Apps vs Maps, Which is Better on the Trail

Hiking is a great way to get enough exercise to stay healthy. If you love nature, it’s simple to make hiking a couple times a week a priority. The scenery can be relaxing, and spending time outdoors getting fresh air is never a bad thing. But when you’re on the trail, you need to be well prepared for your adventure or things could go awry.

Preparations aren’t anything to stress about. All you need to do is decide which tools you’re going to need during your hike and have a plan. Most importantly, you’ll need a map so you don’t get lost and can find your way back to your car. Finding a map to help you along the way isn’t always as intuitive as it might seem, though, unless it’s on Google!

The reality is we are living in the age of technology, and digital maps are actually more convenient in most cases. Apps often contain digital maps you can use for traveling, whether on foot or by car. But are they better on the trail than the good old paper maps that used to be essential for hikers?

Apps, Maps or Something in Between

Paper maps are often a top choice for hikers, but could there be something they’re missing out on by exclusively using physical copies of maps? Apps can offer a lot more than helping you map out your route, while a paper map only has one main function.

A paper map will show you the terrain, but it won’t show you where you are at the moment, any recent changes to the route or any surrounding businesses, sites, etc. Perhaps the only benefit of using a paper map instead of an app is that you won’t have to worry about running out of battery life or having a good signal on your device.

Luckily, there are ways to get around the potential problems associated with relying on technology to help you on the trail. And because there are ways to reap the benefits of going digital, apps are a much better option for your hike. So why would a hiker want to stick to using paper maps?

Concerns over Going Digital


There are a few common concerns hikers have over going digital. One main concern is, of course, battery life. No one wants to get lost on the trail, and if your battery dies or even if your signal isn’t so good, you could have a less-than-perfect experience. Depending on how long the trail is and what the terrain is like, getting lost could even be somewhat dangerous.

However, you can combat these limitations by using the proper tools. For starters, purchase a solar charger so you won’t have to worry about your phone’s battery running out in the middle of your hike. Bring along an extra lithium battery that you’ve charged in advance (power packs are an affordable option) or a charger that runs on AA batteries as well.

Apps that run offline will help you stay on track no matter your signal. If you have any concerns about the fragility of your phone, use a LifeProof case to protect it. LifeProof cases are made specifically for the adventurer and can withstand drops from 6.6 feet. They’re also dirtproof, snowproof, and waterproof (you can submerse them to 6.6 feet for one hour).

What Apps Can Offer

The main appeal apps have is they can be used for a variety of different things. They don’t exclusively provide you with digital maps. They can also help you determine the different species of plants or birds on the trail, track your location and the amount of steps you’ve taken, check your heart rate, or assist you with first aid if anyone gets injured during the hike.

Here are a few of the best apps you can put to use on the trail:

Some of Gaia GPS’s features can be used offline, so you won’t be without a map at any time during your hike. It has a wide variety of maps available, including satellite, terrain, road and worldwide topo maps, and you simply download them for offline use. You can record your progress on the trail, create waypoints and even tag photos, as well as sync your data across all of your devices.

PlantNet helps you identify different types of wild plants in your region based on the image of the plant itself. It’s a fairly simple app that uses visual recognition software, but it is quite handy while hiking since certain species of plants should be avoided. Since PlantNet is an ongoing project, you can also contribute by identifying specific plants that may not be recognized by the app yet.

Audubon Bird Guide is somewhat similar to PlantNet, but it offers some extra information and is specifically for identifying birds. You won’t need to upload any photos of your own unless you’d like to share them with other users, as this app allows you to identify birds by searching through a database and filtering the results by region, color, and shape. The ability to hear the sounds different birds make and view migratory maps especially makes this app unique.

SAS Survival Guide is an app based on a best-selling book about surviving in the wild. Though you hopefully won’t need to reference it on the trail, it can be worthwhile looking through it before you set out and is useful to have on hand in case of an emergency. It has a gallery of wild plants so you’ll know which are medicinal, poisonous or edible, as well as a climate survival guide, a sun compass, a first aid section and more.

Weather Live is a comprehensive weather tracking app that will keep you updated on the forecast. It’ll send you alerts and warnings when bad weather is headed your way, and you can use the animated weather radar to track current conditions. Extended weather forecasts are available, as well as the option to share them.

The Best Choicelists-where-to-find-the-worlds-greatest-walks-shutterstock-see-credit-below

When hiking, apps are the best choice overall. Paper maps are quite limited compared to apps, and with the versatility that apps have to offer, it’s unlikely you’ll switch back to paper maps any time soon. Though fellow hikers have raised some concern over the potential issues you could face by relying on technology while on the trail, you can easily avoid problems by having the right tools with you during your hike.

Paper maps have some faults too, as they can become ruined during a rainy or snowy day, aren’t updated automatically, won’t determine your current location for you or clue you in on any surrounding businesses, parks or other sites. Of course, you can’t use them to track the weather either. Simply put, the lack of features alone makes paper maps the least favorable option for hiking.

So which do you prefer to use on the trail: apps or maps? Do you have any recommendations for apps that can be helpful for your fellow hikers? Let us know in the comments

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