There are thousands of useful apps for hikers, but before listing the best of them it’s worth taking a moment to think about what iPhones shouldn’t be used for. Navigation is high on the list, and mountain rescue services around the world are finding that inexperienced hikers trying to find their way with a phone rather than a map and compass tend to get lost very easily. Any phone can run out of battery, lose signal, or become unusable in heavy rain. Lesson: have a backup plan.
And while a purpose-built GPS unit can handle the weather, your iPhone is neither rugged nor water resistant off the shelf. So if you plan on having your iPhone with you for any serious amount of hiking, get a water resistant case that can take a beating. We like the Lifeproof ($80) case though we’re eagerly awaiting the debut of the solar powered Snow Lizard case (price and release date unknown but they are taking preorders for a $100 deposit).
6 Hiking Apps We Like For the iPhone
The apps that are intended for outdoor use, like the excellent iHikeGPS, will still display a map even when the cell phone signal drops out. They do recommend carrying a paper map and compass as a backup though. iHikeGPS can show you the elevation profile of a route you’ve just hiked or want to try, collect information on speed and progress, and give you an expected arrival time just like the GPS in a car. It’s good for planning days out as well as using on the hills, and you can also share routes with friends.
Having first aid information at your fingertips can be very useful in the backwoods, and there is no shortage of good apps that will let you find what you need fast. GotoAID is one option (there is a free lite version) or there is the entirely free St John Ambulance app, which covers all kinds of minor injuries and includes information on outdoor hypothermia, heatstroke, and drowning.
The Flashlight app is another helpful freebie. It’s not intended to replace a regular torch or headtorch- another item that should be in every backpack- but it can come in very handy around the campsite.
In fact, Gary (the editor of this site) likes to tell the story of using his old iPod Nano as a flashlight as he got lost on a trail while camping and it was the only light source he had – don’t ask me why he left his flashlight at the campsite but that’s what he did. In a pinch, an iPhone flashlight can be a real life saver when the other option is no light at all and the camera’s LED flash is actually pretty bright.
As ever hiker knows, it’s not just about going the distance but about having a good time and seeing the sights along the way. For anyone who has ever stood on a high lookout and tried to figure out which mountains they could see in the distance, there’s Point de Vue. The format will familiar to users of astronomy apps- point the phone at the horizon and it’ll display the names of the peaks in front of you.
Tap a mountain and you’ll see the height and distance from your current location. There is also an option to click through to a Google map. The downside is that the peak view information does have to be downloaded in advance so do this before you leave the house.
Apps can also help you learn more about the environment you’re passing through. Take birds for example. Audubon Birds can help you figure out what an unfamiliar bird is and will also let you record your sightings. There are plenty of others that will do the same (and for less than $19.95) but what really sets this app apart is the eBirds system, which is designed to help users find rare birds that have been seen in recently in their area.
One more note of caution to finish: just make sure you don’t use up all your battery having fun with Audubon Birds and Point de Vue. Leave enough that you’ll be able to make an emergency call if necessary, even towards the end of your hike unless you plan on taking one of those creepy iPhone chargers you breathe into with you.
Jess Spate is a long-distance hiker and a rock climber. She writes for Appalachian Outdoors, a Pennsylvania-based online outdoor store.
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