The best navigation apps make planning, executing and sharing awesome adventures more and more accessible. Competition in the app market is fierce, with platforms all vying to offer the best user experience.
Always remember though, you shouldn't rely solely on a mobile app. A paper map and compass won’t ever run out of batteries or stop working in bad weather. At Advnture, we advocate knowing how to read a map and how to use a compass ,and having both traditional and digital forms of navigation when out in the backcountry, just in case.
So, what are the benefits of the best navigation apps over traditional methods? Why should you bother with one when you set forth in your best hiking boots? For a start, the best apps for navigation do much more than just navigate, providing a sort of one-stop-shop for your adventure needs.
The best apps for hiking assist your route planning, giving you useful timings and other stats; some provide inspiration, with recommendations from other users and photos of highlights along the way; some allow you to share your hike with your followers, allowing them to download the route to use themselves; and some provide to-the-minute updates on weather, or even let chosen contacts follow your progress live.
With so many applications and innovations to still come, it's a great time to download the best hiking apps and start exploring.
The best global navigation apps
Worldwide route-planning capability for hikers and bikers
Find it: komoot.com | Price: Basic: Free; per map: £3.99 ($3.99); bundle: £29.99 ($29.99) | Available for: iOS; Android
If you are a cyclist or mountain biker, then chances are you will have heard of komoot, which has been rapidly growing in popularity over the last few years in Europe and is now hugely expanding its US focus. It’s arguably better for pedallers than plodders, but the redeeming feature is that it can be the best friend of a lazy planner, as you can simply pop in the start/finish location for your chosen adventure and it will work out a suitable route for you – with options on paths, roads or trails.
The maps themselves are quite basic,, but for cycling they are more than adequate. The free version includes one downloadable offline map of a region, with the £3.99 ($3.99) charge applying to each additional map purchased. Those looking to use it a lot should opt for the £29.99 ($29.99) one-off payment (a lifetime purchase, rather than annual subscription – a bargain), which – impressively – covers mapping worldwide.
There's also komoot Premium, which gives the user the full range of features including the multi-day planner for thru hikes and the like, the on-tour weather and sport-specific mapping, among other benefits. This costs $59.99 a year.
Navigationally it provides turn-by-turn directions. Of particular use is that they highlight routes suitable for road/mountain biking as well as cycle touring, and allow you to see what sections of the road are paved and which are dirt tracks. But its popularity comes from the social media/community aspect, as users are encouraged to log in and highlight favoured spots and recommendations, which definitely adds value to the user experience and makes it one of the best navigation apps you can download today.
Highly detailed maps and an active community of fellow explorers
Find it: outdooractive.com | Price: Basic: free; Pro: £2.23 per month; Pro +: £4.45 per month | Available for: iOS; Android
Like komoot, Outdooractive is a German product that offers route planning and navigation capability for a range of outdoor pursuits, from hiking and mountaineering to road cycling and mountain biking. The company bought the popular Viewranger in 2019 and the teams have been working together to optimize the platform going forward.
Outdooractive is chock full of route suggestions from Sunday strolls to epic alpine adventures, making it one of the best navigation apps for exploring new locations. Like komoot, the community plays a big part and you can share your routes and suggestions. One big plus is the inclusion of regional topographical map types, such as Ordnance Survey in Britain or IGN in France, which are much more detailed than what you tend to find when using maps that used Open Street Maps as their base. However, to access these you do require a monthly subscription. There are also Travel Guide pages where you can read exciting stories and travelogues from expert writers.
There are three membership levels. Basic is free and gives you the option of planning and navigating routes, as well as the ability to download GPX files. You can also rate and review routes and accommodation. Pro is £2.23 (about $3) per month and gives you access to the regional topo maps, removes ads from the platform and enables you to use maps offline. Pro + is £4.45 (about $5) per month and gives you access to an even wider range of detailed topo maps, allows you to embed your routes onto your website or blog and features 3D maps.
