There are so many accessible apps for outdoor enthusiasts on the market these days. Unlike social media apps that keep you connected to your communal human web, apps geared towards the outdoorsy help plan and enrich new and better adventures. From map apps that navigate your journeys, to apps that will help keep you safe on the trails and in the backcountry, check out these ten tried-and-true apps that we can’t get enough of.
I try not to use too many apps while I’m out enjoying nature. I don’t advocate the use of cell phones as a GPS device, but there are a couple of standout mapping and route finding apps for hikers, like the Earthmate App from Garmin. I use the free app with my inReach Explorer to take advantage of some cool capabilities like being able to download maps for offline use. But the Garmin inReach device, which couples with the app via Bluetooth, costs $350 (for the mini unit), and its most important capabilities of tracking, providing satellite communications (including localized weather reports when there’s no cellphone coverage) and SOS functions are only available when you pay extra for a monthly package. If you’re a casual adventurer, you probably don’t need to spring for this app. But if crazy solo adventures are your thing, the Earthmate app is for you.
If you roll more on the casual to avid adventurer side, check out Avenza. It’s a great little mapping tool that allows you to track and download GPS-synced maps. Its store allows you to buy topographic and other maps from the likes of National Geographic and more. You can also add a ton of functionality to it with CalTopo. It’s not an app, but a site that allows you to create and export GPS tracks and GPS-synced maps, routes and more. These two together create a really powerful tool that can help you plan adventures for free, or you can pay for extra functionality on CalTopo. The free maps are limited to a certain size, but by paying for the service enables you to create a map that covers a much larger area. If you’re planning any backcountry skiing or climbing adventures, CalTopo offers layers that show slope shading and avalanche risk. CalTopo can be a little hard to learn, but here’s a video showing how to use a lot of its functions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjUo6PwHmAQ
Roadtrippers is a great app for not only getting to an adventure, but it also helps you discover things along your route—like local breweries, restaurants or hot springs. Just enter your starting location and destination, and the app will let you customize your interests and create an itinerary of destinations to visit along the way.
Colorado Wildfire Watch App
It’s unfortunate but wildfire season can certainly throw a kink in your outdoor adventures. Planning a trip in a wildfire-prone state like Colorado means checking and monitoring wildfires in the area you’re planning to go into. Thankfully there’s the free Colorado Wildfire Watch App from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control. The app keeps tabs on wildfires and relief efforts across the state, and much of the West.
Of course there has to be a weather app or two on this list. I like Wunderground the best. It’s intuitive, hyper local and you can choose the map layers you want to see and zoom in on the locations you want to check out. This app also features crowd reports and webcams for a real-time look at outdoor locations you’re looking to travel to.
PeakFinder and PeakVisor
One of the best things to happen with the more recent smartphones are the augmented reality (AR) features. Two fun and powerful apps that take advantage of AR features are PeakFinder and PeakVisor. Both apps use your device’s location and its camera to show you the names of prominent visible peaks and features in your area. They’re not as useful as a complete mapping tool, but if you want to know if you’re staring at Pikes Peak 80 miles away—or some unnamed hill in front of it—these apps will show you. PeakVisor offers the heights of features mapped out as well, and the ability to easily take a screenshot of the peaks you’re looking at. Either way, you’re going to pay for these apps, PeakFinder is $4.99 and PeakVisor is $5.99 on the App Store.
Merlin Bird ID
Just about everyone loves birds but identifying them is tough. Heck if you’ve ever come across a ptarmigan, you know seeing them is tough— that is until they want to be seen! The Merlin bird ID app is a great tool to help with bird identification. You can look up the bird’s characteristics and use your location to hone in on what it could be. Or you can upload a photo to the app (even without cell service) and it will identify the bird you spotted. It also has bird calls to further help identify species of birds that you can hear, but might not be able to see. The app is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is part of the eBird citizen-science project. It’s based on more than 500 million observations of birds.
Any good overnight adventure includes a little stargazing. Thankfully there’s a plethora of good apps that make understanding our celestial bodies a lot easier than a sky map, compass, flashlight and telescope. While apps like SkyGuide have been around for a while and are keeping up with new AR features, it’s been surpassed by other apps like SkyView, which offers a free, ad-supported version, as well as a paid version without ads for $1.99. Basically it offers a point-and-see system showing stars and other celestial bodies, like planets and comets. It also outlines constellations and illustrates and provides additional information about them.
Hiking Project, Mountain Project, Powder Project, MTB Project
The Project series is a great set of apps for exploring the outdoors. If you’re hiking, there’s the Hiking Project. There’s the Mountain Project for rock and ice climbing, the Powder Project for backcountry skiing and the MTB Project for biking. They’re a good alternative to the AllTrails app, which also boasts a great set of features. All the apps mentioned here include routes and pictures, and the apps include GPS tracking. The accompanying “Project” series of sites also coordinate with the apps and show additional information like weather conditions in the area.
The app for the 14ers.com site keeps getting better and it’d be a shame not to include this homegrown app in the bunch! The app and site, launched by Bill Middlebrook, has routes for all the 14ers, tons of photos of the routes you can download to your device to help you navigate, as well as GPS file downloads to integrate with other apps or GPS devices. However, certain features, like the interactive maps rely on internet access for service, which you can’t necessarily count on in the backcountry.
Avalanche Forecasts and CAIC App
The Avalanche Forecasts and CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) apps offer important information for those traveling in the backcountry in snowy winter months, including information about recent avalanches, forecasts, avalanche potential, and more about localized avalanche safety issues. Both apps pull information from avalanche centers. The CAIC app (iOS, Android) is limited to Colorado, but the Avalanche Forecasts app covers most of the U.S. and pulls information from avalanche sites.
1. As good as many of these apps are at tracking your location, physical maps are still better to use for navigation. Smart devices can fall or get wet, screens can break, and the device can run out of batteries at the worst possible time. Physical maps are still the best option for any backcountry navigation.
2. When using any of these apps, particularly those that require information to be downloaded for the area you’re going to, download the information before you go. It’s incredibly frustrating to get in the backcountry only to realize you don’t have the information you were hoping to rely on to help you navigate or enjoy the trip.