It’s safe to say that at this moment, most people own a smartphone, tablet, or other data-driven, application-capable device. Even the most technophobic outdoorsman or outdoorswoman is likely guilty of possessing an iPhone or Chromebook.
While many of us head to the outdoors in order to escape the trappings of daily life, including its technology, you might want to rethink leaving your smartphone at home next time you go outside.
In fact, the abundance of navigation, survival, trail finder, and first aid applications available to outdoors and wilderness lovers may just put your smartphone on the top of your essential outdoors items list. And, while nothing beats the process and product of good old-fashioned route planning using a map and compass, there are some things your paper map just can’t bring to life.
That’s where a solid navigation or global positioning system (GPS) app comes into play.
The best GPS app will provide you with detailed, up-to-the-minute routes, as well as real-time information about your route, destination, and attractions or points of interest along the way.
When you have the right apps downloaded onto your phone or tablet, you can turn your mobile device into an essential piece of survival equipment, one with the ability to help you find your way when you’re lost or locate a shelter in adverse weather. Even if your life doesn’t depend on your smartphone, you’ll have a new way of exploring and adventuring at your fingertips!
The Ultimate Outdoors GPS App: OutDoors GPS (iOS only)
It’s one thing to be able to read more about points of interest along your route as you’re hiking or camping in the backcountry; it’s another to be able to put yourself on the right path when you get lost or prepare yourself to encounter hazardous or difficult terrain when you’re tired or the weather is inclement.
So, while there are many mobile outdoors apps you can download depending on your needs, interests, and intentions, perhaps the one at the forefront of most wilderness adventurers’ minds is a navigational or GPS app.
There are loads of apps to choose from in this category, but you’re looking for the best, most reliable, most detailed navigation app. Which app fits the bill?
Perhaps the best outdoors GPS app is the simply yet aptly named OutDoors. In essence, OutDoors puts a wide range of maps at every hiker, cyclist, runner, and mountaineer’s fingertips, with options to explore different areas of the world and types of map on your mobile device, including your tablet.
While OutDoors provides options to download versions of the app for Great Britain, America (including the United States and Canada), France, and Germany, the app itself contains maps of every country in the world. There is also an option to download a Sports GPS version of the app, which allows you to track the time and distance of your hiking, walking, cycling, and running routes.
So many reasons make OutDoors the top pick when it comes to GPS apps to use on your wilderness adventure. First and perhaps most importantly, this app provides high quality topographical maps of your chosen area in an easy to use interface.
Users have the option to download maps for every country in the world in a variety of types of map, including Ordnance Survey (OS), IGN, BKG, Open Terrain, Open Street, and Google (classic, satellite, terrain, and hybrid) maps.
The maps themselves have a high level of detail to help you plan your trip, and you can see your route from different perspectives, including satellite, terrain, and hybrid views. Perhaps the most useful aspect of the maps is that they can be downloaded directly onto your device, meaning you can use them when your device is offline or has no signal. As long as your phone or tablet is charged, you can use your map!
In addition, OutDoors has a fully functional GPS that allows you to record your movement on your route along with specific statistics. As you use the GPS to record your route on the map, you can also check the current and average speed, distance, elevation, and elapsed time of your journey, among other statistics.
This app also assists users in orienting themselves and locating their position in the terrain as it provides an option to view your current points of latitude and longitude. There is also a compass built into the app which can be used for directional and navigational purposes.
Finally, this app is fully integrated with Outdoors’s website, meaning you can move your maps and routes among your smartphone, tablet, and the OutDoors website when you sign up for a free OutDoors Route Builder account. This account also allows you to access maps on the OutDoors website if you want to plan your route on your computer.
The OutDoors website also houses a Route Builder feature, which lets users not only build routes from their computers, but also share their routes with an online community of other outdoors enthusiasts, hikers, cyclists, runners, and mountaineers. And, as long as you use the same iTunes account, you can download the app to your iPhone and iPad and access the same maps and route histories on both devices.
Perhaps the only drawbacks of this app are the platform and the cost. Unfortunately, OutDoors GPS is limited to the iOS platform, so Android users will not be able to download and use this app (unless they’re willing to convert to Apple!).
As with many outdoors apps (and apps in general), the app itself is free to download to your mobile device and it comes with free maps to download onto your device after you download the app. But if you want to download further maps, you usually have to purchase them through the in-app store. Though purchasing a map gives you lifetime access to that map, the cost for a map can be quite steep—anywhere from $10 to $30, depending on the map.
Rather than purchase maps separately, you do have the option to purchase a subscription service.
For example, in the Great Britain version of OutDoors, you can subscribe to OS Online for $19.99, which gives you unlimited access for a year to all the OS maps of Great Britain, including Streetview, Explorer, and Landranger maps, as well as thousands of Premium Routes and offline access to recent maps. An OS Online subscription also allows you to import and store your own Explorer and Landranger maps for offline use through the app.
