13 Apps to Improve Your Backpacking Trips | maps, safety, plants, constellations
One of the most powerful tools you can use to improve your backpacking trips is your smartphone. With the plethora of apps on the market, there are tons of helpful and fun ones that can enhance your experiences out on the trail.
Here I've compiled a list of 13 of what I've found to be the best. Several of these I use on all my backpacking trips, others I've tested and enjoyed, and others still come highly recommended to me by much more experienced backpackers than myself.
If you prefer video format, I also posted this video on my YouTube channel that you can watch below!
Consider subscribing over there if you're interested in backpacking or travel, as I'm posting videos weekly :)
Let's get onto the list!
Gaia GPS ($20-40/year for subscription, free version available)
The gold-standard GPS app for outdoorsy folks. I never want to go into the backcountry without this app again!
There are so many types of maps that can be used in the app and a membership gives you access to the app while offline -- so, so helpful!
The standard membership provides offline access to several of the most commonly used maps. The premium membership provides an even greater selection of maps, such as those from NatGeo, and allows you to layer multiple maps together.
Pro tip: You can get a free year of Gaia GPS Premium membership ($40/year) with a subscription to TrailGroove magazine ($20), which is a great deal! Simply go here after subscribing to TrailGroove and follow the instructions to redeem your Gaia membership.
Alternatively, you can also automatically save 10-15% off your first year of Gaia membership by subscribing through their website instead of through the app.
AllTrails ($29.99/year for premium, free version available)
If Gaia is the gold-standard for GPS', AllTrails is the same for trails apps. This app has the vast majority of established trails out there, with information about the trail, photos, and my favorite feature -- trail reports.
Before heading out, I almost always check AllTrails to see what other hikers have said about the trail recently. This has saved me many times from driving out to a trailhead only to find that it's closed.
I also love that AllTrails donates a portion of their proceeds to NPOs! I'll always choose to support businesses that recognize the importance of giving back.
Here's a quick quote from their site: "we pledge 1% of our annual sales to nonprofit organizations who protect the wild places we all cherish."
Their premium subscription allows you to download maps for offline use, use their Lifeline feature to alert family and friends while you're on the trail, and receive off-trail notifications. It's priced at $29.99/year or $59.99 for three years.
Washington Trails Association (WTA) Trailblazer
Wanted to give a quick shoutout to the WTA Trailblazer app. This one is similar to AllTrails, but specifically for Washington state.
If you don't live in WA, I still recommend searching to see if there's an app for your locale. You may be able to find some gems that aren't listed on AllTrails!
Google Offline Maps (free)
You likely already have this app on your phone! It took me too long to start taking advantage of the offline maps feature on Google Maps. This has saved my butt several times when I'm traveling alone, without a physical map, and suddenly leave cell service areas.
It just requires a little forethought to download the maps ahead of time over wifi. You can download pretty large areas, but it will take a little time.
Even if you forgot to download an offline map, you can still use Google Maps via GPS and track your location on the app. While you won't be able to have it route you to your destination, I've still found this helpful SO many times when I'm lost.
Guthook Guides (pay per guide)
This app is a little different in that you pay for guides of specific trails or sections of longer trails. While there are a few free "demo" trails on the app, they generally range in price from a few dollars to a whopping $59.99 for the full guide of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Most shorter trails or sections are $14.99 or less. Most long thru-hikes hover around $29.99.
What makes this app so useful that people would pay these prices for individual trail guides?
Guthook provides a unique, almost realtime, collective trail report the helps hikers pinpoint their next campsite, water sources, and more. Users leave comments in the app that give tips, report on water quality, and present warnings of trail conditions.
This app is particularly helpful for thru-hikers that will be far from towns and without cell service for extended periods of time. The main benefit comes on highly-trafficked hikes as there's a better chance of seeing recent comments from other users. It's very popular for those thru-hiking the AT.
PeakVisor (free when used online, 7-day trial for premium)
This app is super cool and uses Augmented Reality (AR) to add mountain name labels and other information to the image on your screen being viewed by your camera. This means you can point your phone toward your skyline and this app will provide data about your surroundings directly on top of what you're seeing.
You can also "teleport" to other areas by searching for them in the app. It takes a little while for the maps and data to be loaded into the app, but then you'll be able to explore a 3D rendering of anywhere you'd like.
