Review: The 25 Best Outdoor iPhone Apps

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Not even a year ago, there were those who questioned the hoopla over the iPhone. And here we are now, secure in the knowledge that Apple’s micro-Mac isn’t just a radical new phone, it’s a revolution in computing, communication, entertainment, and connectivity. If you disagree, well, you probably don’t own one. And that’s not meant to be snotty–I’ve arrived at this conclusion after testing nearly every smartphone available and then stepping up with my own precious cash for the iPhone and monthly unlimited calls and data. It’s a spendy conclusion, but oh-so-worth it.

So, with more than 15,000 programs in the iTunes store, what of those for use in the outdoors? Do the iPhone and Mother Nature play well? The short is answer is “yes”. The iPhone excels at delivering information. Programs that channel local knowledge–surf reports, snow reports, water flows–are perfect applications of the phone’s strengths. Those that replicate already-dialed electronics, like GPS, bike computers, and training devices, maybe not so much. (And of course you have to consider whether you really want that $300 chunk of sweet electronic envy exposed to the elements.) But still, the iPhone itself is already on its way to becoming indispensable and will become even more so–these 25 outdoor apps are part of the reason why.

Two quick things before you hit the list:

One, iPhones don’t swim and they don’t like sweat. Invest in the strongest plastic baggie in the world, the aLoksak from Park City, Utah–the waterproof bag keeps content safe and dry down to the bottom of the lake. Get a three-pack of the five inches by four inches for $6.39.

Two, it’s probably not obvious, but if you click on the app’s title, the link will take you to its page in the iTunes Store. Oh, and click on the thumbnails to see the screen grabs larger.

ALPHABETICAL BY CATEGORY.
JUMP TO BIKE * FITNESS * MISCELLANEOUS * SNOW * TRAIL/NAVIGATION * WATER * WEATHER
“BACK” TO RETURN TO TOP


ASTRONOMY

Moon Atlas
Cost: $5.99
Six bucks will weed out the casual from the lunartics, which is a shame cause this is one very sweet and detailed moon app. It represents the big chunk of cheese as a sphere, which is how you really see it (as opposed to flattened), and has 1,800 named features and the locations of 26 spacecraft. And while you probably won’t need to search for many spots by name, it does that, too, and has a wonderful Google Earthian flyby and you come in above it. Oh, and it also lets you view the dark side of the moon–cue Pink Floyd…now.


MoonMap Lite
Cost: Free
Divides the moon into quadrants and lets you scroll through seamless NASA photos of lunar surface, with 200 named objects. The image zips across the screen with the flick of your finger–it’s a great companion with binoculars. But you’re left wanting more: more detail, more objects, more resolution. All those features are available for $2 with the full version.


SoLuna
Cost: $.99
If your primal intuition isn’t quite strong enough to tell you when the moon is full, get this simple lunar phase app. As you can see from the pic, it shows you moonrise and set, sunrise and set, phases, etc., for any date and any location. And that’s about it. Simple is as simple does.


Star Walk
Cost: $4.99
Star Walk has the coolest interface of any app, astronomy or otherwise: All your planetary and stellar info scrolls across a gorgeous map of the stars and looks like the navigation screen of some intergalactic cruiser. It’s the prettiest and most enjoyable way to scan the night sky short of walking outside and looking up. And you can fast forward through time and watch the night sky streak across the screen. The content itself, though, is rudimentary: Star Walk helps you identify what’s in the sky and not much more. It sure is purty, though.


Starmap
Cost: $11.99
Far simpler and not as pretty as Star Walk, Starmap is actually more usable. There are more controls are your fingertips, searches are faster, constellations are ID’d in a split-second, and there’s beta on extra-stellar objects like meteor showers. Oh, and it has a flashlight that works in white or night-vision-saving red. The bottom line: Both of these programs are simple star finders–they’d be a lot more engaging if they including actual information on the star, planets, and constellations.


BIKE

Bicycle Gear Calculator
UPDATED: Cost: Free $4.99
I swap chainrings on my single speeds about once every presidential election, but I still think this app is fantastic. Most cyclists don’t need or don’t care about the esoterica of gear ratios or gear inches, but if you’re a wrench, single speeder, or fixie fanatic, you’ll find it irreplaceable. The freebie quickly calculates ratios using chainrings from 20-tooth to 61-tooth, sprockets from eight to 35, and cranks from 150 mm to 200 mm. Simple, efficient, and fast, it does one thing and does it well. UPDATE: The price changed just after this review posted. At $5, Bicycle Gear Calculator is for true believers only.


iMapMyRide
Cost: Free
Map My Fitness is a big social networking site that allows you to upload and share training rides. Not my thing, but this iPhone app works with it seamlessly. Registration required.


