Have you been thinking about taking a hike, kayak paddle, or mountain bike trek but don’t know where trails are near you? And then, once you find a trip that you want to take, how do you get to the trailhead or put-in? How difficult is the trail or river? What makes that trip so special?
There are many great outdoor adventures across the country and no matter what your favorite is, as they say in the commercials, there is an app for that. Over the years, I have used many different apps to help me down a trail or river when writing one of my 14 guidebooks. Here are the eight that I have found useful over the years and ones I suggest you check out.
Arguably the most popular of all the trail apps available, AllTrails has a catalog of over 100,000 hand-curated trails all posted by outdoor enthusiasts like you and me.
Notice I didn’t say “hikers.” That’s because AllTrails digs deep by giving you plenty of filtering options to help you pinpoint what you’re into that day: mountain biking, canoeing, camping, horseback riding, hiking, and more. You can further narrow it down to features you want to see such as historic sites, pub walks, waterfalls, et cetera. And you can narrow your choice further still by difficulty rating, length, and elevation gain. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Once you find your trek, you’ll see photos of your selection, a route map, how others rate the experience with comments, and the area’s four-day weather forecast.
And that’s just the free version. The pro version allows you to download your maps to your phone so that if cell service is sketchy, you can still see your GPS location on the map. As a bonus, if you roam off-trail, it tells you with an “off-trail alert.” Plus, you can record your trek and post it to AllTrails so others can do the same trip.
2. Hiking Project
Much like AllTrails, Hiking Project is driven by the hiking community, people who have hiked the trails. The app is produced by REI, the famed outdoor outfitter. Every hike submitted is reviewed by REI staff before it is posted so you know that the trail listed isn’t sketchy.
Each trail has detailed descriptions of the route including highlights, what you need to know before heading out, elevation profiles, the flora and fauna along the trail, and more. Plus, you can record your own track as well including water sources, obstacles to watch for, and of course, lots of photos.
3. Gaia GPS
What’s your pleasure? Day hiking? Backpacking? Camping? Mountain biking? Then you should take a look at the Gaia GPS app. With this app, you can map out your next adventure no matter what outdoor activity you have planned. Complete with the upcoming weather forecast, it will help you discover new trails near your location and even locate nearby campsites in national and state forests and parks.
The free version is recommended for day hikers and offers topographic and satellite maps and allows you to record your trek provided you have cell service. If you’re a backpacker, you may want to upgrade for an annual fee of $20 so you can download the maps and track your location even without cell service. The premium annual membership of $39.99 allows you to customize your maps and gives you access to the entire National Geographic map catalog so you can use them offline.
4. Guthook Guides
Back in the day, if you wanted to do a hike on one of the famous long trails like the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail or the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, even if it was just a day hike or short section hike, you would find yourself loaded down with paper topographic maps, guidebooks that may or may not be up to date, and dodgy information from people with dubious hiking names like “Clueless Joe” who claimed that they had hiked the trails, hoping their information was correct.
Today, we have Guthook Guides, the go-to app for anyone considering hiking these or other long paths across the country and around the world.
The app works completely offline, giving you every bit of detail you possibly want about the trail -- water sources, campsites, views, nearby towns and places to resupply, and the all-important GPS position tracking so you know where you are at all times. It even has a feature that allows you to check in with friends and family while on the trail.
Guthook Guides is a free app, but each guide must be purchased separately. For example, sections of the Appalachian Trail can be purchased for $8.99 each or you can buy the entire Appalachian Trail series for $59.99.
5. National Park Service App
The National Park Service App is the official guide to exploring all 420+ national parks. This free app contains information culled from the people who really know a thing or two about the parks -- the park staff themselves.
When you enter the app, click the “Explore the NPS” button, and off you go. The main screen allows you to read the latest park news, displays a calendar of events at a park near you, even takes you to webcams.
Click on “Find a Park” to select a park from a list or discover a national park near you that you might not have known was there. From there, simply click on the “Explore Full Park” option to learn about what there is to see at the selected park, the hours of operation and admission fees, camping options, visitor center locations, and amenities, a calendar of events including scheduled guided tours, shuttle information, and the latest park news and alerts.
There is also a Popular Hikes option that shows you all the trails within the park with directions to the trailheads. All maps can be downloaded for use when you are in an area without cell service.
Here is an app with a difference. Sure, it helps you plan your route from a huge catalog of hiking trails, includes a GPS tracker, and can be used offline, but here’s the twist: How many times have you been hiking along, spotted a mountain in the distance, and wondered, What mountain is that? With PeakVisor, simply point your phone and it will tell you!
The app can identify over one million peaks around the world. And if you have some old pics of mountains from trips you have taken before you downloaded the app, upload them to the app and it will identify those for you.
This isn’t a hiking app, but if you’re like me, you have a limited knowledge of the plants and animals you’ll find in the woods. Many times you’ll spot a unique plant, bird, or animal and wonder, What is that? If that’s you, then iNaturalist is just the app you need.
iNaturalist is a joint project of the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Sciences. Just take a picture of that tree, mushroom, or wildflower and image recognition technology will help you identify what you’re looking at.
If it doesn’t make a match, write a description including the location where you saw it and share it with the app’s worldwide community. You will receive plenty of feedback about the plant or tree you spied.
The app also shows you the common flora and fauna found near your location.
We’ve been talking a lot about apps that can make your outdoor recreation much more enjoyable, but what about safety? Enter Cairn.
Every hiker, paddler, mountain biker, or equestrian will tell you that you should always tell someone where you are going, what route you will take, and when you plan to return so that in the event of an emergency, authorities can be notified and you can be located.
With Cairn, you can share your real-time location and update your status with loved ones while on your adventure. It keeps track of your estimated time of arrival at a specified location. As with other apps, you can access trail maps offline. You can also see locations where others have acquired cell service along the trail you’re on so that you can check in with your family and friends.