In this day and age, a smartphone has become an important piece of thru-hiking and backpacking gear — and the explosion of apps has increased the usefulness of the tool. There are now a number of both online and offline apps, a few of which blow the competition out of the water. Here’s a roundup of the apps I’ve come to rely on while covering tens of thousands of miles by foot.
Guthook is the app chosen by nearly every long-distance thru-hiker and section hiker alike. The route finding app was created by two 2010 Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers. Beginning with a simple track marking the Pacific Crest Trail, Guthook has grown extensively to now include trails worldwide, including bikepacking routes.
Beyond simple navigational aid, the app offers waypoints with the option to comment on the integrity of water sources, campsites, road crossings, and town features.
It has also added a layer to thru-hiking that makes the endeavor much more social. A new component (as of 2019) is a “Check-in” feature that broadcasts a hiker’s location to friends and family.
For any trail not on Guthook, Gaia is the most intuitive and easy to use app. It does come at a cost ($19.99), but the printing, tracking, and offline capabilities make the purchase well worth it. Also, a multitude of downloadable overlays and layers help tremendously with travel along less traditional routes.
The app offers seamless integration with other route mapping software to load in pre-created GPS files and self-made routes. Gaia is truly the best in class for offline smartphone map navigation.
onX Offroad and Hunt
This combination of apps provides valuable information for true adventurers who like to get off the beaten path and travel down rugged roads. The onX Offroad app is great for finding open roads and routes that may be obscure or unseen on most maps. The onX Hunt app pairs nicely because it clearly shows which land is public and private and who governs the public land. These two apps are great for both bikepacking and creating a custom route through rural areas.
Anything can happen in the wild, and often when something does it is stressful. Having the reassurance and guidance of an app that works even without cell service can alleviate that stress. First Aid provides step-by-step directions for how to respond to common injuries and other medical situations. The app was created with knowledge provided by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Star Walk 2
Getting out of the city and away from noise and light pollution is one of the draws of hiking and backpacking. Why not enhance the experience by using an app to pick out overhead constellations? Star Walk 2 allows users to easily point their phone camera at stars, and then have the constellations immediately and automatically filled in. Planets and individual stars are also seamlessly labeled. In other words, Star Walk 2 provides the perfect tool to make sense of the night sky.
Bonus Extra Apps:
AllTrails - Offering free and premium subscriptions, this app integrates crowdsourced information to provide updated routes, photos and directions to popular trails. It is the perfect resource for day hikes and bike rides but lacks some of the simplicity and features of Gaia for longer treks.
iOverlander - A volunteer-run app created for people living out of their cars, it offers information on roads and campsites. The app combines information spread across the web into one sleek platform. As quoted by a van lifer, “It is like the Guthook for van living.”
MotionX GPS - A more affordable option with similar features to Gaia, although the range of downloadable maps is a bit lacking when directly compared to the similar app above.
PeakVisor - A paid app that uses the phone camera to identify surrounding peaks. Simply point the camera at the peak and the app immediately labels it on a robust integrated 3D map. With the pro option, everything works perfectly offline.
The explosion of apps has been overwhelming, as has the necessity of integrating more technology into wilderness excursions. But a few carefully chosen apps can both help you prepare for your trips and magnify your experience once you're out there.