By Claire Jencks
Once viewed as a paradoxical addition to the adventure toolkit, outdoor apps have now become a staple for the backcountry user. Designed to be more energy-efficient and user-friendly, today’s apps give us access to vast amounts of well-presented, accurate real-time data. Armed with that knowledge, we have the ability to roam faster, farther and more safely into the wild than ever before. From navigation and first aid, to planning and weather, here is our guide to the apps that make it onto our home screens and into the backcountry.
Capturing the stunning features of a vista is difficult—but finding out the name and altitude of that mountain range in view isn’t. This app is impressively accurate—just hold your phone up and PeakVisor will label and render the nearby mountain panoramas in high precision 3D. Luckily, all of its 1,000,000 mountains, 2,000+ waterfalls, and 11,000+ mountain huts are automatically available offline so you can identify nearby peaks, pinnacles and spires while at the top of any summit.
While we always recommend staying up-to-date on backcountry medicine through a professionally taught class, thanks to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies now you can have ready access to basic medical knowledge with the First Aid app. Preloaded content means you can study up on the basics before heading out, and offline capabilities with simple step-by-step instructions can serve as a quick mental backup for simple in-field first aid scenarios. Also included are preparation tips for major emergencies such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, as well as integration with worldwide emergency phone numbers so you can call for help right from the app.
Price: Basic Free, Member US$19.99, Premium US$39.99
Google maps may rule the road, but Gaia GPS has the run of the mountains. With a deep catalogue of map layers including topo, satellite, road and National Geographic, as well as an intuitive and well-designed interface, this outdoor navigation app rises above the rest. The connected web app makes paper map printing available, while mobile users can track hikes, synchronize data from other apps and use downloadable maps offline.
Price: Basic Free, US$4.99 Premium US$26.99 per year
The Cairn app is a game-changer in outdoor safety. Cairn’s core feature is a tracking function where your chosen contacts can follow your GPS location en-route and automatically receive instructions on how and when to contact search and rescue if you don’t return at your appointed time. The second big draw is a map function that lets you see available cell coverage along your route based on crowdsourced data. With Cairn you also get offline maps and the ability to track and update your own key stats such as distance traveled, elevation gained, and ETA.
Spyglass is the swiss-army knife of the outdoor navigation category. Whether you’re mid-ocean or off-piste, this app will help you navigate and track your off-road travel. From an augmented reality view compass, to a speedometer and celestial navigation, the list of features in Spyglass is far too long to list. Suffice to say, if you were dropped in the middle of the tundra with only one app, Spyglass should be it.
Price: Basic Free, Premium US$29.99 per year (lifetime option available)
AllTrails reigns in the day-hike department. While the premium version gives you access to their partnership with National Geographic in printing and editing maps, this app really shines in its sheer volume of user interaction. The free version allows users to easily create, edit and share their own GPS trackable trail reports. And create they do; with over 50,000 U.S and Canadian trails uploaded so far, AllTrails is the leader in up-to-date trail photos and reports.
Maps 3D Pro
Basic: US$3.99, Premium US$13.99
Ever get mid-route and realize you missed more than a couple topo lines on the map? Maps 3D Pro enables you to map out your itinerary while actually seeing the obstacles along the way. Now instead of painstaking plotting on a flat map, you can plan, save, record and share routes in 3D. When you’re done planning, download maps for offline use before you leave for the trailhead.
Price: Basic Free, Premium varies depending on package
There are many weather apps these days, but Weather Live stands out by offering detailed data in a well-designed and customizable format across iOS and Android platforms. With hourly, daily and 7-day forecast data, the app also incorporates precipitation, pressure, visibility, animated weather radar and more. As all apps that rely on real-time data, it’s not available offline, but you can customize your layout to show relevant info to your upcoming adventure, such as precipitation and incoming storms.
Atlas’ Guthook Guides
Price: Varies depending on map
While Gaia GPS is great for most outdoor activities, if you’re planning a major long-distant route, turn to Atlas’ Guthook Guides. Built by and for thru-hikers, these guides have all the waypoint details you need en route, using your device’s GPS to locate and guide you while offline. There is a comprehensive worldwide list of trails, so make sure to check this app out when contemplating a thru-hike.
Star Walk 2
Star Walk 2 is best described as augmented reality meets Google maps for the sky. No matter where you are, this app with match your screen up with the stars around you. Imagine sitting in your camp chair and being able to accurately point out any constellation, read about its history and then see it in 3D. A time machine slider allows you to view the sky in the past or future, while a “Visible Tonight” section lists all the current astronomical events and celestial objects in in your location.
As a freelance writer and designer, Claire Montana Jencks works with outdoor brands, non-profits, and publications to share stories of outdoor adventure. Though she works all over the world, her roots are in the PNW. Surfing, mountain biking, and skiing are her passions.