13 Useful Smartphone Apps for Your Next Thru-Hike

Before a thru-hike, I cleanse my phone of apps I know I won’t use, freeing up storage space for maps, reading and audio materials, and photos. To save a few bucks, I also cancel subscriptions to many streaming services and apps I know I won’t use at the normal frequency I do in my day-to-day, off-trail life.

That said, there are some apps that are useful both on and off trail, as well as plenty that I only use while hiking. These are the apps that save me time, money, and/or happiness on the trail. Before setting out, I like to ensure I’ve got the most updated versions of these apps and that they’re downloaded for offline use (when applicable).

READ NEXT – The Ultimate Guide to Thru-Hiking Electronics

The Best Apps for Your Next Thru-Hike: Quick Navigation

Food & Beverage


thru-hike apps: hiker holds up smartphone playing the Startalk app with mountain laurel in background

Podcasts, audiobooks, and music can help make the miles go by. Photo: Amber Redfield

1. Libby

When I’m thru-hiking, I keep up a steady rotation of music, podcasts, and audiobooks to stave off boredom and keep my mind as active as my body. While there are various apps to consume these media, from Audible to Spotify to Apple, the one I use the most is Libby, because it’s free.

I’ve lived a lot of different places and acquired library cards from each one. I’ve got seven in total. But you only need one library card to access a vast catalog of free digital material wherever you go. Libby is an app that grants you access to your local library’s collection of ebooks, audiobooks, and digital magazines.

If you’re already on trail when you read this, it’s not too late. The great thing about most libraries is that even if you can’t get a physical card in person, you can still get an e-card for checking out digital materials that can then be accessed via apps like Libby and Kindle.

2. Kanopy

Although I know many hikers who pre-download entire seasons of “The Bear” or movies to watch in their tent at night, I’m personally not one of those people. Typically, subscriptions like Hulu, Peacock and Netflix get the axe before a thru-hike, and I reserve storage space on my phone for other things, like all of the Tooth and Claw podcasts.

But to each their own. If you see yourself wanting to stream an occasional movie, but not regularly enough to justify the cost of a monthly subscription, you might want to check whether your library card gives you access to Kanopy, a free movie streaming app.

Perusing the catalog of available material on Kanopy, I was surprised at the number of titles I recognized. The downside of the app is that you need an internet connect to stream as films can’t be downloaded, but the upside is that it’s free.

See also: hoopla. This is another free streaming service, but whereas Kanopy focuses on movies, hoopla offers a little bit of everything: movies, TV, music, audiobooks, magazines, and podcasts. Like Kanopy, you need an internet connection for streaming. The titles you’ll have access to are determined by your local library’s collection.

3. Spotify

Because I’m on a family plan, I pay $33.98 annually for a membership to Spotify, but given how much I use this both on-and-off trail, I think it’s worth the $2.83 per month. Not only can you download music and podcasts for offline listening, you can create shared playlists and even get 15 hours of audiobooks per month — all included.

The faux pas is thinking you’ve got new material downloaded and then getting back on trail only to realize that the internet connection at the hostel wasn’t strong enough and, in fact, you have even less material for offline listening than before.

4. Poop Map

This app may seem a bit frivolous, but given how much hikers enjoy talking about poop, I think the educational and health benefits are worth it. Take your poop talk to the next level by logging all the places you’ve pooped, adding a photo, and sharing your poop locations with your friends. If only they could combine this app with FarOut …

READ NEXT – Pooping on the Appalachian Trail: Important Statistics From My Thru-Hike

Return to top.

Hikers receive trail magic at Highway 40 along the CDT.

Before I’d even considered hiking the CDT, I purchased the FarOut map of the trail so I could find a road crossing to do some trail magic. Photo: Danielle Krolewicz

5. FarOut

Formerly known as Guthook, FarOut is the most-used app for on trail navigation because it’s downloadable. When I completed my first thru-hike (the Colorado Trail in 2018), I used a paper guidebook for maps and details about camping and water sources, etc. This was doable on a well-marked trail like the CT, but I missed out on the benefits of GPS and up-to-date user comments.

There are plenty of ways to go wrong with FarOut, like not always having the most recent comments downloaded or forgetting to download the topo maps in addition to the standard base layer (both mistakes I’ve made). Over-reliance on smartphone GPS apps for navigation during your thru-hike can also land you in hot water if your phone dies and you have no paper backup.

Still, there’s no denying that FarOut is an incredibly powerful tool for hikers of popular long trails. Back in 2018, another hiker used the app to help me discover that the next reliable water source was 17 miles away; if I had relied only on my paper guidebook, I wouldn’t have realized until too late that the closer source I’d been aiming for was dry.