As of June 2019, the app is free for use while connected to the internet!
As part of their Pro subscription, these maps are also available for offline usage by downloading them before hitting the trail.
A paid subscription is $3.49/month or $29.99/year and gives you unlimited access to the app.
ViewRanger Skyline ($19.99/year, free version available)
ViewRanger is quite similar to PeakVisor, so I recommend trying out both to see which you prefer. Both allow you to search trails and identify peaks. ViewRanger presents more topographic map style, while PeakVisor uses more 3D, realistic maps.
I've just seen that ViewRanger has now been added as part of the Outdooractive app, so that would be worth trying out as well!
ViewRanger is free to use, with subscription versions available for purchase. The Premium subscription is $19.99/year after a 7-day free trial.
Chimani National Parks (free w/ paid features)
This app is great for trip planning and finding new places to visit. Using and browsing their extensive collection of National Parks, Monuments, Historic Sites, Preserves, Scenic Trails, and more is all free within the app.
I love their trip planning feature, which suggests a list of sights based on where/when you're going, what region you're visiting, and what your "explorer type" is: family, solo adventurer, expert, relaxed, or intermediate.
A paid subscription ($29.99/year) gives you access to unlimited guide downloads.
Packlight for Backpackers (free)
This is another simple, but useful app for trip preparation. It has a straightforward interface and goal: to help you determine the weight of your set of backpacking gear.
You'll enter each piece of gear along with its weight and categorize it. I thought this would be tiresome, but they keep it really simple. I also used to do all this by hand and kept a log of my backpacking gear in a notebook, so this makes it much easier!
After your gear is all entered, you can start selecting pieces that you plan to bring to create a packing list. The app will add together the weight automatically for you. You can also create and save multiple packing lists for various types of trips.
(only on iOS, but here's a similar app for Android)
Opensignal is a simple app, but can be super helpful in planning out an important aspect of your trips: whether or not you'll have cell service. This app provides coverage maps for various cell service providers and also allows you to perform speed tests on your wifi or mobile.
Cairn (free 30-day trial)
Cairn is a great safety app that you can set to alert specific contracts about your trips. Enter in the app where you'll be going, when it should contact people, who it should contact, and what it should say.
There are other helpful features, such as being linked directly to trail reports and seeing trail length and cell coverage directly on the map.
They offer a free 30-day trial. After the trial, a subscription is $4.99/month or $26.99/year.
PictureThis (free, premium available for $29.99/year after 7-day trial)
I love this app. If you're a plant-lover like I am, you'll also appreciate this one.
My friend originally told me about the Seek app, which is listed below, but I ended up finding that I had better results on this one.
PictureThis is an artificial intelligence (AI) tool -- though I think it's just machine learning -- that can identify over a million different plants! According to the app developers, it performs with 98% accuracy, which is super impressive.
To use the app, you'll either take a photo in-app or select one from the library on your phone. It will then provide information about the species, care tips, a description, gardening tips, FAQs, and much more.
I get so much enjoyment out of identifing new plants when out in nature with this one!
Seek by iNaturalist (free)
Seek is similar to PictureThis, but also includes animals!
In my experience using both apps, PictureThis is more accurate in identifying plants. Seek could be the right choice for you if you'll also want to identify animals. We've used this on the trail to identify some cool bugs, salamanders, newts, birds, and more.
Seek also gamifies the identifications by awarding badges in the app as you reach milestones.
Star Walk 2 ($2.99)
I have gotten so much use out of this app while backpacking. One of my favorite things to do while out camping is to stargaze. Star Walk 2 has enhanced that experience by helping me learn so, SO much more about what I'm seeing.
It uses augmented reality to show illustrations and labels of the constellations and other celestial bodies that your phone is pointed at.
There are additional information packs available for purchase in the app. I've purchased one (for another $2.99) that gives more information about constellations and found it to be completely worth it for the amount that I use it.
This app can also push notifications to your phone about various astrological events, such as meteor showers.
With so many apps out there, I hope this list helped whittle down a handful of useful ones for you to use on your next backpacking, hiking, or camping trips -- or just around home :)
If you found this useful, I'd appreciate if you checked out my YouTube channel for more content like this. I'll be posting there every Friday, so stick around to see more.
Thanks so much for sticking around 'til the end. Have an amazing rest of your day and I hope to see you on Instagram or YouTube - feel free to say hi!