Hiking Map App Essentials

Last updated:

Having the right hiking map app can make all the difference on the trail. 

Smartphones have revolutionized many aspects of our life. Though we recommend disconnecting from your phone when in nature, there are exceptions to every rule. 

While it is possible to get most of the best hiking apps free, some do come at a cost, albeit a small investment.

From trip planning to trail navigation, apps can simplify and enhance your experience. Through trial and error, I have identified the top 5 hiking map apps that every hiker should consider. 

The article is my opinion and there is a slew of apps that you can experiment with. If you come across some great ways, be sure to share them with me so I can investigate and review them!

For simplified navigation of the content of the article, feel free to use the table of contents below.

Table of Contents

Each app that you add to your phone will offer something different.

Appreciate the nuances and specificities of each app and you’ll be better for it.

Let’s take a quick peek at whether a hiking map app is necessary by looking at the top 4 benefits.

Is a Hiking Map App Necessary?

The short answer is yes. The nuance is there are so many hiking map apps to choose from that it is difficult to know if you’ve picked the right one. So what can a hiking map app do for you as a beginner hiker?

Assist in Navigation

A quality hiking map app can ensure you are able to locate a trailhead and stay on course. Most free apps allow you to navigate while connected to cell service. Apps may need a paid version to download the map for offline use.

Provide Inspiration

While hitting Google to search “best hikes near me” is a viable option, using a hiking map app can be more beneficial. A hiking map app will allow you to access a plethora of safe and user-rated trails nearby or a continent away.

Educate 

Our list below includes some apps that will add to your hiking experience. From helping to identify flora and fauna, to navigating the starry sky, there is an app for that!

Track Your Growth

Many apps will have built-in tracking and performance evaluation. These functions allow you to look back at how far you’ve come as a backpacker.

As an athlete, I also like the competitive and social functions of the apps. Connecting with friends and establishing a “leaderboard” is a fun way to gamify our hiking.

What is the Best Hiking Map App?

Best is often a relative term. An understanding of how each app works and the value they provide to your hike is beneficial.

A hiking map app for trail planning and inspiration can help at one stage of your trip. A hiking map app intended as a global positioning system (GPS) will assist in another aspect of trip.

We live in a time where having a smartphone in our pocket gives us access to resources at the tap of a button. The right combination of apps can be an invaluable tool for a beginner hiker.

Best Free Hiking Map App – AllTrails

AllTrails Hiking Map App
Screenshot of AllTrails – iOS

Download here: iOS / Android

The AllTrails hiking app is hands down the most well-know hiking map app. With a repertoire of over 100,000 trails worldwide, and a user base pushed 20 million users, it is a go-to planning app.

You can scan through the database using search filters to set:

  • Difficulty and route type
  • Length of the hike
  • Elevation gain
  • User ratings

Besides these trail-specific features, you can filter for other preferences as well. Among others, popular filters include dog-friendliness, biking trails, equestrian accessibility, and more.

Once you have found a hike, you can see the physical aspects of the trail like distance and elevation gain. You’ll see tips and information for trailhead access, directions, and time to complete. Listings will also have user-generated reviews of the trail, which are invaluable! 

When granted by the user, the AllTrails app will record the user’s hikes, tracking the route with GPS. This helps to check the time to complete your hike. Feeding this data back into the system helps ensure the accuracy of the app for other users.

The free version of AllTrails is enough for hikes where cell phone reception is strong. Upgrading to the Pro version is only $29.99 per year. AllTrails Pro allows users to download maps for offline use. It will also send alerts if you are off-course.

Best GPS Hiking Map App – Gaia GPS

Gaia GPS hiking map app
Screenshot of Gaia GPS – iOS

Download here: iOS / Android

Among the more popular hiking apps for navigation, Gaia GPS does it all. The free version allows you to find new hiking trails, record your route, and save data for future use. It even has a weather forecasting component!

The free version is more than enough for most day hikes. The free version gives access to topographic and satellite maps. It will also allow you to track and record your hike. The free version does need ongoing cell service.

