Paul Bunyan swung his ax, Davy Crockett wielded a rifle, and even the heroine from The Hunger Games had her bow and arrow. What tool do you have to brave the wilderness? Your smartphone, that's what. Here are some of the best mobile apps for surviving and even thriving in Washington's great outdoors.
While Google Maps will do surprisingly well on a near-town hike—it's actually not too bad on parts of Issaquah's Tiger Mountain—the usual direction givers are useless once you lose cell service. While there are several options for route-finding, Gaia GPS (free for basic, $20 per year for full use) is one of the best. Remember to download maps before heading into backcountry dead zones (only available in the paid version), and search the Gaia GPS site for existing tracks of popular hikes, or record your own path. CalTopo, a topographic mapping tool created by a wilderness EMT, has wonderful map resolution but is a little less user-friendly for new mappers.
Just finding a trail can be a headache. Washington Trails Association, our state's unmatched nonprofit organization devoted to hiking, developed WTA Trailblazer (free) to help sort route descriptions. An advanced search tool allows users to sort by location, length, or elevation gain, and the collection of trip reports shows what relatively current conditions are like. The national AllTrails (free for basic, $30 per year for full use) has a similar catalog of trekking routes, along with tracking ability. Like Gaia GPS, the basic version doesn't allow for directional help when out of cell service.
You made it outdoors—now what the heck are you looking at? A host of identification apps allow users to train the camera on various objects to find out what's what. Built in part by the National Geographic Society, iNaturalist (free) allows uploads of plant and animal sightings; while an algorithm tries to identify the photo, community members help place the specifies more accurately. Washington Wildflowers (free) has a similarly impressive pedigree, built by the University of Washington Herbarium at the Burke Museum, along with wildflower guidebook authors; it works entirely offline to figure out which bloom is blooming. Trees Pacific Northwest (free) teaches outdoors people to name a tree themselves by using various filters and then placing two similar photos side by side so you can pick the one that looks closest to your real-world find.
Besides flora and wildlife, the most common head scratchers on Washington hikes are the many, many mountains that line the skyline. PeakFinder ($5) can name every bump and spire on the horizon, using a catalog of almost a million peaks. Similar programs exist for identifying stars in the sky, like SkySafari ($15).
People have been playing outdoors for centuries, mostly without fancy phones—but now that we have them they can make recreation a lot safer. Cairn ($27 per year) does some trail tracking, and when there's cell service, loved ones at home can track a hiker. It has built-in alerts to raise the alarm if a hiker is overdue. While a phone's GPS can tell the phone user where they are even when miles from a cell tower, a satellite communicator is required for communication to the outside world in those dead zones—ask your neighborhood outdoor store about Garmin InReach and similar devices.
In the case of emergency, fire up the handheld. The First Aid app (free) from the Red Cross downloads simple and necessary medical information for use even when there's less service than a basement bar. It's built with sharable badges earned through quizzes, but more importantly: There's a Pet First Aid (free) version too.