FarOut has maps for the big three as well as lots of trails I’ve never even heard of. While you must purchase to access (or become a subscriber), it’s definitely become a necessity while thru- or even section hiking. FarOut is a solid baseline or jumping off point for crowd-sourced beta, but I wouldn’t recommend using solely one app, especially for something as important as navigation.

6. Gaia GPS

A few days in to the CDT, I realized how reliant I was on FarOut and how unreliable it was — especially for this trail. Many CDT hikers in 2023 experienced various glitches that left us without offline GPS maps. Because of this, I took to making sure I had a backup. Because there were so many different alternative routes along the CDT, having an additional way to access maps of trails and roads was vital.

Gaia GPS is a powerful GPS app with both a free and a paid version. The $5/month premium version gives you offline access to all maps and a broader selection of base layers. One nice thing about this app is that you can import GPX points to create your own routes and waypoints, making this a great alternative if you’re hiking a more obscure trail or route that isn’t included in FarOut’s trail catalog.

Gaia was the one I used most, but honorable mentions include Avenza, Garmin, and for navigating around trail towns, good ol’ Google Maps. Trial and error led me to what worked best for me, and I’d recommend starting your thru-hike with more apps than you need and whittling it down based on preference.

READ NEXT – Bad App: FarOut Glitch Highlights Drawbacks of Backcountry Tech Reliance

Return to top.


Semi close up photo of pink and purple flower stalks in a green field

Who knew lupine could come in pink? I did, with the help of Plant Identifier. Photo: Danielle Krolewicz

7. PeakFinder

Have you ever been on a vista, looked around you, and thought, “Where the hell am I?” If you’re like most thru-hikers, at any given time you might know where your dot sits on your navigation app’s redline but have little context for your whereabouts beyond that.

PeakFinder will help you identify that charismatic peak across the valley (and the ones beyond it) even tell you their heights to give you a better sense of your surroundings. For me, putting a name to a distant mountain helped ground me and made me better appreciate the views.

This app will only work if you download your local area map ahead of time, as it uses GPS to identify peaks. A one-time purchase ($7 as of February 2024) gives you lifetime access to the app, which can identify over a million peaks around the world.

8. Duolingo

What better time to learn a new language than on a thru-hike? With international travel restrictions finally lifted, now is a more prudent time than ever to brush up on your Spanish. (Although in my experience, German may be the most practical second language on-trail.)

Duolingo makes language-learning fun by gamifying the process. It’s free, although you may find the in-app purchases and upgrades worthwhile depending on how frequently you use it.

This app, which offers courses in 45 languages, emphasizes reading and writing as well as speaking, so this one probably makes more sense in the tent or on your zero days as you can’t use it hands-free.

If you’re serious about maximizing your thru-hiking time to learn a language, you might want to pair Duolingo in the mornings and evenings with listening to audiobooks or podcasts in your new language during the day.

9. Species and Star Identification Apps

Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab and Picture This Plant Identifier are two I’ve used to identify birds by song and plants by picture, respectively. Seek by iNaturalist is also very popular for identifying plants, animals, and fungi by picture, while Night Sky is a good one for picking out constellations and planets when you gaze up in wonder while night hiking or cowboy camping.

Not only is this a fun and educational way to connect with your natural surroundings, but it may come through in a pinch when you’re trying to determine whether a plant is dangerous to humans or pets.

Return to top.

Food & Beverage

McDonald’s at Cajon Pass on the PCT. Photo: Thomas Allie

10. McDonald’s

We see you, hiker trash. Hanging out in the McDonald’s for hours, charging devices, and enjoying the AC while waiting for check-in at the hotel across the street.

Many fast food joints have restaurant-specific apps that offer users special deals, and McD is no exception. Of all the fast food chains, this one is probably the most common to find in trail towns — there’s a hiker-famous one just 0.4 miles off trail in Cajon Pass on the PCT, for instance, and you can find them directly on trail in Lordsburg and Tusayan on the CDT and AZT, respectively.

Having the McDonald’s app installed on my phone has allowed me to save money on food I’d be purchasing no matter what, money I then used toward even more McDonald’s as my hiker hunger grew increasingly difficult (and expensive) to satiate. Every 15 minutes you can utilize a new deal and accumulate points for every dollar spent to use towards free food.

It’s a win-win (just a lose for the butthole).

11. Taco Bell, Subway, Domino’s, etc.

Also good, but not as common along the trail as the Golden Arches. It’s still worth creating accounts and downloading these apps for use in towns where present.

Return to top.


12. Instagram

I know many people use time on trail to disconnect from society and therefore social media, but I’ve found that having Instagram has allowed me to connect with other hikers and even trail angels.

