There’s an app for that – Useful outdoor apps

apple-googleAs with many outdoors enthusiasts, I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with connectivity technology in the field.

I don’t want to be reached.

Whether it is my cultural upbringing or simply preference, I like to keep the line distinct between work hours and my off-hours.

Connectivity technology helps blurs this line.  And connectivity technology can also turn the wilds into a city park or gym: Just another place for a workout that also happens to have a good view.

Oh, I am sure that line will get thinner with each passing year due to how effective interactive technology continually gets. And the cultural expectations that come with this increasingly good technology will demand the line becomes thinner, too.

Using the tool versus the tool becoming the experience itself…

But to ignore the utility of a smart device  due to my stubbornness would be folly for me.

Airplane mode, and picking remote areas for my trips,  keeps the connectivity to a minimum  at least on a technological level.

By being in airplane mode I focus on what a smart device really excels at for the outdoors: Taking traditional tools and making them more compact, lighter, easier to carry and more powerful. 

And that’s what it is, really:  A tool.

No more.

No less.

A person will need to know how to use the tool effectively.

And, as stated in another excellent article by Chris Townsend,  try not to let the tool take over the experience itself :

How communication technology is used in the hills is up to the individual of course. There are no rights or wrongs. I see no reason not to check emails and social media or even make phone calls if you find it satisfying any more than I can see a reason not to read in the hills (and I have been told at times that it’s ‘wrong’ to carry a book). The key is for you to control it and not the other way round. If it becomes intrusive and you think it’s spoiling your enjoyment the answer is simple. Switch the damn thing off!

 ( Emphasis  mine ).

Guidebooks are easily taken, navigation becomes efficient and the stars are identified easily.

Smart devices are useful tools when used appropriately and wisely.

Here are some apps I’ve found useful for the outdoors.

I’d don’t claim that they are the best. They are just the ones I found useful. As far as I know, they are both available for iOS and Android platforms. A slim few are even available for the Windows Phone or Amazon Fire platforms.  I currently own an Android platform device, so my current experience is with using the Android versions. All prices are for the Android version as well.  

Note: All the the apps work in airplane mode without a  cell phone signal once the appropriate data is downloaded prior to a trip.

Navigation apps

A person should know how to read a map regardless of whether an electronic or printed map is used.  Maps themselves may evolve but the basics of map reading will always be with us esp if a person ventures beyond the well-known hiking routes.  Electronic maps and navigation aids will tell you where you are; print maps, in my opinion, are superior in telling you where you want to go due to the larger overview.

CalTopo at home. Print out the maps for field use and also import the maps into an app… Old and new technology combined effectively.

With all that said, here are some apps that work well for aiding navigation:

Plot out routes,  download maps for your area and many other useful tools.  Makes use of CalTopo.  There are other navigation apps out there.  However, the price to feature ratio, and for the map and GPS based functionality  I ultimately use it for, makes Gaia GPS a  good choice for me and my needs.


I’ve only started playing with this app. I am intrigued by it because of the sheer amount of commercial AND open source maps available for downloading. As USGS quads continue to become more and more outdated, commercial and open source maps will be the only way to really know what is out in the field versus what was out there thirty of more years ago. Here is a useful article on how to import your custom CalTopo maps into PDF Maps as well.  PDF Maps greatest strength is the sharing of maps and resources among its users.

A cool little app for both Android and iOS. Remember those viewfinders binoculars you would put a quarter in? And sometimes there would be a “distant landmark” chart identifying the mountains in the distance? Well, that’s what this app is a version of essentially. Pre-download the appropriate information for your area, get a GPS location in the field, and slowly move your phone so it syncs up with what your are actually looking at in the distance.  A simple and effective tool.

Similar to the above, except for the night sky.  Originally developed by Google, there is now a team that took up the app and is still actively developing the app and improving it.  Calibrate your phone’s built in compass/GPS and then point the phone into the appropriate place into the night sky. The app has a red screen mode so your night vision will not get ruined either.  When I was in Natural Bridges National Monument, the interpretive ranger mentioned how rangers with 30+ years of experience use this or a similar app now, too.  Good enough for me.


Though there are many trail specific guidebooks and navigation apps available,  this section is more about general guides to take with me as I travel in the backcountry. In the past, I’d take my pretty photo and then (hopefully) identify the track, tree, wildflower or bird better when I arrive home. Taking multiple printed guidebooks is not really feasible for trips that are more than an easy day hike. At least for me.

Taking the guidebooks on the phone I am carrying (not about to leave it in the car!) helps identification in the field a little easier if I am so inclined.  And is more practical, too.

I am still astounded that this app is free. A very professional looking app by a recognized authority on birds in North America.

The app will show birds known to be in your location, has an open source sighting page entered by users, wonderful identification photos and good search functionality.

Another comprehensive and free app. As with the birding app above, the Virginia Tech Tree ID app can use GPS technology to narrow down what trees are in your area. Color photos and good search tools, too.

A simple and effective app that covers the Rocky Mountains and nearby foothills wildflowers in the USA and Canada. Reminds me of my favorite Colorado wildflower guidebook: Simple to use, effective and very helpful. Available for Android and iOS. 

There seem to be more comprehensive and slicker track identification apps out there (for a price), but here’s what I like about Critter Trax:

  1. The app is inexpensive.
  2. Has both birds and mammals in the database.
  3. The database is not huge but has enough of the common ones found in the wild. Could be a little bigger database, and have a search feature,  but not too bad overall.
  4. Has both scat and track identification.
  5. Just enough basic identification info (size of scat and print, common habitat, animal info, photo, etc.) to help and not overwhelm.

A quick and dirty app for track and scat identification. Works for me. Available for Android and iOS.

Miscellaneous apps

Would be rather hard to carry some of these books in the field. :O

  • Note app – Built-in; various other options too 

A helpful hint for effective navigation is often to take notes. Mark on the map what time you reached a landmark or junction, or anything that sticks out for example.   The note app is not a substitute for this note taking on a paper map but can be a nice complement.

Plus I can jot down some ideas that come to mind for later use.

  • Flashlight app – Various

A flashlight app can make an OK backup (uses too much battery, plus you have to activate the app), but what I found useful are one of many flashlight apps has that has a colored LED light mode. The red LED light in particular is useful for star talks, moving briefly in a shared ski hut so I won’t wake up people, etc.

  • Camera  – Built-in

I’ve discussed smartphone photography before. Sometimes it is just quicker to snap a photo with a smartphone versus my mirrorless camera. And the quality has gone up considerably to the point where a higher end phone rivals a high quality, non-zoom lens, P&S camera. The best camera is the one you have available.  I essentially bought my current phone for the camera. 🙂

  • Traditional guidebooks in electronic form – Varies

Traditional print books for a trail or a specific area often has information on the history of the area, geology, flora, and fauna in addition to the actual hiking information.  Too heavy and cumbersome to usually take on a trip though. Electronic books, assuming you are OK with the smaller screen size, eliminates that issue if you prefer to take some comprehensive reference material with you.


Those are some apps I have found useful at times. I don’t use them on all trips and/or even that frequently at times, but they have found a niche for my outdoor use.   Judicious use of limited battery power will be the Achilles heel of smartphone apps for a while to come. But adapting to limited battery capacity, beyond using airplane mode only,  is another article for another time.

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John P
8 years ago

There’s also an app called “Garden Answers”. You take a picture of a plant, upload it into the app, and it identifies the plant for you. We’ve used it several times with good success.