I’m not much of an app person, usually. My phone’s storage space is tied up in images and music, and as a rule, anything that could make the nose-dive into internet land more appealing is off-limits. I’m not necessarily anti-screen—there are certain things about my smartphone that have definitely enriched my life—but unlocking my iPhone usually feels like a bad habit, especially when I’m playing outside. However, there are a few notable applications (these are all iOS-based) that fall into the “enriching” category, ones worth sacrificing precious tunes and images for, that serve to make life in the outdoors more educational, accessible, and just plain awesome.
An ideal tool for any backcountry traveler, Gaia GPS seamlessly blends utility—topographical maps that allow you to plan and track routes—with the ever-present desire to “claim it.” It’s easy to record and share adventures, whether that’s a local ski tour or an overnight backpacking trip. The data you gather about your pace and elevation gain is helpful for training purposes and, of course, bragging about how much vert you gained/how fast you went/how rad you are. More importantly, you can share beta super easily—did you take an incredible journey you want your friend to experience? Share your route. By app standards Gaia isn’t cheap ($19.99), but the app works offline, in airplane mode so it can effectively replace a Garmin GPS in your backcountry kit. Just be sure to bring a portable means of charging the phone if you plan to be out for a few days and you expect to check your positioning often.
All Trails overlaps with Gaia as a mapping app, but All Trails is best for someone who travels primarily in the front country, for on-trail day hikes. With an easily searchable database of just about every hiking trail in the United States, All Trails is a great tool for a road tripper looking to hit the trail in unfamiliar places.
I’d like to take credit for wishing this app into existence, because I’ve had dozens of conversations about how awesome a search-by-image database of plants and wildflowers would be. LeafSnap uses visual recognition software to match your photo of a mysterious tree’s leaf with a species in their database. Though it only includes tree species in the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada, it’s slowly expanding.
The Audubon Bird Guide is a beautifully digitized version of a classic Audubon Field Guide to 821 species of American birds. It’s easily searchable and has interactive features including birdsong recordings, migration maps, and growing geographic databases of recent bird sightings. Whether you’re actively identifying species in the wild or just scrolling through the beautiful images and learning about whatever species fascinates you, this is one of the best birding apps out there.
An awesome tool whether you’re sightseeing or out in it, PeakFinder will show you what you’re looking at when you hold your phone up towards a mountain range. It’s simple but hugely helpful—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helplessly searched the web for a straightforward depiction of what I’m looking at as I watched the sun set beyond the Olympics, or hiked up to an unfamiliar vantage point in the North Cascades and been totally turned around. It works offline, too, which is crucial for wilderness excursions.
Similar to PeakFinder, Sky Guide (iOS, $2.99) and Star Map (android, free) let you point your phone at the sky, night or day, and see what stars you’re looking at (or happen to be lurking behind that big blue dome). The geography of the sky is hard to learn, and these apps make fireside stargazing that much more enchanting. Pick out planets and constellations, and learn a bit more about how the sky changes throughout the evening and throughout the year with the interactive map.
For the beginner forager (or just anyone keen to learn a bit more about mushrooms), the new Mushroom Guide App is a perfect intro to mushroom identification. Beautifully illustrated by mycologist and artist Julie Johnson, the ever-growing catalog of hand-drawn scientific images includes important information about each species and a map to log your finds.