Sometimes the best part of getting outside is turning off your smartphone and getting away from technology. But there are definitely times where your iPhone or Android can open up new activities, or put needed information at your fingertips. Here are the 10 best smartphone apps for getting outdoors.
SIDENOTE: You do NOT want to rely on your phone’s GPS for backcountry navigation, with very few exceptions. Why not? There is a detailed list of reasons in this article.
Strava quickly became my favorite web-app for tracking all my running training. The website is very clean, provides great reports, and let’s you follow your friend’s training (and comment and leave ‘kudos’ on their workouts). Perhaps, the coolest feature of Strava is the ‘segments’.
Segments are user-created, user-edited, and designate a portion of route where users can compete for time. You can use segments to compare your own times, or to compare with other user’s times who have also completed the segment. Segments are a great way to see who is in your area, and to link to the type of routes other users are riding or running.
Best of all, after you upload your GPS file to the website, it will automatically see if you ran any segments and show you your overall standings in the leaderboard for that segment. The smartphone app for Strava let’s you record your run or cycle using your phone’s GPS and directly uploads the file to your account after the workout is complete. The app also lets you see your activity feed, your profile, and explore new segments. If you use Strava you can follow me here.
For anyone who is a birder, and tech savy, this is a no-brainer compared to flipping though a book out of your backpack. But even if you’re not a birder, I can see where this app comes in handy. There’s been several times where I’ve been out hiking or trail running and have come across owls, which I think are amazing animals. But its frustrating if you don’t know the species. Having this app on your phone is the answer.
Everytrail is another website I use a lot. It is similar to Strava above, but geared towards hiking and walking, instead of cycling and running. The website allows you to comb through hundreds of thousands of user-generated trail guides. Each guide will allow you to view the GPS tracks on a map, download the tracks, view the elevation profile, and most have accompanying pictures and or even video. (You can see the trip reports I have created here). A few features of the app:
- Track your route with your phone’s GPS capability – see your route map drawn while you move
- Listen to awesome audio guides that give you hands free info at key POIs along the way
- Plot pictures taken with your phone’s camera on your map instantly
- Download maps to use offline when data connection is spotty or to avoid pricey roaming charges (Pro Version only)
- View stats while tracking (distance, speed, elevation and more)
7. What Knot To Do
“What Knot to Do (in the Greater Outdoors) is your pocket guide to 70 must know knots in six categories. With this App you’ll always have just the right knot at the ready, with clear step-by-step tying instructions to meet any and every outdoor need”. There are quite a few knot apps out there but What Knot To Do rises to the top. The knots are easy to find within their categories of bends, hitches, loops, bindings, stoppers, and specials. Each knot has some background detail about the knot, and explains when and where you’d most likely need to use it. Then there a several graphics that break out the process of how to actually tie the knot. A few features:
- Glossary of terms with over 70 entries
- Illustrated terminology examples
- Introduction to knots, cordage and knot tying
- Easy to follow step-by-step tying instructions
6. Google SkyMap
With SkyMap you can point your phone into the night sky to identify stars, planets, constellations, and even meteor showers. The app uses your phones GPS and compass data to identify the stars you are looking at. Or, if you want to find a particular star or planet, you can do a search for it, and SkyMap will show you where to move your phone to locate it. Pretty cool stuff!
5. Learn to Camp
Learn to Camp is an app developed by Parks Canada, and its surprisingly well done. It has four basic main areas; Camping Basics, Camping Checklist, Recipes and Cooking, and Find a Park. There is plenty of simple and basic information under the Camping Basics section. This information is not very detailed, but would be useful for newbie campers. The Camping Checklist lets you create a list of items you’ll need for your trip, which are added from pre-populated categories in the app. You can then cross them off as you’ve collected the items.
The app also shows you all the National Parks and general details about each site. This app is very handy. I wish they would team up with the Provincial Parks to add those parks into the app as well.
4. The Backpacker Checklist
The title of the app says it all. If you’re looking for a checklist that is more robust than the checklist built unto Learn To Camp (app #, above), then this is the one you want.
The Backpacker Checklist will help you:
- Plan ahead for what to bring
- Locate where to get your gear
- Calculate how much your pack will weigh
- Assist in eliminating stuff you don’t want/need to carry
3. GPS Essentials
Although you should not rely on your phone’s GPS (see side-note at the top of this post) for backcountry navigation, if you do want to record your tracks with your phone or otherwise use its GPS, GPS Essentials is hands-down the most feature-rich GPS app out there. The above video has a nice review of the app. A few of the features:
- Navigate, manage waypoints, tracks, routes, build your own dashboard from 45 widgets.
- Shows navigation values such as: Accuracy, Altitude, Speed, Battery, Bearing, Climb, Course, Date, Declination, Distance, ETA, Latitude, Longitude, Max Speed, Min Speed, Actual Speed, True Speed, Sunrise, Sunset, Moonset, Moonrise, Moon Phase, Target, Time, TTG, Turn.
- Show the orientation of the earth’s magnetic field, shows an arbitrary tracking angle and the current target. Also a marine orienteering compass.
- Record tracks and view them on map. Export KML files and import into Google Maps, Google Earth and others.
- Manage routes and view them on map. Import KML files from Google Maps, Google Earth and others. Create turn-by-turn instructions between waypoints.
2. My Nature Animal Tracks
It can be exciting when you discover animal tracks out in the woods. But if you haven’t studied tracks before, you’re left to guessing what tracks you are looking at. (This happened to me last year when I saw some cougar tracks in the snow).
The My Nature Animal Tracks let’s you easily identify the tracks you’ve found. ”Search by track size and shape in seven different illustrated categories to identify over 46 animals across North America. View actual tracks in the wild, reference illustrated gait patterns, range maps, digital images of animals and listen to each animals vocalazation”.
Geocaching is a really fun activity I’ve posted about before. The concept is very simple. You load the GPS coordinates for a ‘cache’ onto your handheld GPS or smartphone, use the provided hints, and go and try and find the cache, usually hidden in the woods or on a trail. There are different types of geocaches ranging in difficulty, but its the perfect way to have some leisurely fun in the outdoors, especially with kids.
Geocaching.com is the de-facto place to post and find new geocaches, and the smartphone app allows you to find nearby caches using your phone’s GPS. You can view hints, record your activity history, and more.