (and, of course, paper maps), the Gaia GPS app allows you to find your next hiking trail, plot a new route or scout out camping options along the way. It features easy-to-read modern topo maps, as well as historical or classic print maps. If you spring for a membership ($20 per year), you can download offline maps, record your adventures and get map overlays (like contour lines, slope angles and hill shading). The free version lets you access the topo map, but only while online.
3. Star Walk 2
With Star Walk 2, you can identify the constellations above you when you’re on an evening hike or backpacking trip. You can discover celestial objects, see how they move across the sky and figure out where to look for any stars or planets you want to see. The latest version of the app offers a real-time map of the sky, 3D models of constellations, augmented reality and even a section for astronomical news. If you have kiddos, or just want to gaze upward in wonderment, this is the app for you.
Searching for a little-known hiking trail? A scenic spot to bike? A dog park near your home? AllTrails makes it easy to find these things and more. Users can sort routes by activity, suitability (think stroller friendly and wheelchair accessible) and popularity. You can further tailor your search of the app’s 100,000-plus trails by length, difficulty, elevation gain, route type and amount of trail traffic. Once you select a path, you can read reviews from other recreationists, check the weather forecast, review a trail map and scroll through photos of the route. Once you’re on the trail, there’s a nifty feature for recording your mileage, so you can track your distance as you go.
5. Seek by iNaturalist
With image recognition technology, Seek helps you identify the plants and animals you spot while you’re out adventuring. It also shows you commonly recorded flora and fauna near you, based on millions of observations on iNaturalist, an initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. Building off the success of the iNaturalist app, the team partnered with Netflix’s Our Planet and World Wide Fund to build monthly observation challenges you can take on directly in the app. The overhauled interface and ability to earn badges for finding different types of birds, amphibians, plants and fungi make this a serious upgrade.
Whether you’re doing it for the ‘gram or gaining inspiration from others’ adventures, Instagram has created a way for vibrant communities of outdoor enthusiasts to connect online and in real life. We’re especially inspired by accounts like @UnlikelyHikers, which started as an Instagram account and expanded into real-life hikes. Another handle, @LatinoOutdoors, began as a Facebook group to become a nonprofit that uses its Instagram channel to promote its mission. Even if you’re not planning on starting a community account or nonprofit, you can offer followers a view into your world. Just remember, when you’re posting your photos, take a moment to understand the nuances of geotagging.
7. Pokémon GO
We didn’t realize this phenomenon was still a thing until multiple outdoorspeople suggested the app for this list. In case it’s been a minute, the app is an augmented reality mobile game that allows you to locate, capture, battle and train Pokémon. It uses your phone’s GPS to show them directly in front of you, like they are in your real-world location. We did a little more digging, and found that last year Niantic, the company behind the app, teamed up with the National Park Foundation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System and Wild and Scenic Rivers. Through the partnership, they hosted small group events for players in national parks to benefit the National Park Foundation.
8. Google Earth
While most people use this app for gaining insights about cityscapes, outdoorsy folks use it to plan cross-country treks, calculate elevation gain and loss, and navigate to the trailhead. The app allows you to choose between 2D and 3D maps, explore distances and zoom in to search for trail features, like slope angles and water sources. We also like the dice feature, that chooses your next location to explore completely randomly. Maybe you’ll find your next city hike or mountain vista with the click of a button.
Aer Parris and Sarah Grothjan contributed to this article.