On the CDT, I met fellow thru-hikers who, due to the nature of the trail, I met once or hiked with briefly and never saw again. Flip-flopping and the multitude of alternates on this trail make keeping track of people even harder on this trail than your average thru-hike.

In reality, most of my “tramily” while on the CDT was online. Instagram was an important resource for me to stay connected to other hikers while on trail, even when we were many miles apart. It’s also helped me to maintain relationships far and wide now that the hike is over. Plus, it’s inspiring to see what other hikers get up to after trail and has given me lots of ideas for future adventures, as well as hikers I can connect with while traveling.

13. Facebook

Similarly, I’ve found Facebook helpful while pre-planning as a way to crowdsource info from former and current hikers about a variety of topics like resupply, gear, conditions on the ground, and general advice.

Meanwhile, on trail, Facebook groups are great for connecting with other hikers and even trail angels. When navigating the fires along the PCT in 2021, trail angel pages were especially helpful in connecting hikers to those willing to drive, host, and provide resources.

Again, I know social media use on trail is a controversial topic, and my take may be unpopular, but I’ve found that having access to apps like Facebook and Instagram has provided more value than it’s taken away from my hikes.


Return to top.

For better or worse, the days of thru-hiking sans technology are long behind us. Your smartphone’s many functions on trail — for entertainment, education, navigation, and more — make it an essential piece of gear.

That said, apps take up a lot of storage space, both on your phone and in your brain. It’s good to be choosy about which apps you keep around during your thru-hike: some will enhance your experience, while others may be more of a distraction than an asset.

I’m sure there are plenty of useful apps I’m missing — what would you have included on this list?

Featured image: Photo by Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash. Graphic design by Chris Helm.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 5

  • Katie Jackson : Feb 16th

    Love this! I just downloaded Poop Map- I can’t wait to brown blaze the CDT this year 😀

  • Perrine « Pain Perdu » : Feb 20th

    I love this post!!
    Thank you so much for the shares… it makes me want to go hike again 🙂

    I am an App minimalist, on the PCT, I survived on Camera, Photo gallery, Notes, Voice Memos, WhatsApp, Instagram.
    I broke the silence in Oregon with some audiobooks and coaching/business podcasts getting Closer tooo the border (#timetogobacktowork or #beproductivenow)

    While McQueen was the Far Out navigator and Spotify DJ!!

  • mechanical man : Feb 23rd

    13 apps? Are you crazy? I for the life of me do not know why anyone needs to take technology with them on a thru-hike. Lewis and Clark didn’t and look what they endured and discovered in the process. They would probably look at us in disgust. The only reason the days of thru-hiking sans technology are gone is because you have allowed it to happen. On my AT thru-hike and every other thru-hike around the world I have never taken a phone or gps and I never will. Isn’t one of the reasons we go on a long distance hike to get away from all of the noise and trappings of society? When you are mindlessly hiking listening to music or whatever, I don’t know how you can hear, see and fully appreciate your surroundings, the birds singing, the rustling of the leaves, the rushing water of streams, the thunder of an approaching storm (or animal or human?). If you need apps to help get you thru challenging, difficult and unpleasant times then I think you are rather weak minded. I don’t mean you are stupid, but rather you lack the mental fortitude to persevere when times get difficult. Being able to persevere is how we can grow in toughness, strength and character. By relying on a multitude of apps you will never learn what you are actually capable of doing when push comes to shove. Also the satisfaction level of accomplishing something difficult using your own skills is so much greater.

    • Danielle Krolewicz : Mar 1st

      As the adage goes, hike your own hike. Personally, I enjoy having the option to listen to audiobooks, podcasts and music, although I don’t do it day in and day out and still find more than enough time to hear birds, bees, gunshots, other hikers, horses, snakes, storms, etc. I’ve found that listening to other’s stories of trials and tribulations have helped me on tough days, and I also like learning more about my natural surroundings while on trail. I’d say these are just some apps I’ve found helpful, but that’s not to say I use them every day. When I hiked the CT in 2018 I didn’t use any gps and wish I had, because it would’ve saved us from a few dire straits. That said, I think relying only on tech puts you at risk if you have issues with the apps or your phone dies, so I think it’s good to have multiple options. do I think paper maps are necessary? no. they’re obsolete, especially on a long trail and frankly if you use them you are not only wasting time but putting yourself in danger sometimes. the technology exists, I say use it to your advantage as you want. I’m glad you find satisfaction in not using them, but I’ve found, for me, the benefits outweigh the negatives and somehow I still get complete satisfaction in my hikes!


What Do You Think?