A smartphone is an essential item of kit these days when you’re out for an adventure. Enabled by a huge number of apps your phone is not only a camera, GPS, notebook, torch, musicplayer … but can also give you a map, weather forecast, emergency beacon, guide to nature and so much more.
I’ve selected ten essential apps for the outdoors, a guide to some of the very best apps available (among hundreds !).
How do I know they’re among the very best? In short, these are the best outdoors apps that I use on a frequent basis. I’ve tried quite a few but through trail and error, these ten are the apps that I keep returning to again and again.
So if you’re a hiker, cyclist, nature-lover, stargazer, aurora-chaser or camper then I hope you’ll find some apps in this list that you’ll want to continue using.
1. Mountain Flora and Fauna
Best for: Identifying mountain plants, birds and animals when you’re out in the hills. Using shape, colour and other characteristics the app helps you identify what you’ve seen.
Most useful features: Mountain Flora and Fauna features simple, picture-driven navigation that narrows down the options and gives you a short description of relevant names, habitats and characteristics.
Drawbacks: Experts may want for a greater number of species and plant types but for most of us, the choice is perfectly adequate.
2. First Aid
Best for: Simple, no-nonsense advice on actions to take in a medical emergency.
Most useful features: First Aid, developed by the British Red Cross, provides excellent, clearly-laid out advice, diagrams and Q&As. Each section set out what to do in the event of an emergency in sequence. Where you need to cool a burn under cold water for 10 minutes the app includes a button which links to your smartphone’s timer. Where you need to call 999 a button allows you to call it directly from the app.
Best for: Planning and recording routes for cyclists, walkers and other outdoors folk. Using ViewRanger to turn your smartphone into a GPS effectively makes dedicated GPS devices redundant. Read my full review of ViewRanger (note this is the pre-Skyline version).
Most useful features: ViewRanger provides very clear on-screen mapping using OS maps which are stored offline on your phone (ie no need to rely on a phone signal to download from the web, like Google Maps for example). Easy transfer of routes/tracks to and from the ViewRanger website, and useful data to analyse on your return home. The new Skyline feature, which identifies summits and other features transposed on the view through your phone’s camera, is a huge improvement on other apps such as Peak Scanner. Currently, the whole of the UK at 1:50,000 scale costs £90, the National Parks cost between £10-£60 at 1:25,000, and each GB ‘regions’ (at 1:50,000) are £8.50.
Drawbacks: Battery drain can be an issue in continuous tracking mode – switching to ‘power save’ mode and adjusting other settings is advisable.
Best for: Family and friends who want to track your cycling, hiking and kayaking adventures.
Most useful features: FollowMee offers a real-time location monitor using your smartphone’s GPS. Family and friends log on using a browser to follow your journey. The GPS uploads data every few minutes in the background and doesn’t use much battery power.
Drawbacks: It’s a basic-looking app, but works !
5. Mountain Weather Information Service
Best for: Accurate UK mountain weather forecasts up to 3 days ahead.
Most useful features: MWIS is the go-to source for detailed mountain weather forecasts. The next day’s forecasts are uploaded around 4.30pm and a new twice-weekly video provides a detailed forecast for the weak ahead. The app also includes links to a number of summit webcams.
6. Night Sky 4
Best for: An advanced stargazing app which gives an animated view of planets, stars and satellites just by pointing your phone up at the night sky.
Most useful features: Just point Night Sky 4 at the night sky to identify constellations. The premium version allows you to land on the surface of the Moon and experience Moon Tours of the Apollo 11 and Apollo 15 landing sites.
7. Solar Monitor
Best for: Monitoring solar conditions for a potential aurora.
Most useful features: Solar Monitor gives current conditions (eg Kp value, solar wind speed) and a forecast for the potential likelihood of an aurora for 3 days ahead. Live alerts push space weather alerts to your phone when a particular Kp threshold is reached. I’ve found this to be more accurate that other aurora forecast apps.
Drawbacks: None, once you understand the terminology and can interpret the data.
8. Hill Lists
Best for: Keep a tally of which summits you’ve climbed in the UK and Ireland.
Most useful features: Hill Lists provides location and height information for popular UK and Ireland hill lists including Munros and Munro Tops, Corbetts, Grahams and Donalds, Welsh and English Furths, Wainwrights and Outlying Fells, Birketts, the Irish 900s, Arderins, Binnions, Carns, Vandeleur-Lynams, all County Tops, the Trail 100 and many more. You can link through to route guides on Walk Highlands and weather information on MWIS.
9. Echo 112
Best for: Notifying your location directly to the emergency services worldwide.
Most useful features: Echo112 automatically detects which country you are in and will then select and call the correct local emergency number. Your position is sent to the emergency operator who will be able to see where you are. The location is accurate to within 30m.
10. Mountain Weather UK
Best for: Forecasts for all UK and Irish mountain areas and individual popular summits for up to 5 days ahead.
Most useful features: Mountain Weather UK collates current synoptic weather maps, forecasts (MWIS), avalanche reports (SAIS) and recent weather station observations into one app. Also provides forecast maps of rainfall, cloud, rain, temperature and atmospheric pressure.