It's no surprise that a number of top mapping and travel companies and GPS-makers have jumped into creating iPhone and Android operating system smartphone apps. The high-resolution color touchscreens and built-in GPS sensors and cameras on these devices make them natural platforms for maps, trail guides, photo taking and sharing, social media sharing, mileage and travel logs and trip diaries, and more. Smartphones also have a downside for hiking, though. They are vulnerable to water damage, and hold a charge for only a day or less. Read on for my top five picks, plus the best solar charger. Click images to expand.
Trimble Outdoors Navigator Hiking GPS App (Free, iPhone, Android)
The Trimble Outdoors Navigator app has a robust feature set for hikers including fully integrated GPS, five different map types, including streets, aerial, hybrid, topographic, and terrain, plus the ability to download and store maps on the phone, so you can use maps when out of cell phone/data range. The Navigator app is also rich in technical features for the more experienced hiker, including digital compass showing magnetic north and true north, the ability to mark, store, and describe waypoints
, stored tracks, and the ability to match your latitude/longitude or UTM coordinates to your paper map or GPS device. The Guide Trips feature lets you follow trips recorded by others. You may store and share trips on the Trimble Outdoors website.
Columbia GPS Pal (Free, iPhone, Android)
The Columbia GPS Pal app has a simpler feature set than some of the other dedicated hiking GPS apps, but it's easier to use, and faster to learn. I selected it for the top five list because it has an outstanding trip "journaling" capability including:
- Use videos, notes, and photos to set GPS tags at favorite spots.
- Track and store route, distance, time, pace, and elevation automatically.
- Rate and describe events.
- Organize and label events on Columbia's GPS Pal website.
- Share trips via Facebook, Twitter, or by e-mailed link to Columbia's site.
- Store data in both the app and on your own GPS Pal site.
- Automatic sync with website account.
Google My Tracks (Free, Android-Only)
Google's My Tracks for Android operating system smartphones does many of the things you'd expect a hiking app to do, and it does them quite well. In My Tracks, you'll find a nice maps and route tracking utility, detailed speed, time, distance, and elevation tracking, and the ability to upload and store routes to Google Maps. You may also share via Google+, Facebook, or Twitter. Setting My Tracks apart is a suite of connectivity options, including Bluetooth-compatible heart rate monitors, ANT+
heart rate monitors, and SRM bicycling power meters. My Tracks is also exceptionally good for exporting routes to various standard formats including GPX and KML.
MotionX GPS ($0.99, iPhone)
MotionX was one of the earliest entries into the GPS hiking
app category, and to the company's credit, it has been aggressively updating the app and adding features at a steady clip. MotionX offers several different apps, and this review is for the MotionX GPS version for hikers. MotionX is known for its distinctive, wheel-shaped touchscreen control panel, which provides quick and direct access to its functions. MotionX GPS also has an easy-to use control panel for starting and stopping track recording. Maps, record tracks, mark waypoints, download and store maps for use when out of cell tower range, digital compass, and sharing are all on board the MotionX app. You may also set the app to provide live updates of your position.
National Parks by National Geographic (Free, iPhone)
National Geographic puts a different spin on the hiking GPS app category with a focus on U.S. national parks
. After you download and install the free app, you can get highly detailed information about national parks for in-app purchase from $0.99 to $1.99. Park information includes maps, guides, tips, "park secrets," beautiful photos (this is National Geographic, after all), and the ability to get collectible digital stamps for parks visited, and to share your trips. One user called this app "inspiring" and I have to agree. It makes you want to experience the parks and appreciate their beauty.
Smartphones use battery power at an accelerated pace when running a GPS app. If you are hiking or backpacking and using an app to stay on track, you will need to recharge more frequently than usual. That can be a problem out on the trail, which is why I'm including a terrific portable solar charger in this review. The JOOS Orange charger stands out because it makes highly efficient use of solar power - unlike much of the competition. For example, JOOS Orange can generate 2 hours of 3G talk time for every one hour in the sunlight. JOOS Orange is waterproof and rugged, and has its own built-in battery. It comes with a charging cable, USB and micro USB ports, and charges iPhone iPad, Android, etc. as well as cameras that take micro USB.