FITNESS

Absolute Fitness
Cost: $15
At last check, there were 27 pages of health and fitness apps on the iTunes store, everything from the sounds of Hawaiian waterfalls to trackers for menstrual cycles. Most are superficial and somewhat hapless. If you’re gonna use the iPhone as an exercise aid, go all the way: Absolute Fitness pulls all your efforts under one roof and keeps track of calories consumed, calories burnt through exercise, weight, body fat percentage, BMI, and more. At 15 bucks, it’s not for dabblers–it’s a fully featured, powerful little life organizer. The database of foods is extensive and you can easily add custom items or whole meals. Online reviews have mentioned crashes, but I’ve never experienced any–the only glitch is that the amount I enter for a particular food sometimes resets itself to zero. Perhaps it was coded by an Italian mother wants me to eat more?


MISCELLANEOUS

Flashlight.
Cost: Free
Turns your screen white. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of this. Also gives you red (great for stargazing), green, blue, black (huh?), custom color, all of which can be brightened or dimmed. And sorry about the picture, but it’s better than a plain white screen.


Knots, Splices and Ropework
Cost: $1.99
How much of an outdoor geek are you? The test is whether you think this app rocks. I do, so capital G for me. What is it? It’s a copy of the 1917 guidebook by outdoorsman A. Hyatt Verrill, which outlines 154 knots, splices, and tangled messes of cord. It’s filled with old school writing and illustrations that never go out of style, and the content is every bit as valuable today as the guidance in “Freedom of the Hills”.


SNOW

Ski Report
Cost: Free
Despite the clunky design, this is a killer app: Using the iPhone’s location, it organizes resorts by those closest to you and shows at a glance base depth and recent snowfall. Click down a page to the resort level and it shows dumpage in the last 24, plus the four most recent snowfalls. And very cool, it displays onsite ski reports from users. A lot of these boil down to “sick!” but it’s still the only fast independent verification method short of calling a local bro. Oh–and there are quick links to weather and webcams. This app should be on every skier’s and boarder’s phone.


iTrailMap 3D
Cost: $4.99
This app from Big Air Software will track your runs throughout the day, log your stats, and let you load the whole data cluster to Google Earth. Nice, if you like novelties, but not especially useful. The real power is that it displays a three-dimensional view of the resort, so you can grasp the topography you’re riding faster than with any trail map. Using the touch screen, you can spin, enlarge, pull back, etc. Resolution could be higher and the inclusion of topo lines would make the terrain feel even more 3D, but it’s still a clever, informative little program.


iTrailMap
Cost: Free
The sister app to iTrailMap 3D, this freebie is the best software for viewing trail maps. All it does it display the resort’s map, but it’s one of the few programs that lets you enlarge the map big enough to be useful. Coverage of North America is complete, Europe less so–unless they’re hiding under neighboring resorts, there’s no La Grave or Alagna, for example. Big Air Software is continuing to add maps, though, so you just have to drop an email and ask them to include the missing resorts.


The Snow Report from the North Face
Cost: Free

TNF learned the elementary school lesson that neatness counts: This is the best designed, most modern-looking of all the snow applications. Easy on the eyes, as the saying goes. And it’s the only one of the snow reports whose images don’t suck. With great photos of Sage Cattabria-Alosa, Ingrid Backstrom, and others, shot by masters like Scott Markewitz, the free app is almost worth downloading for spontaneous snow stoke on photos alone (even though there are just a handful of pics).

The snow report itself is visually arresting, graphic, and presented in a simple grid. Current conditions, recent snowfall, and the weather forecast are quickly grasped with a glance. Data is provided by snocountry.com, the same service that powers REI’s app and seemingly dozens of others, so there’s nothing special there, it’s just organized well. Another cool feature is a quick link to a detailed weather forecast for the resort by the National Weather Service, but this opens in Safari and can take ages to load.

Other features fall short. The app is preloaded with three resorts–if you want more, you have to add them yourself, and navigating to this feature isn’t obvious. There’s no scrolling by region, either. You can view trail maps, but they’re so low resolution as to be almost worthless. Still, it’s worth a few clicks and a sync to check it out.


REI Snow Report
Cost: Free
It’s free, but don’t waste your time: This snow reporting app is poorly organized, slow, and too blatantly commercial. Surprisingly greedy for a company known for its customer service, the iPhone program shows four panels on its home page–three are resort reports you select, the fourth is a link to shop online at REI. Piping snocountry.com reports can be done faster and less offensively through TNF’s report.