Pre-plotted routes for all trail users that you can save and use offline
Find it: alltrails.com | Price: Basic: free; pro membership: £29.99 | Available: iOS; Android
If blazing your own trail is not what you’re about, and you’d sooner follow ready-made routes that are tried and tested, then AllTrails is a good option.
The free version allows you to search the database (there’s over 50,000 routes featured) to find a whole host of hikes close to wherever you find yourself – including dog-, wheelchair- and stroller-friendly options, which all come with distance, elevation and timings as well as (handily) images and reviews, not to mention a function to be directed (via Google Maps) to the start of the walk, and a quick weather forecast too.
You can also write and submit your own route if you want to share your favourite strolls. The premium package gets you all this, but crucially downloads (so you can still use it when no phone signal is available) notifications that tell you when you’ve strayed from your route, a ‘Lifeline’ tracker (so your family and friends can see where you are) and a number of map overlays to show terrain.
It’s one of the best navigation apps for when you find yourself in an area you are not familiar with, though the level of mapping detail means it isn't ideal for the mountains.
Footpath Route Planner
A brilliantly simple point-and-shoot route plotting app
Find it: footpathapp.com | Price: Basic: free; single route: £1.99; annual subscription: £21.49 | Available for: iOS; Android
If you’re keener to map your own routes with a swish of your finger – literally – then Footpath Route Planner is the best navigation app for you. Footpath will let you use your digit to draw where you’d like to get from and to, then snap the line to a map to show you available trails and roads to get you there.
Not only that, but it will also measure the distance and elevation you’ll encounter, allow you to save routes for use later (up to five for free) and share them with friends too. You can also select what activity you’ll be doing – from the standard walking, running and cycling, to SUP, kayaking, skiing and even sailing (though the snap to map function is less useful on the latter ones).
You need to pay the annual subscription to access Footpath Elite's additional handy features – including turn-by-turn navigation instructions, map overlays (such as topographical versions with cycle lanes, and avalanche slops shading), the ability to save unlimited routes, record your stats and export and export GPX files. However, there's also an option to just pay £1.99 (about $2.50) for a one-off more-detailed map called a Single Route Pass.
The best navigation app for globetrotting hikers and bikers
Find it: outdoorsgps.com | Price: Basic: free; Pro annual subscription: £30 | Available for: iOS; Android
Claiming to be the best navigation app you’ll need to have adventures across the globe, is quite a bold statement, but OutDoors GPS is definitely well up there if you pay for premium membership. Although this navigation app does offer maps covering the whole world, to get the quality you'll need for hiking (beyond Google Maps level) you will need to pay the £30 (about $35) yearly subscription fee for a Pro account.
The good thing is that you can store any of the maps on your phone, which is useful if you have no internet connection, and does mean you can use it anywhere. Plus you can use the Route Builder function on the desktop version and import them into the app, which is useful for planning.
There’s also an active community who share their own outdoor jaunts – from hikers to cyclists, runners and photographers – currently there are more than 200,000 free routes available, as well as worldwide maps in satellite, terrain and hybrid overlays.
Best navigation app for the US
National Park Service
Feature-packed and free – the US National Parks at your fingertips
Find it: nps.gov/subjects/digital/nps-apps | Price: Free | Available for: iOS; Android
For those heading out to explore America's national parks, the National Park Service (NPS) app is the best navigation app by far. It features a wealth of features that go way beyond navigation. There's information about local amenities, access to webcams, lodge reservations, suggested itineraries, restaurant bookings and even virtual postcards so that you can share your experiences with family and friends. Best of all, the app is totally free!
Of course, any hiking app worth its salt will be judged by its maps. The NPS app's are detailed, interactive and user friendly. Most importantly, they work offline too, which is great if you're concerned about signal in remote areas or data usage. Having all the national parks in one handy app is a real game changer. The National Park Service are adding features all the time so, while the app is already great, it will only get better.