Other Outdoors GPS Apps
If you don’t use an iOS device, or if you’re looking for a different kind of GPS or navigation map, there are still lots of options available. With over 3.5 million users worldwide and 50,000 maps of trails in the United States and Canada alone, it’s no surprise that AllTrails is one of the most popular navigation apps available for both Android and iOS platforms.
AllTrails provides detailed maps of routes in your area, along with photos, elevation, mileage, terrain notes, skill level, description, and driving directions to each trail. You can read other users’ reviews of the trail and view their photos; you can also write your own review of the route, as well as use the GPS Record feature to record your statistics as you complete the trail.
The app’s GPS feature also allows you to create your own routes and share them with other users on the app. Perhaps one of the most exciting features of AllTrails is the access it gives to routes other than hiking trails. Cyclists and anglers alike will find mountain bike trails and fishing spots in their area by using this app.
The AllTrails app itself is free to download and most of these features are free to use. If you are willing to pay $29.99 for a yearly membership, you’ll be upgraded to the Pro version, which, through a partnership with National Geographic Maps, allows you to download, edit, and even print your maps.
It might be difficult to find a map and GPS navigation app that tops AllTrails, but ViewRanger certainly comes close.
Available for both Android and iOS, ViewRanger is compatible with all of your Android and Apple smartphones, tablets, and watches, and provides a wide range of route and trail guides, international maps, and GPS navigation features. Because you can download guides and maps to your device before you leave your home, you can use ViewRanger without phone service or data, anywhere your travels take you.
Even though many of the maps are free, they’re of the highest quality, as ViewRanger partners with official mapping agencies to bring users topographic maps from 24 countries.
What’s more, you can use the mobile app or the ViewRanger website to locate routes and trails published by a huge community of outdoors lovers, from official agencies, to tourism boards, outdoors brands, parks, travel writers, and other outdoors enthusiasts; the GPS function allows you to record and track your routes, as well as create your own routes by setting waypoints.
When you join the ViewRanger social network, you can share your completed and recorded routes with other users, as well as locate new routes using the interactive map, since the website is integrated with the mobile app.
A free, Android exclusive app, BackCountry Navigator pulls maps from a variety of sources, from Open Street maps to official agency maps, to provide users with quality backcountry maps. These maps can be downloaded to your mobile device and used offline or out of signal range, making this app truly live up to its name.
This app also allows users to import their own GPS waypoints, record routes using the GPS, and add or change map layers and sources to find the perfect map for their off road, back country adventure.
Similarly, GPS Essentials is only available on Android devices and gives users a huge range of options for planning and tracking their routes. You’ll be hard-pressed to name a piece of route or navigation data that this app doesn’t display; in fact, the flexibility of the app’s dashboard and the array of features and options at your fingertips can be overwhelming at times.
GPS Essentials gives you access to maps with the ability to set and track routes by placing and managing waypoints, which you can import and later export in a wide variety of formats. Perhaps one of the coolest features of this app is its augmented reality head-up display, a feature that helps users orient themselves in the terrain by using their smartphone camera as a viewfinder.
If you’re simply looking for an app to keep track of your hiking, cycling, or walking routes, MapMyHike (as well as other MapMyFitness titles like MapMyRun, MapMyRide, and MapMyDogWalk) is free to download for both Android and iOS users.
MapMyHike and its family of apps track your route, providing information on your current and average time, distance, calories burned, and heart rate, among other statistics.
While this app is geared mostly towards outdoors workouts, it includes features that indicate the terrain and elevation of your hike and also allow you to search for and find popular hiking routes in your area.
A $6 monthly membership gives you access to real-time location sharing and tracking features, which let you follow your hiking friends as they complete routes, and also give you access to audio coaching for your workouts, recommended routes, and analyses of your heart rate data.
MotionX GPS (iOS only)
Another iOS only app that combines GPS navigation with fitness tracking is MotionX GPS. For $0.99, this app combines the benefits of apps like AllTrails and MapMyHike into one app geared toward outdoor enthusiasts and fitness buffs alike.
MotionX GPS provides users with a wide variety of maps, including terrain maps, road maps, and even NOAA marine charts for the anglers, swimmers, and sailors out there.
This app also features loads of options to search for tracks, trails, and destinations to pursue, along with the ability to define and follow your own trail using GPS waypoints and trail recording. You can also track the time, speed, and distance of your activity through this app.
The app’s offline capabilities come as a relief to those who like to venture far off the beaten track, too; you can easily keep your bearing and stay oriented as MotionX stores map information for offline use.
Outdoors enthusiasts are always looking for new ways to enhance their experiences in the wilderness. Whether you’re hiking, biking, sailing, or just taking a walk in the hills, you need to know where you are and where you’re going. With the plethora of GPS apps available for today’s mobile devices, the most difficult part of finding a navigation app is choosing which one you want to use!