Lately it seems like it happens a lot. I’m out enjoying the satisfying crunch of hard gravel, dried leaves or icy snow under my boots on the trail. The peaceful babbling of a shallow brook begs me to follow as it tumbles over drenched boulders and winds around broad-trunked trees. The insane serenity of a multi-hued sunset captures my gaze, disturbed only by the wings of a bald eagle gracefully adding its own brush strokes to the color pallet. Then my smartphone vibrates, rings or pings like an unruly, spoiled child vying for my undivided attention. So how do you better enjoy the remote, undisturbed wilderness in this world of ever-evolving technological buzz? There’s an app for that. In fact, we’ve put together a list of 10 must-try outdoor apps for getting the most out of your time under the sun and clouds (and hopefully moon and stars, too.)
Nothing Phony About This
I’ve always brought my phone along on my outdoor adventures. Mostly for the convenient, compact camera capabilities. But up until a year or two ago, the only “App” this writer knew anything about was the old Whassup Budweiser Beer TV ads from the very late 1990s. At least that’s what it sounded like to me as those actors screamed, “Wazz APP” back and forth at each other while hanging their tongues out of their mouths like a lone wolf in endless pursuit of a whitetail deer on high alert. (Yes, I have witnessed that phenomenon – see here.) Even the corded phones they talked on in those commercials reminds me now of my limited technological prowess. But at Park Yourself Outdoors our new philosophy is, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
By joining them I don’t mean screaming into a phone. I won’t do that. Instead, I could go into detail, waxing poetic about Steve Jobs and how he first envisioned the App Store back in 1983. Another possibility would be to provide a detailed history of the first app ever included on an electronic device by Nokia in 1997. Nope. Or I could explore the wild success of Angry Birds – the first app ever to reach 3 BILLION downloads. But I won’t do that, either. I’m guessing that’s not what you’re here for. Instead, we’ll get right to our list of suggestions for 10 must-try outdoor apps … in no particular order.
Our List of Go-To Outdoor Apps
Seek by iNaturalist
This app is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. We use it to identify plants, animals and birds we encounter along the trail. Not sure what something is or want verification of your I.D. skills? Take a photo of what you see and plug it into the identifier on your phone to see if the app comes up with the same conclusion. The app uses your location to help narrow down the species that are commonly found in your area. There are both free and paid versions available. We always just use the free version and are more than happy with the results. There may be better individual animal or bird apps out there, but we like the versatility of this one go-to choice.
If your sense of direction on the trail could use a little extra common sense, this is the app for you! Download a map of the area you’re hiking, activate the app once you hit the trail, then watch your progress as a dot moves along with you to show your exact location. Find out how far you’ve walked and how far it is back to your starting point. You can even pin the trailhead or your parking spot to make it easier to find your way back home. The app download is free, and some of the downloadable maps are free, but others must be purchased before you can use them. The best part of this app is that once the maps are downloaded (with an active internet connection) the app can be run while offline. So, it never shuts you down if you’re in a spot with no service.
First Aid App – American Red Cross
Fortunately, we haven’t had to use this app yet. But it sure is comforting knowing that whenever we’re somewhere way out there, expert advice for everyday emergencies awaits right in the palm of your hand (or the contents of your smartphone.) Watch instructive videos, take interactive quizzes or follow step-by-step advice in a harried situation. Consider it to be your medical “splint” until professional help is available.
The Weather Channel App
No need to lick your finger, hold it up in the air and proclaim what’s about to happen out there. Now it’s easy to get accurate forecasts for the area you’re exploring. Map out the weather by hour, by day or even up to a week out to help you plan the best wardrobe or ideal timing for your adventure. Get real-time rain/snow alerts and check the radar. Heck, you can even track seasonal allergy probabilities, flu risk and COVID-19 cases in the area. The free version is more than adequate, but it does have plenty of ads that can be a bit disruptive during use.
