The Best Hiking and Backpacking Apps

I love a good app, especially a free app.  

All but one of the apps below have a free version. While there are instances where it’s worth paying for a premium plan, most hikers and backpackers will find the free plans are a good place to start.  

So load up on these apps, learn to read a map (and take a paper one with you), and head out there! 

How Apps Can Make Hiking and Backpacking Fun 

Inspiration and New Places to Explore

How many times have found yourself heading out to the same old routes? Apps can help inspire you to find new trails, new loops, and new places to explore.  

Get an Outdoor Education

Ever wonder what that little yellow plant you keep passing is? There’s an app for that.  

Or maybe you want to learn more about astrology and learn to identify Ursa Major. There’s an app for that too.  

There’s so much to explore and learn.  

Plan and Navigate

Sometimes the trail isn’t easy to follow, let alone find. Apps can help you locate the trailhead and determine which way to go at the unmarked turn.  

Stay Safe

There are apps to help you log your location, find your location, and allow others to track you.  

Woman sitting on rim at Grand Canyon with app.

The Best Apps for Day Hikers 

My recommendations: Free Gaia, The Hiking Project, Seek

If you’re heading out on a day hike to known locations, you don’t need much in the way of apps. Most day hikers will need two navigation apps for the trails because redundancy is key.  

The free versions will suffice for most. You’ll need to try them to see which ones you like best. I highly recommend The Hiking Project. It’s not only free, but it works well here in North Carolina.  

For fun, having an app like Seek to identify plants, is helpful.  

The Best Apps for Backpackers 

My recommendations: Premium Gaia, The Hiking Project, Seek, Cairn (if going solo)

I recommend backpackers have at least two navigation apps to find and stay on the trail, including one with a paid Premium or Pro version. It’s worth the peace of mind.  

Personally, I use The Hiking Project and I have the Premium version of Gaia. These two apps have served me well on every trip I’ve been on for the past two years.  

Seek is also fun because I can’t identify plants to save my life and it’s always satisfying to find out what the pretty purple flowers are.  

If you’re backpacking solo and in an unfamiliar area, consider allowing others to track your phone using its built-in function, or paying for an app like Cairn. A satellite device is also a smart move. You can see my comparison of the Zoleo and inReach Mini here.  

Man backpacking in bad weather checking phone.

Favorite Navigation Apps for Backpackers and Hikers 

Hiking and backpacking got a lot easier with the advent of navigation apps. Now you can see if you’re still on trail, and if not, how to get back to it. If you’ve downloaded the map, you can use them offline in airplane mode, which is even better.  

This comes with some caution though – always remember your phone is not foolproof. Too many people with no experience, no map, and no ability to navigate head out assuming their phone will keep them on track.  

But what happens if the battery dies, it takes a dip in a stream, falls out of your pocket in a privy (it’s happened), or breaks? Without knowing your route, having a basic idea of where you are, or toting a paper map, you’re in trouble.  

While your phone is a great tool, it’s just that, a tool. One of many you should have on your trip. 

Pro Tip for Navigation 

Before heading out on your hike, drop a pin, set a waypoint, whatever your app calls it, at the parking lot. Name it “car”.  

If you become lost, at least you know the location of your car and can head in that direction, or note that the trail you are on is heading the wrong way.  

It’s an easy way to prevent going around in circles.  

Day hiker in woods checking phone.

Gaia 

Available for both IOS and Android. 

Gaia became part of the Outside+ family earlier this year.  Outside Inc. is home to Outside magazine, Backpacker and more.  

It uses OpenStreetMap data (OSM), an open-source, public mapping project to generate its maps.  

You can use Gaia for free, pay for a premium plan with extra features, or pay for Gaia and add an Outside+ membership to get their magazines.  

Gaia Free:  The free plan allows you to plan your route, mark waypoints, and record your trip. It does not allow you to download a map to follow offline. Without downloading a map, it does tell you where you are, and in many cases, it has nearby trails.  

Gaia Premium ($39.99/year): With the premium plan, you can create and download a custom map. The paid plan also opens additional maps including USFS and weather maps.  

Which one would I choose? I have the Premium Gaia plan. I purchased it two years ago and have been happy with the service and how well the maps cover the areas I’m in. It’s also been relatively glitch free.  

AllTrails 

Available for both IOS and Android. 

AllTrail uses crowdsourcing to generate its maps.  

You can use AllTrails for free or pay for their Pro plan.  

AllTrails Free: With the free plan, you can explore maps, plan your trip, export files, leave reviews, and create custom maps. You can’t download maps to use offline.  

AllTrails Pro ($29.99/year): The pro plan removes the ads and allows you to print maps. There are also real time updates and trail conditions. AllTrails Pro also comes with Lifeline which keeps friends and family informed of your trip and expected timelines.  

Which one would I choose? I had AllTrails Pro for a year and had issues with it being glitchy. It would crash and tell me the map wasn’t downloaded. Recently, I tested it again and found the same issue.  

However, friends use it and haven’t had any issues. Like all navigation apps, I would start out with the free plan to test it out, then move to Pro.  

The Hiking Project 

Available for both IOS and Android. 

The Hiking Project app was created by Adventure Projects which was bought by REI then split off. It was then purchased by onX.  

The information in the app is generated through crowdsourcing, however they validate all information before it’s posted.  

The app is free. You download your state map and then you’re good to go. When you arrive at your location, turn it on and it will show your location and the trails in the area. It will continue to track you against the map, keeping you on trail.  

I love this app. It works well here in North Carolina and the surrounding areas, including lesser hiked trails in Slickrock Creek Wilderness. I’m continually shocked at how thorough this app is. 

