The use of smartphones out in the wilderness is controversial, but there’s no question the technology has real utility. Even if you personally eschew the regular use of a smartphone on your backpacking or paddling or hunting adventures, it’s not a bad idea to have one stowed away in the pack: If nothing else, it’s another emergency tool in case you run into trouble.
But there’s much else to take advantage of, outdoors-wise, with today’s immensely powerful mobile devices. (And, incidentally, a2013 report by the Outdoor Foundation suggested close to 40 percent of all Americansdotake advantage of them while engaged in outdoor recreation.) Smartphone apps can deliver you instant trailside flower guides, birdsong identifiers, celestial charts—and, most notable of all of course, maps and other navigational references for both staying oriented and recording your own movements through the backcountry.
Here we’re going to round up some of the best hiking apps for offline navigation on the market: programs that serve up topographic charts, satellite images, trail guides, and other resources even when you’re outside the realm of cellular or data coverage. And if you’ve got the bug for wild places—and we imagine that describes an awful lot of our readership here at the Mountain House blog—you’re going to find yourself outside of that realm more than once.
Don’t rely on your smartphone alone for backcountry navigation (or emergency signaling, or anything else for that matter). These gadgets—and the apps below—aren’t replacements for hard-copy topographic maps and a compass. Digital technology (and batteries) can and will malfunction, so you’re going to want some good old-fashioned backup at the ready in the event the screen goes screwy or altogether blank. And learning to useboth compass and GPS hiking app—they’re complementary resources, after all—will deepen your navigational prowess, not to mention your appreciation for the ground you’ve covered and the terrain around you.
So, without further ado, here are some of our absolute fave outdoor navigation apps!
ViewRanger Skyline uses your smartphone camera to conjure up an annotated real-time view of your surroundings. The app labels the peaks, passes, rivers, lakes, and other topographic features you’re looking at through the viewfinder: an easy and awesome way to center yourself on the landscape. Skyline also overlays your waypoints as well as navigational arrows right onto the image, revealing direction and distance to destinations and key landmarks.
Among the best hiking apps Android offers, Backcountry Navigator operates on both smartphones and tablets. With pre-downloaded maps, it works offline as an alternative to a traditional GPS: displaying topo charts, logging waypoints and routes, and much more.
For both iOS and Android, Gaia GPS makes another fantastic app with among the best offline navigation capabilities. Cross-reference between USGS/USFS maps, National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps, road maps, and satellite views; define pre-planned routes and chart your on-the-ground travels and waypoints; and link up geologged photos to document your journey.
Another premier GPS hiking app, Motion X GPS gives iOS users a full suite of navigational tools when they’re out trekking without the benefit (and burden) of data or cell coverage. You can pull up the app’s terrain and roadmaps as well as NOAA marine charts offline by downloading ahead of your trip.
Meanwhile, the app allows you to track your route, log statistics such as distance covered and elevation gained, and record waypoints and geologged pics.
Some of the finest outdoor experiences to be had in the United States await, of course, in the country’s stellar network of national parks. With Chimaini (compatible with both iOS and Android systems), you get a GPS hiking app with onboard maps for each and every one of America’s 59 national parks—plus trail descriptions, points of interest, recommended destinations, overviews of services, and other handy-dandy information.
This ranks among the best offline navigation apps for Windows users, meanwhile. Download maps in advance and you can reference them out in the wilds—plus plan out routes, monitor your progress, tag points of interest with photos, and otherwise stay well oriented (and well documented) on the trail.
With AllTrails, you have better than 50,000 trail maps at your fingertips (whether you’re using the iPhone or the Android): an excellent resource for dreaming up treks and then carrying them out with loads of navigational and informational support at your disposal. You can also customize maps to chronicle and share your own personal adventure.
So there you have it: some of the best hiking apps for Android, iOS, and Windows smartphone technology. Feel free to share your favorites with us, too!