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Finding your way with the help of navigation apps

On a recent hike rated as strenuous with significant elevation changes, several people stopped me and asked me for directions. They had a general idea where they were going since the sign at the trailhead pointed them toward the trail, but had no real perception about their current location or how far they were from their destination.

Here’s my question to every hiker who starts on a hike. “What if you don’t see another person on the trail?” That’s right. What if there’s no one to ask for directions? Do you have the navigation tools to keep you safe?

Every trail is managed by a different entity if managed at all. Therefore, while many are well marked with blazes and signs, some are just a worn path. Without a map, you could wind up wandering in the woods and in the worst case, needing a rescue.

Trail maps, like the trails themselves, are different. Some trailheads have a map at the start. If so, take a picture of the map so you’ll have it on your phone. Others might only have arrows pointing you to a particular trial. Therefore, it always pays to do your homework before heading out.

Whether you find the trail map on a local website or an app, it is always good to print out the map and download it on your phone. Some downloadable maps allow you to see your position on the map even when you don’t have cell service.

Study the map beforehand and know what to expect. One mile at a 5% grade is much different from one mile at a 30% grade. The latter will take much longer and be more taxing, so plan accordingly.

Some great resources for hiking trail maps:

AllTrails – Trails are searchable by name or location. The pro version is inexpensive and allows you to download all sorts of data from the maps. Reviewers leave comments to alert you about trail conditions and other details.

Guthook – With Guthook, you can download a complete trail and use the map without cell service. Especially useful for thru and section hikers.

Map My Hike – Searchable for hikes in your area, Map My Hike functions like all the other May My applications and allows you to record your trek. This recording is especially helpful if you get turned around and need to retrace your steps.

ViewRanger – Allows you to search for hiking maps in your area, record your trek, and use without cell service. This app even incorporates a landscape ID feature that allows you to navigate using your phone’s camera.

Spyglass – Offers more than just maps. Folks who love to know exactly where they are will appreciate the compass, altimeter, star chart, range finder, and GPS coordinate generator.

Maps 3D Pro – A more intuitive map and trail finder, this app allows you to visualize your trek, so you know what you’re getting into. Think that one mile to the lake is no big deal? The 3D feature shows you exactly how much of that mile is uphill and to what degree.

Yonder – A crowdsourcing source of trail information. Find out the latest info on the state of the trail with input from hikers out on the trek.

Cairn – More than a map app, Cairn lets you share your location and trekking plan with friends and alert them if you’ve deviated from the plan. It also crowdsources locations where cell service is available. Maps are downloadable and usable offline.

Hiking alone and still worried about staying safe and healthy on the trail? Let's talk!

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