Best navigation apps for the UK
Super detailed maps for outdoor explorers, now in digital form
Find it: osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk | Price: Free; £29.99 for 12-month premium subscription for Landranger and Explorer maps | Available for: iOS; Android
You can’t think about maps of Britain without picturing the ubiquitous orange and pink folded gems that are the Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 (Explorer) and 1:50,000 (Landranger) charts, respectively. Still the tool of choice for any orienteering training, it’s good to see that OS has moved with the times and made an app available on your phone. But is it as good as its paper counterparts?
The free version of OS Maps – which includes basic mapping and sharing, creating and printing routes – is OK, but not really detailed enough on the ground. However, once you pay the annual £30 subscription, the entire range is at your disposal – in all scales – meaning you can plot, share and follow a route, for walking, running and cycling anywhere in Britain and download it to your phone, then track your position once there.
It also unlocks a 3D Tabletop rendering to give you a good idea of the terrain you’ll encounter as well as a nifty augmented reality option so when you stand on a summit you know exactly what you are looking at.
The only issue is that you can’t orientate your map (turn it to the direction you are facing) which would be useful, but the fact that it works in tandem with the desktop site makes it one of the best navigation apps for pre-trip planning as well as in the great outdoors.
Community-built app that aims to encourage people to explore
Find it: gojauntly.com | Price: Basic: free; annual premium subscription: £19.99 | Available for: iOS; Android
Similar to Alltrails, the Go Jauntly app offers free access to browse a whole host of walking routes stored in their catalogue, which have all been provided by other outdoor lovers who know the areas covered well.
A fairly new addition to the best navigation app lineup, its focus is mainly on the UK and Sweden (with only specific areas covered in both) with a particular focus on London (its underlying ethos is to encourage city dwellers to go outdoors more). Its database is much smaller than Alltrails – there are currently around 800 trails on offer.
Though more basic (and of course not featuring the more technical maps found on the likes of Viewranger and OS) there is a lovely feelgood factor to what this app is trying to achieve, with useful information for fairly newbie hikers and bikers, including train stations, toilet stops and cycle docking stations, as well as photos, key interest points, directions and even a ‘nature notes’ feature, which you can use like a diary to record the little things that inspire you on your stroll such as birdsong, wildlife or flowers.
Premium subscribers pay to use the trails offline, get special access to premium curated routes and help fund the app for those who can’t afford to pay – now doesn’t that feel good.
Best navigation app to pinpoint your location
Get a simple three-word address to identify any location on Earth
Find it: what3words.com | Price: Free | Available for: iOS; Android
Though certainly not an app to rely on to help you find your way across a mountain or through a jungle wilderness, what3words is still worth a mention.
Invented by a man who was sick of having delivery men unable to find his home in rural Hertfordshire in the UK, he devised a system whereby the whole world was divided into 3x3m squares (that’s 53 trillion total for those interested), with each one being uniquely identified by, you guessed it, three single words. It's a gloriously simply idea, and one that can be used to pinpoint a very exact location with map-phobic friends who wouldn’t know what a bearing or grid reference was.
It’s by far one of the best navigation apps, and has now been adopted by many emergency services including air ambulance, police and fire and rescue, as well as guidebook publishers Lonely Planet (to identify landmarks), and even parts of Africa and Mongolia where – away from the cities - street names don’t always exist. Mapping-wise it can be used to navigate but only via basic free software such as Google/Apple maps.
But it does add some creativity to meet-up points and is super useful when you travel – especially as its available in nearly 50 languages, and counting.
How to choose the best navigation app
Hiking technology has moved on leaps and bounds, and navigational apps are no different. Your choice of the best hiking app will depend on what you want to get out of it. Are you looking to simply use it as a GPS tracker when you're out on a walk, or do you want the full experience of route planning, live tracking, sharing your routes and photos on social media and being part of the community that creates the platform? Are you going to use it simply for walking, or do you want an app with sport specific maps and things like voice navigation for cycling?