RV Parks & Campgrounds App by ParkAdvisor
Do you choose a tent or trailer over a hotel on your trips? Then this app is for you. Count on it to help you find public, private and state-owned RV parks and campgrounds. Sort by park rating, proximity and more. It also contains U.S. Forest Service areas, U.S. Military campgrounds, KOA Kampgrounds, retirement communities, and more. It’s designed especially for use in North America. Need gas or supplies? Find RV-friendly stores, markets, fuel stops and more. Best of all, it’s completely free with no ads.
Star Tracker App by PYOPYO Studio
This mobile sky map and star gazing guide helps you navigate the night sky from firmly on the ground. Make the identification of constellations, planets and stars easier with this tracker and location system. The free downloadable version of the app does contain some advertisements and occasionally experiences orientation issues, but when it’s operating at peak performance it will leave you seeing stars!
National Parks App by Chimani
When you love the National Parks as much as we do, you’ve got to have a special app for your passion. This one is pretty impressive. It helps users discover all of the over 400 National Park Service units in the country. Pick out the national parks, historical parks, seashores, preserves and lakeshores you want to explore, then download detailed guides for each of them. Choose your interests and the app provides instant recommendations for each park. The app can even be used offline, for those remote, no-service areas in many of the parks.
A great choice if you’re an avid day-hiker. Users of the app can easily create, edit and share GPS-trackable trail reports and photos. So far there are over 50,000 U.S and Canadian trails uploaded. Find hiking trail/backpacking maps, bike trails, camping spots, and in my book its best feature – recommended waterfalls hikes. Filter your search results by length, difficulty and other criteria that helps you know what to expect before you even lace up your boots. The available reviews by other users offer some very insightful information. The basic version is free, but a Premium version is available for a yearly fee ($29.99 at the time of this writing.)
Bug I.D. App from The Catch and the Hatch
This app is my fly fishing go-to. The app walks you through a series of easy-to-answer observations of the insect you are trying to identify. Did you find it above or below the water? Does it have wings? How many legs? Etc. The questions narrow the search to a couple of pictures for you to match to your discovery. Once you have an answer concerning the type of bug you have found, the app will provide some suggested flies to use to imitate that I.D. type. Believe me, it certainly improves my confidence in fly choice.
iTrack Wildlife (Lite Version) App by NatureTracking.com
Ever wonder who you’re sharing the woods with? This is one of the most comprehensive digital field guides to animal tracks you’ll find anywhere. The Lite version limits out at just 8 species, but if you try it out and really like it, the app can be upgraded to a full-fledged paid version ($14.99 with 69 common mammals of North America at the time of this writing.) It’s very accurate and simple to use with an intuitive design. A great choice for everyone from the novice to full-blown wildlife experts. Get front and hind track drawings, track length and width averages, number and shape of toes, location by U.S. state and more.
NOTE: If you’re an iPhone user, you might want to look at MyNature Animal Tracks instead.
Looking for More?
I know we’ve already listed our 10 outdoor apps, but the possibilities are almost endless. A few others you might want to check out: Audubon Bird Guide App, Oh Ranger! Park Finder, and Just Ahead (for audio tours of specific National Parks). Just be aware that many of these apps are rather memory intensive, so choose those favorites that you will use often enough to warrant the surrender of the download space.
So, the next time your phone screams for your attention mid-trail, listen to its cries. Pull it out of your pocket or backpack and tap into its expert knowledge or advice on that go-to app. It just might be the best technological interruption you’ve ever had.
What’s YOUR Favorite App?
Do you have a favorite outdoor app that you go to time and time again when you’re exploring the wilderness? We’d love to hear your recommendations and the reason you’ll always keep them downloaded on your smartphone. We can’t wait for you to tell us about it in the comments box below.
Wondering where Meandering Mike and Parker Flatly are going to park themselves next? Well wonder no more! You’ll never miss another post when you sign up for E-mail Notifications here! Thanks for reading and we hope that you’re APP-ed to use one of our suggestions on a future outdoor endeavor!