Ski Jump Lite
Cost: Free
What a hoot! The game is nearly as much fun as gelande and a whole lot less dangerous to your body and skis. I hucked it 88 meters on my first jump. Beat that, sucker! Of course, I have yet land properly, but hey, crashes count for style points, right? And chicks dig digital scars, right?


Utah Snow Report
Cost: Free
Surprisingly useful. I say “surprisingly” because expectations are low when apps are so clearly commercially self-serving. But this is a good build. The main menu is plain jane–a simple alphabetical list of Utah’s resorts, but when you drill down to the resort level it gets a lot better. At a glance you see recent snowfall, current webcam, last two snowfalls, and a brief overview of the area. There are links to trail map and resort website, but these launch Safari, which is a drag. One cool idea: There’s a “call resort” button that dials it up for you.


TRAIL/NAVIGATION

Google Earth
Cost: Free
It would seem lame not to include Google Earth here, but the mini me is a pale shadow of its desktop/laptop self. Nowhere near as featured and darn slow to boot, it’s worth downloading cause it’s free, fun, and singular. Just don’t expect the same “wow” experience you get on a big machine.


iMapMyFitness
Cost: Free
Map My Fitness is a big social networking site that allows you to upload and share training runs, rides, hikes, etc. Not my thing, but this iPhone app works with it seamlessly. Registration required.


Motion-X GPS Lite
Cost: Free
There are dozens of apps that use the iPhone’s GPS to record speed, distance, routes, waypoints, and all those other navigatory geekimetrics. But every time I use one, I feel like a doofus. Why carry the weight and risk the damage? But if you are gonna do that, here’s your pick: MXGPS seems the most accurate of all the trail apps and plots pace, too. You can set waypoints and navigate back to them. And there’s even a rudimentary map feature–it shows your track, but not terrain or streets.


Trails
Cost: $2.99
Trails runs neck and neck with Motion-X GPS Lite. Its emphasis is on tracking routes and waypoints, not speed and distance. Oh, it does the latter, but its mapping is superlative. Using Google Maps, it provides views of road, satellite, or topography. And you can email or upload your waypoints and track in the near-universal GPX format, which can be added to “real” GPS units.


Trailguru
Cost: Free
If you want cheap mapping from your trail program, check this one out–it incorporates Google Maps. You can’t add waypoints and it seems consistently less accurate than Motion-X. But hey, there’s maps.


WATER

Oakley Surf Report
Cost: Free
Be skeptical of corporate infiltration of your outdoor brainspace, but be the first on your block to DL Oakley’s bitchin’ Surf Report–this thing kicks major ass. It compiles every little tidbit of watery data this side of buoy readings, worldwide. Oh, wait, there’s that, too. Wave size, interval, tide, sunrise/sunset, forecast, weather…the big O’s application even tells you when and how a particular spot breaks best. And hey, all you intermountain wave geeks, there’s no Sayulita report so you’ll have to rely on regional forecasting…but it’s 3 to 4 and the water temp’s 77.


RiverGuide for Kayakers
Cost: $4.99
Near as I can tell, this is the only application for paddlers, but it’s so good it’s the only one you need. With 11,000 stream-flow gauges across the United States updated as often as every 15 mintues, RiverGuide tells you current conditions on just about every creek, river, or waterway you can put in. Search by name or region–results are almost instantaneous. For that alone, RiverGuide is worth five bucks, but it also has a sweet news service: Sorted by style of paddling (whitewater, sea, rafting, canoe) or region, it summarizes the latest developments from around the world (a random click turned up river news from the Jakarta Post)–and you can read the full story without leaving the app.


WEATHER

AccuWeather
Cost: Free

WeatherBug
Cost: Free

AccuWeather, Weather Bug, and the Weather Channel offer solid free weather apps, but AccuWeather is the best: It has the most features, the most video reports, and the best interface. The home page has six dedicated buttons, including one for special weather alarms and one for National Weather Service alerts–you see almost everything at a glance. And while AccuWeather is a one-stop meteorologist, Weather Bug is worth downloading too. AccuWeather stinks at displaying multiple locations, but that’s where Weather Bug excels. As for the Weather Channel app, it’s fine. But AccuWeather gives more and better-organized reports.


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{ 55 comments…read them below or write one }

    • mhuyck

      If you’re actually a birding enthusiast, be sure you take a look at iBird Explorer Plus… at $19.99, it’s a bit pricier than the region-specific and “backyard” guides, but you get a guide with *all* North American birds instead of just the ones you’re likely to find at a feeder.