If you also enjoy a spot of camping, you might want to consider downloading one of the best camping apps, perfect for finding the ideal pitch.
Here, we break down some of the features to look for in the best navigational apps:
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Many of the most popular hiking apps offer the whole world at your fingertips. This obviously gives them global appeal and they're really useful for quick trips abroad. However, there are mountains that no one has yet climbed, places that are still unchartered, and so it should come as no surprise that not everywhere has been accurately mapped yet.
With this in mind, in terms of truly detailed mapping of the kind of mountainous regions we love to explore, no one has yet created a product that covers the whole world. When you compare the accuracy and painstakingly precise mapping of regional experts – such as the Ordnance Survey for the UK – to global digital mapping platforms, there's simply no comparison. So if you spend 99% of your time hiking in a specific region, see if there's a dedicated mapping platform for the area; the odds are it will be much more detailed.
Ready made routes
Many apps boast ready made, tried and tested routes that you can open up on your phone, grab your day pack and set out onto the trail. On some apps, these routes are accompanied by things like a written summary, a community rating and information about the strenuousness of the hike and the elevation stats. These are great features if you're not confident enough to plot your own route yet and you're looking for a recommended hike.
Some of the best navigational apps have powerful route planning tools, meaning you can dream up your ideal hike, plot it using the platform and get an idea of things like how long it will take you and even how many calories you can expect to burn. Many work in tandem with a desktop version and you can usually download your planned routes as a GPX file, which will be compatible with other platforms and GPS devices.
You can alleviate the worry of your friends and family by allowing them to live track your movements. Of course, this means you will all have to be on the same app platform, but this is an excellent safety net that means you'll never go missing without a trace (as long as you have battery). This is also great if you're taking on a big peak-bagging challenge or a ultra run, as your friends can track your progress.
Social media sharing
'If it's not on Strava it didn't happen' has become something of a saying in the online running community. With apps like komoot providing a fun and easy to share your adventurous exploits on social media, the same could be said of hiking these days. After a walk, the best hiking apps allow you to share your photos, your thoughts, your personal highlights and create your own content for the platform, giving you a great sense of ownership. You can label other people's contributions as useful or not useful and get inspired by each others' antics.
These days, many apps offer sport specific maps and features. After all, what's useful for a speedy road cyclist is different to what's useful for someone who's loaded up like a mule on a thru-hiking expedition. Some platforms now offer voice navigation, which is tremendously useful for fast pursuits like cycling, mountain biking and trail running, where you don't want to be looking at a map every time you reach a junction.
Navigation apps FAQ
Should I use Google Maps for hiking?
No. While Google Maps does show some hiking trails, it is not recommended for use as a hiking app. It doesn't show the level of detail you need to navigate effectively, such as contour lines. Further to this, it may recommend routes that take you into dangerous technical terrain, which it made global news for after leading hikers up a hazardous route on Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain.
Do I need a GPS device or can I just use my phone?
These days, a smart phone is a perfectly good navigational tool, as long as you are using a high-quality, dedicated hiking app. The ability to see your location on a topographical map in real time is a marvel that explorers of old would have been amazed by.
However, technology is fallible and batteries can die. We would always recommend also carrying a map and compass and knowing how to use them, as well as having a navigational app. It's also a good idea to bring a power pack so that you can charge your phone, should it be running out of juice.
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Alex is a freelance adventure writer and mountain leader with an insatiable passion for the mountains. A Cumbrian born and bred, his native English Lake District has a special place in his heart, though he is at least equally happy in North Wales, the Scottish Highlands or the European Alps. Through his hiking, mountaineering, climbing and trail running adventures, Alex aims to inspire others to get outdoors. He is currently President of the London Mountaineering Club, training to become a winter mountain leader, looking to finally finish bagging all the Wainwright fells of the Lake District and hoping to scale more Alpine 4000ers when circumstances allow. Find out more at www.alexfoxfield.com