5 best FREE iPhone apps for hikers

When Apple first released the iPhone, they ran an ad campaign that promised, “There’s an app for that.”  That was an iffy statement back then, but today, there’s not just one app for that, there’s dozens.

So let’s cut through some of the muck.  I’ve listed five free apps that I use regularly on the trails.  I’ve tried many others, but these are five that have survived every app purge of the past few years.

I’d love to discover more, though.  So if you have apps that you use that you think I should try, leave them in the comment section!

1. AllTrails

There are a ton of trail-finder apps on the market, and they all do different things well.  I’ve tried most of them, and AllTrails offers the best selection of nearby trails and is, without question, the easiest app to navigate.

It’s a bit like Yelp! for hiking trails

It provides the usual, useful info about each trail – seasonal warnings, available activities, trail lengths, etc.  You’re also always one click away from driving directions and a topographical map of the trail – both useful features if you’re looking to find a trail when you’re in an unfamiliar area.

Better still, AllTrails doesn’t force you to join a social network, register for an account or join a mailing list to search for trails.  Of course, if you choose to officially sign up, there’s lots of other available options, like being able to upload photos of the trail as you hike it.

The trail search is only half of this app; the other half is a GPS-based hike tracker.  For some reason, on my iPhone (4S) and with the most-recent app software, the hike tracker crashes the app every time I use it, rendering that whole section of the app useless.

Needless to say, I stopped using this app for tracking hikes a long time ago.  But it’s still the best app out there for searching for hikes, and thus, it remains in my personal pantheon of great hiking apps.

And, when I want to track a hike, I simply turn to…

2. Trimble Outdoors Navigator Pro

In many ways, this app is the opposite of AllTrails.  It too has a trail-finder service and a trail-tracking service.  The trail-finder is useless (really, absolutely useless), but the trail-tracker is brilliant.

It’s simple design makes it very user friendly, which is great, because the last thing you want to while on a trail is stop and troubleshoot phone apps.  You can flick the tracker on and off, and the app reliable plots your progress on a variety of maps, including topographical and terrain.

Also, with one click (and I use this frequently), you can check all of your hike stats.  On long day hikes, which I do most often, keeping track of your pace can make the difference between getting in before dark and spending the night in the woods.  The elevation-change stat is more of a novelty in Florida, but you’d be  surprised.  If you head to Georgia or the Carolinas, or if you spend the weekend on the Appalachian Trail, the elevation change feature can be extremely useful.

Of course, it also tracks your speed, distance, hike time, etc.  The app also features a built-in compass and the ability to save hikes for later.

The drawback: The free version doesn’t give you the option to load hike maps before you leave, so the app can’t do much if you aren’t getting 3G reception.  But unless you’re heading out into the great unknown, you shouldn’t run into many problems.

All in all, if you like tracking your hikes, this is the app for you.

3. My Altitude

OK, this is a simple one.  My Altitude tells you your elevation (and a few related stats), and that’s it.

Screenshot of My Altitude app

But it does it quickly and simply, and it avoids one of the major problems that plagues the previous two apps.  It doesn’t drain your battery.

Apps that track hikes or runs or other trips are incredibly power-intensive.  Your GPS is running the entire time, and that can really wear on your battery and your data plan.  This app re-calibrates your altitude every time you open it, so while you’re hiking, it’s completely inactive.

If you only care about checking your elevation (which I do when I hike with paper maps), then this app is a great way to go.

For the record, the other bits of info the app provides are your GPS coordinates, the barometric pressure and the boiling point of water.

4. SurvivalGuide

This is a worst-case-scenario type of app.  If everything goes well on your hikes, you’ll likely never need it.

But for anyone who’s seen James Franco’s “127 Hours” (the one where the hiker resorts to cutting his arm off to free himself from a fallen boulder), you can appreciate the importance of survival skills.

This one is more of a book-turned-app than a traditional app.  There’s no real interactivity, few buttons or options.  But it does give quick access to a tremendous variety of survival information: Everything from identifying poisonous plants, snakes and spiders to building shelters to desalinating sea water.

Even if nothing ever goes wrong, it’s a fun app to flip through when you find yourself with some free time.

In remarkable detail, it describes how to survive in hot, cold, desert, tropical and aquatic situations, and I’ve learned a lot about the outdoors just by reading it.

Once you’ve installed the app, you won’t need internet to view it, so it works well even if you’re pretty remote.

Thankfully, I’ve never needed it, but it’s calming to know that it’s there.

5. SkyView Free 

Maybe I’m cheating here, because this isn’t a hiking app per se, but I couldn’t allow this post to leave me without at least one plug for a stargazing app.

International Space Station in SkyView

There are several variations out there, but SkyView is my favorite.  If you’ve never used a stargazing app, the idea is a simple one.  Point your phone in any direction, and your phone will use your GPS positioning to tell you exactly what stars, planets and consolations you’re looking at.

The star map is shown on top of your live view (from the rear-facing camera on your phone), so its easy to pick out which star is which.

If you’re camping, or stopping at a shelter on a multi-day hike, there’s no better post-campfire activity than looking at the stars.  Having this app with you is like a little astronomer in your back pocket.

So that’s my list.  I know there’s lots more out there, and if you’re willing to pay for apps, that can completely change the ballgame.  Are there any apps that you regularly use while hiking?  I’d love to compile some more lists of great outdoor apps in the future…

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Comments

  1. Do you happen to know if these apps are also Droid phone friendly or if there are Droid equivalents? I actually still have a just-barely-qualifies-for-smart phone, but I am trying to see if a Droid phone will suit my needs since I cannot convince myself to spend $100 a month for an iPhone plan. Thanks in advance for the help and great post!

    • AllTrails, Navigator Pro and SkyView are all available on the Android Marketplace. And while I don’t know for sure if Survival Guide and My Altitude are, I know for a fact that there are similar apps that will work just a well.

      When you get that new phone, come back and guest post about great Android apps! 🙂

  2. Awesome, thanks for the reply.

  3. Hi my favorite app to use for hiking and tracking my trips is “Everytrail” check it out at everytrail.com

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