It's that time of year when we all start hitting the hiking trails in droves. As you prepare your pack with water, snacks, first aid kit and a few other essentials, don't forget to prepare one of your most important tools: your smartphone. Whether you're going on a short walk in the woods or a week-long backpacking trip, there are a handful of apps that can help keep you safe, pointed in the right direction, and can even teach you a thing or two about the flora and fauna surrounding you. Here are 16 apps we think are a great idea to have on your phone as you head out on a hike.
Apps to find your way
This app tracks where you're hiking so you have a map of your route at the end of the hike. And while it's mapping your hike, it's also tracking other fitness statistics like the duration, distance traveled, speed, pace, elevation changes, and even calories burned. You can save the data for your hike, so you can always access the route you took as well as track improvements to your workout. "Check in" at the beginning of known trails, or forge ahead on trails you're blazing yourself.
You don't always have cellphone service when you're hiking, but you always want to know where you are. The GaiaGPS app provides that information. Download maps from all over the world onto your phone, and access it in the middle of even the most remote trails. The GPS function on your phone makes using the maps simple, and the app will also point to areas of interest and provide detailed information about each location. Though it has a relatively high price tag, knowing where you are in the world at any time regardless of cell phone coverage is worth it.
3. BackCountry Navigator PRO GPS
With a wide selection of topographical maps for the U.S., the BackCountry Navigator app uses your phone's GPS navigation so you don't need cell service to pinpoint your location. There are also add-on trail packages for in-app purchase, including snowmobile and ATV trails, whitewater trails, equestrian trails and boundary maps for 12 western states, making it great for hikers and adventurers alike.
4. Point de Vue
If you want to know everything about each mountain peak surrounding you, you'll want the Point de Vue app on your phone. Get information, including elevation, distance, and summit, of each mountain peak within a 125-mile radius from where you stand on the hiking trail.
With a directory of about 50,000 hiking trails, you'll never be stuck without a place to hike with the AllTrails app. Each trail comes with information including distance, time and difficulty level so you can pick the perfect hike for your location, mood and hiking abilities. It also lets you view photos taken by other hikers of the trail, and post your own photos of your hike. For an additional annual fee, you can get topographical maps and other features added on.
Much like AllTrails, EveryTrail features loads of trails, including maps with photos posted from fellow hikers. It uses your cellphone's GPS to help you follow established trails. It is free for the basic features, but there is a small fee to be able to download maps to your phone to use when you're without cell service.
Apps for being prepared
7. Backpacking Checklist
One of the worst things is being way out on a trail only to discover you left behind something of vital importance. That's why checklists are the best. This checklist app helps you build a customized list of things to take with you. Organize different lists based on trail lengths or requirements. Track all your essential items by weight and where you can find them, either stored in the closet or where to purchase them. Never again leave something important behind.
8. Army Survival
You just never really know what will happen when you hit the trail. A sudden turn of the weather or a turn of the ankle while miles away from civilization could mean a test of your survival knowledge. This guide is the U.S. Army Field Manual 21-76, and comes with everything you need to know for getting through a tough situation. This survival app features information on basic medicine, building shelters, finding water, distinguishing edible and poisonous plants, finding your direction, and survival in different climates from desert to tropical to cold weather, and comes complete with high resolution images for plants, animals and insects. This app helps ensure you'll be prepared for anything.
9. Red Cross First Aid
OK, so your hikes might be short enough and close enough to civilization that you don't need the full Army experience. But that doesn't mean you can go without basic information on first aid. This app has a database of over 400 topics, with interactive tools, to provide you with the best first aid information for both you and your pets. It walks you through, step by step, what to do in different situations from insect bites to heart attacks. It's perfect for being prepared for any injury on the trail.
Apps for knowing your wild neighbors
10. WildObs Observer
Thousands of wildlife species are logged in the WildObs Observer app, so you can easily search through, find the animal you just spotted and learn more about it. You can also record your wildlife encounters in the app's database and National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Watch program, helping you become both an informed naturalist and a citizen scientist.
11. MyNature Animal Tracks
Sometimes the only thing you spot are animal tracks, but that doesn't mean you have to go on wondering what kind of animal left a certain paw print. This robust tracks app helps you match a set of tracks to a species through seven track categories and five scat categories. Use the illustrations to figure out the species as well as even the gait the animal was using as it traveled. It even has a built-in ruler for measuring track sizes, and gives tips for tracking animals.
The iNaturalist app is not simply an animal identification app. It's actually a social network for naturalists. You can record your observations of plants and animals and add them to the database. You can ask the community to help you identify something, keep track of everything you've encountered during hikes, build your "life list" of what you've identified to date, and most importantly, become a citizen scientist. By recording what you've seen with this app, you're helping scientists and land managers everywhere keep track of what's happening with the natural world. As the website says, "Maybe you'll rediscover a flower that was thought to be locally extinct, or help a scientist map the range of a little-studied beetle!"
Apps to help you navigate the stars
The Planets app has all the basics you could want for reading the stars in the sky in an easy-to-use interface. View the sky in 2-D or 3-D, and navigate simply by moving your iPhone. The names of stars and constellations are overlaid on the sky so you know exactly what you're looking at in the heavens. It will tell you when planets are visible, and even has rotating globes of our solar system's planets and Earth's moon.
14. Star Chart
One of the most popular free astronomy apps out there, Star Chart uses augmented reality to look at the sky, and shows you just what you're looking at using a 3-D simulation of the night sky. You can use it during daylight hours to view what constellations are drown out by the sun's light. Planets in our solar system (including 3-D details) and more than 120,000 stars are included. And you can even shift backward in time to the sky 10,000 years ago. Learn more about the figures behind constellation names thanks to the beautiful renderings that are overlaid on the stars.
15. Sunrise Sunset
The Sunrise Sunset app provides sunrise and sunset times for any spot in the world. It also has a 3D visualization for the path of the sun throughout the day, and keeps track of when planets rise and set.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in April 2014.