      There’s no life list feature yet, but there’s a rumor that such a feature may appear in a free future update.

  • Gary Britton

    Pretty good list but you are missing the most important thing:
    FM 21-76 US ARMY SURVIVAL MANUAL
    Which can be downloaded in PDF format and saved onto the iPhone using an app like Air Sharing or similar.

    How can you have an outdoor app review without a survivor guide?

    I carry it on my iPhone. Wish there were more or even a poisonous plant guide.

    • Jan Liverance

      @Gary Britton, Apologize for late reply; finally ‘broke on through to the other side’ / w/ purchase of new 3G iphone in July. Go to the Apple store apps section and search for iMedjet. Link to the company blog: http://blog.medjet.com/?p=137

      This app is free, so why not get it? Interface is good looking and easy to navigate but the info is pretty skimpy. For example, under poisonous snakes, there are only one or two listings, i.e., coral snakes, but nothing about rattlesnakes or water moccasins.
      My guess is they’ll offer a paid version that is more complete at some point, probably when they offer it for the Blackberry, Google G phone, Palm, etc.

  • Yeti

    Great review!! I personally am not a fan of phones, but this is a great media source and wow, what a ton of cool things you can add!! I had no idea this type of thing was out there.

  • John G.

    Very informative. I was hoping to find some sailing information for weather and offshore bouy reports, but I sense that there will be a lot more of these apps coming in the future. Thanks a bunch.

  • Terry Lane

    I was directed to your site by an RSS feed from Apple. Unfortunately, I find it almost impossible to read. As a graphic designer with some 45 years experience that includes website design, I would suggest that you either change the page background colour to white or choose a much lighter shade of grey for the text. It is well known that reverse type (white on black) is hard to read, and since there are legal requirements that a website must be accessible by handicapped persons, I think it would be wise to review your design. I am surprised that Apple, a company that has built its business around an easily accessible user interface, would recommend your site. It would appear that promotion of the iPhone is more important than adhering to their own high design standards.

      • Terry Lane

        @Rob, very funny – I thought it might have been my 65 year old eyes! I was impressed however, that Steve took my comments seriously enough to go to the trouble of emailing me to explain that the problem I was seeing was caused by a “massive glitch” and he has been working flat out to correct it. He has succeeded – so I won’t have to throw out my 45 year old monitor after all. ;-)

        • Neil

          @Terry Lane, There is no legal requirement for this website to be accessible by handicapped persons. I believe that law only applies to websites for government departments and essential services.

  • Nate

    No astronomy review of iPhone software is complete without Distant Suns! All reviews I have read consistently put this one as #1!

  • Rndy

    Great review and glowing recc. For iPhone Love the outdoors. Love to hate the fact that apple is over and above the rest. Nothing beats the app store!!!!!

  • John

    When I left the apple store with a little buyer’s guilt for getting the iphone – wondering, did i REALLY need to buy this. Yes, my Treo was starting to lock up on the keys and driving me insane, but just reading this review (as an outdoor enthusiast) brings tears to my eyes! okay not really, but wow, just killer! Now I’m just waiting for my bumper stick “What would Apple do?” (and not offense to replace Apple with Jesus, but jeeeze…)

  • john Chappell

    Some time ago I saw an app for bird watchers with ID and bird calls now I cant find it Is there such an application

    • birder

      @john Chappell, the app you are looking for is ibird… has 144 birds with id pictures, range, photos, calls, and access to wikipedia. doesn’t have every bird but is very useful! Keeps me from carrying all those field guides. another app to check out is birdjam which can be loaded into itunes and transferred to your iphone…. has an eastern version, western version, and a special one for warbleers. Happy birding

      • scasimiro

        Hey, all you birders–muchos apologies for not including apps for you! My ignorance of the passion behind it is showing. I’m currently testing every birder app I could find and will have a review posted very soon–perhaps by the end of the day today.

  • Scott Chilton

    Excellent review Steve. While Starmap does not have detailed information, there are some details lurking below the surface. If you touch an individual star in a constellation a text box will appear with the name of the star, its magnitude, class, distance in light years, RA, Dec, and whether or not it is a double star or variable star. You can obtain similar information on nebula’s as well. Check out Orion for a good example and “keep looking up”.

  • Jonathan

    Great list, though there is one notable exception: the geocaching app from groundspeak. It’s an extremely helpful app for anyone who loves this fantastic, albeit little-known sport!

