These 8 Apps Will Help You Explore the Great Outdoors


The wind is whispering through the trees, the air hangs thick with pine fragrance, and you just whipped out your phone. Don't feel guilty about logging on when you're out in nature! There are more and more apps out there that can seriously enhance your outdoor experience, rather than distract from it — whether you need a map that still works offline, an audio guide for your earbuds, or help figuring out whether you just stepped in poison ivy or a harmless shrub. (See also: 10 Smartphone Apps That Can Help You in an Emergency)

1. Bivy

A bivy is a lightweight personal shelter you can carry around while backpacking. Consider the free Bivy app a lightweight outdoor adventure guidebook. You can pull up the app when you're in a new area looking for a good hike, climb, or paddle. Better yet, you can use the app to record and share your adventures with fellow nature lovers.

This app also tells you when you're off the track, which, in my experience, would be pretty darn useful. Just last weekend, my husband, kids, and I were trying to hike to a waterfall using directions my husband had found online. We followed the landmarks, walked the recommended distance, and never found a waterfall. We still aren't sure what we did wrong. Next time, we'll use Bivy. (See also: 10 Most Breathtaking Day Hikes in the U.S.)

2. PlantSnap Plant Identification

There are several apps out there purporting to tell you what bush or tree you're looking at through photo recognition, but PlantSnap gets the best reviews from the most users on the iTunes App Store and the Google Play Store.

The developer claims that the app recognizes 90 percent of all plant and tree species on the planet, although according to reviews, it's a bit hit-or-miss. Still, if you love to take pictures of pretty flowers and shrubs, but never know what they're called, it's worth a try at $3.99 on iTunes or free on Google Play. (See also: 6 Surprising Ways a Houseplant Can Save You Money)

3. HERE WeGo

Billed as a free city navigation app, HERE WeGo can also be useful for deep woods hikes for one important reason: It lets you download maps even when you're offline. Save your destination on the map before leaving civilization, then hike without worry that you'll lose your connection when you need it most. This feature also makes HERE WeGo handy for international travel, if you don't have a data plan abroad. (See also: 8 Ways to Save on Smartphone Costs While Traveling)

4. Just Ahead

I'm famous for missing wild animal sightings — or tripping over my own feet — because my nose is buried in a guidebook. Just Ahead allows you to keep your head up and listen to an audio guide to a number of National Parks, including Yosemite, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and more. If the price seems high for an app (the app is free but each travel guide is an in-app purchase up to $19.99), keep in mind that these tours are professionally written and narrated by experts who have written for National Geographic and other publications.

And don't worry about losing your connection out on the trail; the guide will download to your phone and keep working out of cell tower range. (See also: How to Save on National Park Visits in 2018)

5. Sky Guide or Star Walk 2

Both of these apps use your phone's GPS and the concept of augmented reality to show you the stars and other celestial bodies that hover in the direction your phone is pointed.

The reason I'm listing both is that Sky Guide (for $2.99), made by Fifth Star Labs, is not available for Android. Instead, Android users (and iOS users) can try Star Walk 2, by Vito Technology, which is available in both free and $2.99 versions.

6. Maprika

Billed as a ski app, Maprika is actually much more. It will not only help you navigate hiking and biking trails, it can even help you find the bathrooms at a theme park or guide you around a college campus. The best part of Maprika is that it shows you exactly where you are on the map, just like the big, friendly, "YOU ARE HERE" points on board maps in public places. And if you're with a group that splits up, you can track your friends (or your kids) on the map, as well. (See also: 6 Cheap Date Ideas for Nature Lovers)

7. ChirpOMatic or Bird Song ID

As with the sky mapping apps, the best app in this category, ChirpOMatic, is only available for the iPhone at $3.99. So Android users looking for the same features use Bird Song ID, for $4.99.

Sometimes referred to as "Shazam for birds," these apps let you record bird calls, then they analyze the sound and guess what bird you're hearing. Like plant recognition apps, these are used with varying success; some reviewers love them and others end up frustrated.

8. AllTrails

AllTrails is a popular map app that covers the basics you would expect, like helping you find a promising trail and giving you directions along the way. One thing users love is seeing other users' comments; a recent review can save you from trying to hike a path that's covered in snow or searching for a waterfall that dried up a few years ago. With more than 50,000 ratings on iTunes, your chances are good that another user has recently tread the path you wish to explore.

The paid Pro version (for $29.99 per year) allows you to download offline maps, create custom maps, and to create real-time map overlays, showing conditions such as heat or air quality along your route — all without the ads you'll have to endure on the free version. (See also: 7 Affordable Destinations for Nature Lovers)

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