By Katie "Oats" Houston
Most outdoor enthusiasts are unlikely to embrace further dependency on devices, especially when you’re in the midst of a promising adventure. But what if I told you when mindfully navigated, phones can be a tool for learning, connecting with nature, and staying safe in the backcountry? If you’re naturally curious about the natural world and find a walk in the woods leaves you with more questions than answers, this is the article for you.
1. All Things Identification
Hikers tackling the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail often cross paths with the eastern red-spotted newt.
If you clicked on this article, you probably already have one or more of these incredible identification apps on your phone already. If you’re new to the doors your device can open to the natural world, just trust me when I say the possibilities are endless. Whether you’re looking to identify a leaf you picked up off the ground, a bird call that rouses you each morning, the mountain peaks in the distance, a mystery plant in your garden, or a rock your kiddo carried all the way home from the playground, you can bet there’s an app for that and the knowledge is just a few finger strokes away.
Noteworthy Apps: Merlin Bird ID iOS I Android, Seek by iNaturalist iOS I Android, Leaf Snap iOS I Android, The Audubon Bird Guide iOS I Android, Peak Finder* iOS I Android, Rock Identifier: Stone ID iOS I Android. *App available for purchase only.
Because constellations made an appearance in my high school science project and during an internship at a science museum in college where I taught the stories of the stars, I’ve retained just enough information to know what I’m missing out on when I look up at the night sky without the depth of the knowledge I once held in my head. You know what they say - if you don’t use it you lose it.
Now, thanks to some truly stellar apps, our phones have the ability to connect the dots between stars and expose the worlds that exist far beyond what meets the eye. In addition to the righteous pursuit of knowledge, sharing stories of the animals, legends, traditions, and morals shown in the history of the night sky increases empathy, connection, and understanding across cultures. You don’t have to wait for a clear night to take advantage of the knowledge at your fingertips, so take this article as inspiration to learn more about your favorite constellation.
Noteworthy Apps: Star Walk 2 iOS I Android, Sky View Lite Android, Moon Phase Calendar Android
There are 1,248 geocaches around Asheville, NC: My favorite hid in a large bush outside of a local pizzeria and was regularly stocked by the owner with $5 gift cards.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term geocaching, strap in because we’re dropping knowledge on a worldwide scavenger hunt sure to excite the inner child of nature lovers near and far. After creating a free account online or on the app, users gain access to coordinates to over three million geocaches all over the world.
Creativity is the name of the game for some dedicated cache-hiders, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary as your device leads the way (for instance a wildly convincing rubber spider) and always keep a pen handy to sign the logs. Larger geocaches often have trinkets or small treasures that can be exchanged for something of equal or lesser value, and if you’re lucky you may encounter a trackable or two along the way.
Though the app is free, a premium membership entitles the user to access all cache types and difficulty levels. Some of my favorites have included geologic features as the destination, clues to solve a series of puzzles, and data collection in lieu of a logbook. Premium also allows the user to download caches offline, which is personally my favorite part of planning my backcountry adventures.
Premium: $5.99/month, $29.99 annually
4. Recreate Responsibly and Know Before You Go
I used several navigation apps on the 330-mile Appalachian High Route to confidently connect the Appalachian Trail, Mountains-To-Sea Trail, the Black Mountain Crest Trail and the improvised Burnsville Connector.
As anyone who has been turned around on trail knows, there’s nothing worse than being caught unprepared in the backcountry. But never fear, there are plenty of apps available to make sure you’re tackling a trail appropriate for your skill level and heading in the right direction even when your adventures take you offline or out of your comfort zone.
One of the biggest developments in the modern age of backpacking has been accurate and reliable navigation and wayfinding. The digital age has been so revolutionary, many modern hikers will confidently hit the trail with power banks in lieu of paper maps, and universal cell phone coverage promises to be a real turning point for backpackers in coming years.
Formerly known as Guthook Guides, FarOut now offers paddle and biking routes in addition to their beloved long trail repertoire, and apps like AllTrails are helpful for hikers in the planning stage of their trek so they know what conditions to expect when they hit the trail. In addition to notable resources like water sources, road crossings, and shelters, users are encouraged to leave timely comments for the adventurers following in their footsteps. Offline access means getting turned around on trail is a thing of the past, and makes the varying price on each guide well worth the cost.
Weather apps including My Lightning Tracker and MyRadar have also proven to be valuable on-trail companions for when I’m considering risky travel above treeline or where to set up camp for the night, but it’s worth noting that these won’t do much good when your adventures take you offline.
Noteworthy Apps: Far Out Guides iOS I Android, AllTrails iOS I Android, Gaia GPS iOS I Android, CalTopo iOS I Android, onX Offroad: Trail Maps and GPS iOS I Android, My Lightning Tracker iOS I Android, MyRadar iOS I Android
This list is by no means exhaustive, so broaden our horizons by leaving a few of your favorites outdoor apps in the comments below!