You can use the search function in the app to find a location and plan your trip. The one caveat is the search isn’t great. Some places come up right away, others you have to tinker around with to see if you can find it. Once it’s up though, you can save it to favorites and you’re good to go.  

Hiking Project also has great information about the trails and loops including a description, reviews, difficulty rating, and “need to know”.  

The user interface isn’t always intuitive, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy.  

This is my number one app for navigation. It’s perfect for hikers and backpackers.  

Man day hiking and checking app on phone.

FarOut (Guthook) 

Available for both IOS and Android. 

The maps are generated from trusted individuals and partner organizations. They are continually assessing and updating the information.  

Originally an app for the Appalachian Trail, the company continued to grow and renamed to FarOut. It now includes several trails throughout the US and International trails.  

The app is free, however you pay for the maps. Some trails are divided into sections where you can purchase a portion of the trail for a lesser fee than the entire trail. Prices vary depending on the trail. 

What’s great is this is one of the few apps showing water sources. Fellow hikers can also leave comments, so you can click on a water source location and see if anyone has recently identified the status. This is key when hiking longer miles to help you plan water usage.  

The user interface is not as friendly as I would like. While you can plan a trip using only part of the trail map, the system continually gets confused on whether you’re using the entire trail or just the “trip” you planned.  

The more it updates, the more confused it gets.  

If you’re through hiking one of the trails listed, it’s a good tool. For section hikes, it’s useful for the water information, but other apps have similar information. I would see what your current apps have first, then determine if you need it.  

Google Maps 

Available for both IOS and Android. 

Google Maps? Yes, really.  

The app is free and, while I wouldn’t rely on it as my sole backcountry navigation, in a pinch it can be helpful. Google Maps does list some trails via dotted lines. It’s also helpful if you’re completely lost and need to find a parking lot, or road.  

This is a helpful tool for day hikers, especially if you’re in a park near civilization. Backpackers may find it helpful to find a nearby road in an emergency.  

Apps for Safety in the Backcountry 

A word of caution before using the apps below. While geolocators can tell you where you are, either giving you GPS coordinates, or 3-word locations, that’s where they end. If you don’t have signal, you cannot convey your location to a third party for help.  

Always have a paper map and know how to use it. Leave a waypoint at your car so you can track back to it. And consider a satellite communication device if you’re going to locations with limited cell service for extended time.  

Woman hiking near waterfall checking phone.

What3words 

Available for both IOS and Android. 

The app is free.  

What3words divides the world into 3 meter square boxes, each denoted by a unique three-word combination. It’s much easier to relay this to emergency services than the long, difficult to read, GPS coordinates.  

However, if your emergency services don’t use it, there’s a way to convert to GPS coordinates. Simply click on navigate and it will open your mapping app and provide the coordinates.  

As noted above, while the app works offline, it will only provide you with the location information. The app cannot communicate with third parties, and if you have no signal, you will know your location but won’t be able to get help.  

Cairn 

Available for both IOS and Android.  

Note: There is a difference in how the app sees airplane mode on IOS versus Android. You can learn more about how the app works on each phone here.  

Cairn Free: Cairn is a map app that doubles as a safety app. When you have signal, it will update your location and share your progress with a group of people you designate.  

The app also provides crowdsourced information including where cell signal can be located on the trail. 

Cairn Premium ($26.99/year): The premium version allows you to download maps for offline use and provides automatic overdue alerts to your safety circle. 

If you travel solo frequently, this is a useful app to have. Just make sure you choose levelheaded people for your safety circle.  

Man backpacking solo and checking phone.

Educational Apps for Hikers and Backpackers 

SkyView Lite 

Available for both IOS and Android. 

SkyViewLite is a free app that identifies planets and constellations. Just point it at the sky and it does the rest. You can tap on an item to learn more.  

It’s basic but does the job and is perfect for getting the most out of those backcountry locations.  

There’s a paid version, SkyView, for $2.99, but unless you’re a budding astronomer, you likely won’t need the additional features.  

Other Astrology Apps 

There are several other similar apps. I would try the free versions of a few different apps to see which one you like best. They’re all similar. Some will work better with certain phone cameras than others.  

Seek 

Available for both IOS and Android. 

If you’re like me and can’t identify a plant to save your life, then this is the app for you. I really like that Seek immediately identifies the flower as you’re focusing to take the photo.  

Once you complete the photo, it saves it so you can keep track of the new flowers you’re discovering.  

It’s also completely free and doesn’t annoy you with ads or continual offers to upgrade to premium.  

While there are other apps out there that do the same thing, I find Seek more reliable with its identification and easy to use.  

PeakFinder 

Available for both IOS and Android. 

This is the one app that doesn’t have a free version.  

The app has a onetime fee of $4.99 to download.  

PeakFinder identifies mountains in the distance so you can be a hiking hero when someone asks, “what’s that mountain over there?”  

While there are other programs, this is the cheapest you’ll find. Despite a competitor advertising “free”, it only allows for one location per day which isn’t helpful.  

Best Apps for Backpacking Navigation 

Due to many of the apps using crowdsourcing, the best navigation app will vary depending on your location.  

In North Carolina, I find The Hiking Project and Premium Gaia fit all my needs. I hike with people that use AllTrails and The Hiking Project.  

There seems to be an AllTrails faction and a Gaia faction. I would try them both free to see which you prefer, then do a 7-day trial of their Premium/Pro versions.  

Best Apps for Day Hiking Navigation 

I would use The Hiking Project and Free Gaia in the Southeast US.  

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