The Best Apps to Get Your Nature Fix On
When it comes to spending time outside, the best app is usually no app. But there are a few notable exceptions.
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I’m generally of the opinion that if you want to take the fun out of your run, there’s no better way to do it than by carrying a phone that invites you to obsess about your heart rate, cadence, and pace—all while randomly interrupting you with tweets from the president and Instagram posts from the Kardashians. I’m even on the record here at Outside begging you to keep your Instagram account locked while hiking so that you can be fully where you are. If the point of being in nature is to be in nature, it’s usually wise to leave your phone behind.
There are, however, a few exceptions. Not every app is liable to detract from your experience. Some can even augment it, including by counting the time you spend outside toward a medical prescription. The apps below weren’t built for medical professionals, though; what they all have in common is that they help keep you on course—sometimes literally—and in the present moment.
This app has a repository of over 60,000 trails for running, hiking, and biking. It rates each as easy, moderate, or hard, and many of the listed trails include crowdsourced ratings and comments. Another thing that’s great about this app is that it provides in-depth directions to trailheads and GPS-enabled maps of the trails themselves. So if you’re prone to poor directions, this app is especially worth considering.
AllTrails offers two versions: the first is free and gives you access to trailheads, reviews, and online maps, while the Pro version, which runs $2.50 per month, allows you to download maps for offline use. This comes in handy if you’re hiking in areas with poor reception. It’s also great because it lets you keep your phone on airplane mode, so you don’t need to worry about being taken out of the moment by calls, texts, or other notifications.
MapMyRun, which was acquired by Under Armour in 2013, provides many of the same features as AllTrails. Perhaps the best is its ability to plot out a custom run, ride, or hike from your computer (complete with information on distance and elevation) and seamlessly load it on your phone. The maps are GPS enabled, something I know about firsthand, as this saved me from getting badly lost during a solo hike around the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado, a few years ago.
For $6 per month, the MVP version of this app also syncs up with Under Armour’s smart shoes and provides heart-rate data, pacing, audio coaching, and more.
If you absolutely must have an app to track the distance you cover, you might as well raise money for charity in the process. Charity Miles tracks your movement, and for every mile you cover, it donates money to a charity of your choice from its list of 42 approved partners, which includes the ASPCA, the Nature Conservatory, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. (Check out the complete list here.) You can earn up to ten cents a mile for biking and 25 cents a mile for running. Money doesn’t grow on redwoods, so where’s it coming from? Large corporations, who figure that better than another sponsored tweet is to advertise on the platform. After your workout, you’ll see both the total money raised and the corporate sponsor it’s coming from.
If you’re going to be visiting a national park and want some guidance along the way, I’d encourage you to hire a guide. Good guides are priceless, and it’s an industry that supports and depends on intimate human-to-human connection.
If you can’t afford to book a guide, the Chimani app is a good plan B. It offers information on all 418 national parks in the United States, including detailed guides for over 60 parks—and the detail is no joke: everything from in-depth maps to parking information to a listing of museums in the park to the best places to see the sunrise and sunset to dining and lodging and even a rundown of active waterfalls.
My love for trees is romantic. I don’t necessarily need to name and categorize trees to appreciate their beauty. But if you’ve got more of a classical disposition, then TreeBook is for you. Produced by veteran forester Steve Nix, this free app offers identification tools for more than 100 of the most common trees in North America. Immerse not just your heart and soul in nature but also your brain, with detailed descriptions and scientific terminology for each of these trees.
The lowest-tech app of all is undoubtedly the most valuable when it comes to enjoying nature: share the experience with a friend.