Best Phone Apps for Hiking and Camping in Washington

Paul Bunyan swung his axe, Davy Crockett wielded a rifle, and even the heroine of the hunger games had his bow and arrows. What tool do you have to brave the wilderness? What is your smartphone? Here are some of the best mobile apps for surviving and even thriving in the great outdoors of Washington.


While Google Maps will do surprisingly well when hiking near town – it’s actually not so bad on parts of Issaquah’s Tiger Mountain – the usual direction indicators are useless once you lose the cell service. Although there are several options for the route search, Gaia GPS (free for basic, $20 per year for full use) is one of the best. Don’t forget to download maps before heading into the backcountry dead zones (only available in the paid version) and search the Gaia GPS site for existing tracks of popular hikes or record your own way. CalTopoCommenta topographic mapping tool created by a wilderness EMT, has wonderful map resolution but is a bit less user-friendly for new mappers.

Trail seekers

Just finding a trail can be a headache. Washington Trails Association, our state’s unparalleled nonprofit devoted to hiking, has developed WTA Pioneer (free) to help sort route descriptions. An advanced search tool lets users sort by location, length, or elevation gain, and the collection of trip reports shows what relatively current conditions look like. The National All trails (free for basic, $30 per year for full use) has a similar catalog of trekking routes, along with tracking capability. Like Gaia GPS, the basic version does not allow directional assistance outside of cellular service.


You did it outside – now what are you looking at? A host of identification apps allow users to train the camera on various objects to know what is what. Built in part by the National Geographic Society, iNaturalist (free) allows downloading observations of plants and animals; while an algorithm tries to identify the photo, community members help place the specs more accurately. Washington wildflowers (free) has an equally impressive pedigree, built by the University of Washington Herbarium at the Burke Museum, with wildflower guide authors; it works entirely offline to determine which flower is blooming. Trees Pacific Northwest (free) teaches out-of-towners to name a tree themselves using various filters, then placing two similar photos side-by-side so you can pick the one that most closely resembles your real-world discovery.

Besides the flora and fauna, the most common headaches when hiking in Washington are the many mountains that line the horizon. PeakFinder ($5) can name every bump and arrow on the horizon, using a catalog of nearly a million picks. Similar programs exist for identifying stars in the sky, such as SkySafari ($15).


People have been playing outdoors for centuries, mostly without fancy phones, but now that we have them, they can make recreation much safer. Cairn ($27 per year) tracks trails, and when there is cell service, loved ones back home can track a hiker. It has built-in alerts to trigger the alarm if a hiker is late. While a phone’s GPS can tell the phone user where they are even miles from a cell tower, a satellite communicator is needed to communicate with the outside world in those dead zones. Garmin InReach and similar devices.


In an emergency, turn on the handheld. the FIRST AID The (free) Red Cross app downloads simple, necessary medical information to use even when there’s less service than a basement bar. It’s built with shareable badges earned through quizzes, but more importantly: there’s a Pet first aid (free) version too.