No one wants to get lost in the woods, stuck on the side of a mountain, or turned around in a canyon adventure. Me especially! And my sense of direction –– well I haven’t found it quite yet. For most of my camping adventures, I made sure to stay on short, easy trails. But as my lust for the great outdoors exploded, the more I wanted to try my hand at longer excursions and less populous trails.
Being outside is my favorite way to unwind from the constant barrage of medium screens, big screens, and tiny screens. There is nothing more breathtaking than a hard-earned view on a gorgeous trail. And somehow, I found the most freedom from my phone and other screens through hiking apps.
What’s in a hiking app?
I was already familiar with using apps to help find campgrounds, but mostly found hiking trails the hard way –– combing through results in a web browser looking for those with good reviews. Not every trail is identified on Google Maps, and away from a phone signal, I found myself at the mercy of either crowds or trail markings.
Some hiking apps cater to more specific uses on the trail such as identifying plants or the names of specific mountain peaks in the distance. While those can be incredibly useful and a great way to get to know your environment, in my hiking app, I was looking for something to help me orient on even the hardest-to-follow trails, especially when I’m far from a phone signal.
Before we launch into my favorite hiking apps, I want to mention a bonus app! For Android and iOS, Spyglass is a cool app that turns your phone into a plethora of different instruments. It was very easy to use (despite not even knowing what most of these features even do!) and combines GPS technology with augmented reality.
Built-in, there were great instruments like compasses –– yes plural, altimeters to measure altitude, a gyroscope, and plenty more. Not only was it great for navigating, it even had a guide to the stars as well! But all these features just made me want to watch the app and not my surroundings. It’s definitely the right choice for some, but for me, this was not the best way to detach from my phone. Here is a guide to five of the best apps for hiking that won’t overwhelm the experience.
Five Best Apps for Hiking
1. All Trails
All Trails is one of the most popular hiking apps out there. It is certainly one of the best free hiking apps for iPhone and Android. You can find details and maps for trails all over the world, but especially excellent coverage of U.S. trails. Before committing to paying for this app, I wanted to try the free version to see what was allowed.
I loved reading the reviews written by other hikers and that I was able to access trail maps online and offline. I also appreciated being able to sort through dozens of results by category to help me find my perfect trail a little bit faster.
So what does All Trails Pro have to offer? For $29.99 per year, the pro version of this app adds an exact GPS location to the maps you download. There are even notifications if you wander off trail! Instead of keeping my eyes glued to a map, I get to relax and enjoy the sound of my footsteps and the intermittent sun between the trees without worry.
2. The Hiking Project
The Hiking Project app was produced by REI and is entirely ad-free. It makes my list as one of the best hiking apps for iPhone and Android because of its community-driven nature. Hikers are asked to share pictures, interesting sights, and trail information that is then vetted by experts and added to the app (if proven to be true). Find great tips on where to park or even advice on the best time of day to see the perfect view, all from within the app (and check it out from your browser, too, if you’re planning ahead).
With constant input, it’s constantly being updated so you know that the information you find is the most up-to-date. Of course, the app’s features work offline and there is information about more than 650,000 miles of hiking and backcountry trails. The community drives this app, however, so if you’re looking for more robust features, this may not be the best choice for you. For the casual hiker looking to try some new trails, it’s tough to top this free, easy-to-use hiking app.
Gaia is one of the best GPS apps for hiking and more. The free version has excellent topographic maps that are very easy to read in addition to regular print maps and even historic maps. I turn to Gaia most when further from a common area or when stringing together several shorter trails for a grand loop. It’s easy to plan a route and find places for backpacking along the way.
The biggest drawback to Gaia is that the free version works exclusively online. To download the maps, you’ll have to get a membership. It’s worth it when you see the clear images that load so quickly even in the middle of nowhere. They’ve even recently added a partnership with National Geographic’s illustrated trail maps.
If you’re not in the backcountry, one of the other apps may serve your needs at a slightly lesser price point. But this app is top of the class when it comes to GPS apps for your phone without purchasing a separate GPS device.
Often, I hike alone. With an app like Cairn, designed with safety in adventure in mind, I know I needn’t worry about venturing out by myself. Like All Trails, this app has a free version and a paid version. I found that the paid version is most helpful as it lets you use its features offline, but the free version might be a good place to start while checking out the app.
Cairn helps you share detailed and real-time information about your hike, how long it’s expected to take, and your progress with friends or family. After a few hikes with Cairn, it makes more accurate estimates of how long it might take you personally to complete a hike. It also will point out bad cell reception areas, which is especially useful when you’re only using the free version (but admittedly not so much when you’re planning on a backcountry excursion).
5. Guthook Guides
I have loved every second of exploring this app so far. The name comes from an old trail nickname of one of the creators. For those who are looking to do a longer thru-hike or just a long-distance hike in general, this app lets you purchase and download maps to use anywhere. Fully offline, you can get excellent trail information as well as waypoints, elevation information, and even campsites, water, and resupply points.
You don’t have to commit to doing a major trail such as the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail to get plenty of great use out of this great app. There are popular trails at a more regional level as well as trails from around the world. Only pay for what you need with the maps or map sections that matter to you and never worry about an annual fee.
Off Grid, On Trail
Armed with functional GPS-based maps ready in the palm of my hand, I’ve been able to discover incredible trails, vistas, and waterfalls to have all to myself for at least a little while. Safely off the beaten path, I can share my location while finding new-to-me locations all around the United States. And with views like these, who needs social media… at least not until I’m back at the campsite. Hopefully, this guide helps you find the best app for hiking!