While it would be great to download a free hiking app with offline maps, there are none available that I’ve come across. If you are a more experienced hiker, or for trips in areas where cell service is weak, the paid version is worth it. At $39.99 per year, the paid version allows users to download and access map offline. The paid version unlocks backpacking, off-road driving, mountain biking, and backcountry skiing maps.

From planning your next hike to scouting out campsites nearby, Gaia GPS hiking map app has it all. The paid version gives access to to the entire National Geographic map catalog. You’ll never be short on inspiration when it comes to planning your next hike.

Best Hiking Map App For Thru-Hiking – FarOut

Guthook Hiking Map App
Screenshot of FarOut (Formerly Guthook) – iOS

Download here: iOS / Android

When it comes to needing a reliable offline map app for long-distance hikes, FarOut is the go-to. FarOut is a consolidation of outdoor apps, of which Guthook is one. 

Developed by thru-hikers, Guthook is the leading app for backpacking and long-distance hikes.

It’s database contains over 35,000 miles of trails. FarOut is a key app for hikes like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail. 

Users will find detailed information like distance, elevation, and waypoints. The app goes a step further to reference water sources and campsites. All this information is available on topographical and satellite maps. 

FarOut tracks your location, ensuring you are on trail. The features are all developed to work offline for when you do not have cell reception.

The FarOut app is free, though the user will buy individual trail guides. Trail guides can range from $4.99 to $59.99 depending on the trail. Expect to pay more if you are looking for a full trail guide for a longer thru-hike.

Unsure if FarOut is the right app for you? Once in app, you will have access to a few free demo trails that you can test the app with.

Best App For Hiking and Trail Safety – Cairn

Cairn Hiking Map App and Safety App
Screenshot of Cairn:Hiking & Outdoor Trails – iOS

Download here: iOS / Android

Whether you are going for a day hike or an extended trip, safety is paramount. Cairn is the only app needed for hiking safety. 

Among it’s key safety features, you’ll find:

  • Capability to share your route and GPS location with emergency contacts
  • Downloading offline maps
  • Real-time location updates
  • Status updates
  • Trail progress and time to complete estimations
  • Cell service status along the trail

We cannot stress enough the importance of a quality safety plan when it comes to trail planning. The paid plan ensures you maintain app services while offline.

Using key in-app data, Cairn sends live updates to your emergency contacts when needed. Whether you are hiking, mountain biking, on the water or mountain, Cairn is a must-have.

Available for both Android and iPhone, Cairn comes with a 60-day free trial, after which the price is only $4.99 a month. Safety is something you do not want to compromise on. If you plan to take on longer and more difficult hikes, invest in the app!

Best App For Learning While Hiking – Seek by iNaturalist

Seek by iNaturalist Hiking Map App
Screenshot of Seek by iNaturalist – iOS

Download here: iOS / Android

I’ll admit, this one isn’t exactly a hiking map app, but it is cool!

If you are anything like me, you are curious about everything along the path you’re hiking. Have you ever seen a plant, insect, or animal and wondered what it was? I do all the time, and thanks to Seek by iNaturalist, I can now identify what I’m looking at.

Seek was created by the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic. Using the camera and GPS coordinates, the app is able to identify the plant or animal you photograph.

The app has gamified the experience too! Users can earn badges and various achievements for their collections. Introduced more recently are monthly challenges. Keep your hiking experience fresh by joining these monthly challenges!

Note: If you find something that isn’t identifiable via the app, don’t worry! Write a description of what you see and where you saw it. You can share the details with the app’s global community. You’re bound to get the answers you seek from fellow users!

The Bottom Line

Technology is quickly changing how we interact with the world around us. Hiking is a great way to seize the health benefits of being outside, and it’s never been easier. 

A lot of the apps in the above list are great ways the we can use technology to enhance your hiking experience.

Whether you are learning how to get into hiking or are a seasoned veteran, be sure to leverage technology to your advantage.

Photo of author

AUTHOR

Whether travelling with the family in his RV, exploring the backcountry, or a day by the beach with the family, Mike has a passion for all things outdoors. In summer you will find him exploring the wilds near the camp, and in winter, Mike loves getting on his freestyle snowboard and hitting the slopes.