  • Eytan Bernet

    Another recommendation I would make, although it is hardware and not software, is some kind of battery extender for when you are out in nature. I use the FastMac IV – 3150 mAh, which effectively quadruples your battery power. GPS takes a LOT of juice, and if you plan on using any waypoint or mapping tool when out there, additional power is essential.

  • Tony

    Great list! I have all the freebies installed and I especially enjoy Trail Guru. The only one on the list, Bicycle Gear Calculator, is the only one that I would give serious thumbs down to. As a DH and BMX racer, gearing is everything to me. If you ride, really ride, then you can just use the FREE calculator and figure out your own ratios. $5.00 LOL!

    Death to Fixies (not single speeders, but the fashion boys with their messenger bags with nothing in them and rolled up pants, gotta luv’ it)

  • Leslie Nordness

    I am confused. People complain about a $4.99 app. It is $4.99 one time charge. If you can’t afford that, you can’t afford the phone

  • Gib Hoxie

    Suggestion for when you update your review: Mention whether an app works when out of reach of AT&T’s network (i.e.: relying solely on GPS and data stored in the iPhone). I’ve found that some apps fail if they can’t download data realtime.

  • Freya

    geez I was on the lookout for a fitness related app and finally found it, now I can return that DS game with the pedometer I just bought yesterday. Now why didn’t I think of an iphone app first!? Thank You!

  • Norman McLachlen

    I would like Apple to come up with a connection that could be plugged in to the IPOD Touch to allow us to buy a wireless device from Rogers or other phone company. I know you say just buy a Iphone
    but how many IPOD touches have been sold, I would buy a add on device so I could get wireless service no matter where I am.

  • bert

    After half a day hiking the battery is empty, so all your outdoor apps are useless. Anyone out there with a suggestion of a nice beanie aka portable lead-acid battery of goretex solarcell poncho that keeps the iPhone rolling?

  • lenny

    Hi Steve,

    great outdoor-app-listing. Thanks for that. Good job. BUT:
    I’m really missing one great app here, It’s name’s B.iCycle and ‘m using it for weeks now and it makes me definitely happy on my trips…. :-) Check it out! …:-)

    Keep on writing cool stuff and Cheers, … :-)
    Lenny

  • Brian

    I’m really surprised you didn’t put the Geocaching app in the Navigation section… other than that, good list.

  • Pingback: The Sierra Nevadas » The 25 Best Outdoor iPhone Apps

  • Sergey

    StarWalk is really great thing. I’m not very agree with Steve, but may be we have different versions – for me content is sufficient. Addition of digital compass made it owesome!

  • Tonto

    This is a good review- thanks for the tips! Any thought on revisiting and updating the list now that a year has passed? I think it’s particuarly relevant to mention apps that store offline content- ie, they work with or without a connection/signal. I think both the iPhone and iPod Touch are a wonderful but still underappreciated wilderness companion, providing field guides, maps, and of course music, books and movies for leisure moments. And of course don’t forget to mention the Otterbox cases, and how about methods of supplemental battery charging? Oh, and does anyone have a tip for reading the screen when outside…?
    Some of my current favorites, in addition to the ones listed above: Pocket Universe, Topo Maps, First Aid from American Red Cross, and Army Survival Field Manual. iBird and Sibley both look like good birding guides, and throw in Stanza and a couple games for entertainment…

  • Joe Wilson

    GPS Kit & GPS Kit HD (which were just featured by TIME Magazine) aren’t on this list? Makes me think they didn’t do much research. Everyone I know who wants to do any serious tracking/navigating in the outdoors uses GPS Kit.

  • Richard Easterling

    For your soaking enthusiasts there is also a series of Hot Spring Guide apps for both the iPhone and Android platforms. These apps contain lots of details on each hot spring, GPS moving map navigation, good search functionality and on-board databases for off-the-grid use. Coverage for is for most of the Western US:
    iPhone/iPod: http://itunes.apple.com/app/california-hot-springs/id324476217?mt=8Android: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.hotspringsfinder.android.WestCoast

  • some dude

    @Joe Wilson: Maybe next time if YOU did a little more research, you would have noticed the date that this article was written, which was almost 2.5 years before the TIME Magazine article you mentioned. Maybe the author should get a TIME Machine?

    P.S. Sean Penn does a good you

  • WalkTheTalk

    The new iFootpath App – iFootpath Mobile has just been launched. It has lots of new features including walks to download, GPS tracking on walk maps as well as the ability to create tracks and walks from the App. It’s free at the moment but this is likely to change. The website is

    http://www.iFootpath.com

    and the itunes link is

    http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/ifootpath/id460757115?mt=8

    There is a new forum on the iFootpath website if you want to post up some comments.

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