Topographical maps have gone digital and they’re an essential tool for any outdoor enthusiast. Of course, some will still prefer to go “old school” and head out into the wild with only a physical map and a compass; but for everybody else you can access a whole world of maps (literally) in just a few taps of your smartphone.
I traveled and backpacked extensively around South America, and found a couple of gems which kept me safe and savvy on the trail. North America is extremely well covered, and there are apps offering 3D renderings of your trail and surroundings, a tracker that your family can access, suggested hiking routes in you area plus much, much more.
Here’s our list of the 10 best topo map apps for iPhone and Android:
One of the most trusted online platforms for backpacking also has a dedicated app. AllTrails offers extensive coverage of the USA and Western Canada, and includes all of your favorite trails plus the lesser known. Each trail is given a difficulty: easy, medium or hard, and users can leave their reviews and top tips – making this an excellent crowd-based platform to help you plan your backpacking trips.
The Pro version costs just $30 a year and is available on both iPhone and Android. This is perfect for those who are venturing beyond cell range and want to download maps ahead of time. It also includes a nifty feature whereby it will contact your designated “safety contact” if you don’t check back in after a certain amount of time.
This will keep your mind at ease if you ever get really lost or injured and can’t reach emergency services.
Take a look here: AllTrails
2. Hiking Project
The Hiking Project is a phenomenal app from REI, with a database of over 35,000 trails for you to peruse. Each trail has a detailed map and key waypoints to help you navigate if conditions get tough. The app includes on-trail navigation, which most users have found pretty accurate, even in areas with little to no cell coverage.
It also includes the latest trail conditions and driving directions, which are regularly updated. The database is upgraded regularly, with more and more trails being added, and each is user-rated so you can see what you’re getting into before you set out on your hike. The app is free and available on both Android and iPhone – well worth the storage space.
Check it out here: Hiking Project
3. Gaia GPS
Gaia GPS is another popular topo map app with a free or paid version. The free version works as well as any of its competitors, offering basic but detailed topographical information. There are different levels of paid membership. The ‘Member Level’ option allows you to download topo, satellite and road maps for offline use.
The ‘Premium Member Level’ is what makes this app stand out. It has a whole host of overlays from you to choose from, offering contour lines, slope angles and hill shading to name a few. They have recently integrated with NatGeo Trails Illustrated, offering you hundreds of detailed and well-established trails across North America.
The app is versatile, featuring US Private Land Ownership details for off-road adventures; US Hunting Layers noting GMUs, public land and fires; ESRI World Satellite Imagery, France IGN and SwissTopo too. At $39.99 a year it is a little on the expensive side, but well worth it for those who frequently enjoy a range of outdoor activities across the globe. Available for both iPhone and Android.
Read more here: Gaia GPS.
ViewRanger is a really useful tool for any outdoor enthusiast. Easily one of the best navigation apps thanks to its highly accurate and reliable GPS system. It can even rival the navigation systems on dedicated satellite trackers, and is used by SAR teams across North America to reach people in distress and those hard-to-reach spots.
It too contains pre-loaded trails, and the maps can also be downloaded and used offline, and has worldwide coverage. The best part is that it is totally free, and can be used on iPhone and Android. Best suited to hikers for whom accurate GPS information is essential.
Read more about it: ViewRanger
5. MAPS 3D PRO
Maps 3D Pro is the ultimate visualization app for professionals, enthusiasts or the topographically-challenged. This app contains pretty impressive 3D rendering software, and brings your trails to life. You can see your chosen route as an overlay over the 3D mapping, enabling you to perfectly visualize your entire trail and ensure that there are no nasty surprises.
You can also add waypoints and plan your route, and download it for use when out in the wild and out of cell range; and the live navigation tracker enables you to keep up-to-date with your progress. They offer worldwide maps, not just North America, so it is ideal for those backpackers who like to get out and explore.
Maps 3D Pro is only available on iPhone for the time being. The app costs $5.49, or $19.99 for the ‘plus’ package with all of the features listed above.
Take a look here: Maps 3D Pro
Orginially designed as a hunting app, onX has also been critically acclaimed as one of the best apps for any outdoor enthusiast. It contains aerial view and topographical maps with integrated GPS navigation. It will also tell you local weather conditons, wind speed and direction – sourced directly and reliably from NOAA.
It contains overlays for hiking trails, running routs and biking trails too, and users can add their own waypoints, measure distances and even measure acreage with a freehand ‘shape tool’.
OnX is an elite app with a price point to match. It will set you back $29.99 per year for one State, or $99.99 per year for all States, and is available to download on Android or iPhone. The price may be a deal-breaker for some, but they do offer a free trial before you commit to a subscription so you can determine whether it is the app for you.
Read more here: onX
PeakVisor is a seriously cool app for those who like to get to know their surroundings. It utilizes your phone’s camera and GPS to provide a 3D render of the mountains you see before you; each labeled with its name and height. Simply point your phone at the range in front of you, and get detailed information in a split second.
The app also contains an altimeter and compass, which serve as a really handy added navigation tool. It will cost you a measly $5.99 and is available on both Android and iPhone.
See how it works here: PeakVisor
8. Map My Hike
Map My Hike offers you the ability to track the details of your hike, while you walk. If you’ve heard of the cycling app – Strava – it is essentially the same thing designed for hiking enthusiasts. You can set yourself goals and challenges, and share your hikes with your friends.
It offers a good level of coverage, although is not as comprehensive in non-urban environments. The app is made by Under Armour, and can even be synced with your Under Armour Smart Shoes if you have a pair.
This free app can be used by Android and iPhone users, and is perfect for those who enjoy the social aspect of hiking.
Read more about it here: Map My Hike
Spyglass is one of the most innovative outdoor maps on the market. Every fancied yourself in the military? Look no further. The app features a mil-spec toolkit wrapped in augmented reality as you way-find through the wilderness. It contains a hi-tech viewfinder, compass, tactical GPS, waypoint tracker, altimeter, gyro horizon, rangefinder – to name but a few features!
You can also use it to track and navigate using the Sun, Moon and stars in real time. Even for those who aren’t keen to use every single function; there’s no denying this app is seriously neat and a lot of fun to play with. Be aware that apps like this can drain your battery, so if you are heading out for a few days then make sure you have a spare battery pack or a way to charge your smartphone.
Download it on iPhone or Android for just $7.99.
Check it out here: Spyglass
Maps.ME is not the most comprehensive topographical map, but it is great for anybody doing a combination of backpacking and traveling. It is open source, and covers impressively remote locations worldwide. It can show basic distance and elevation profiles for hiking routes, and does contain a decent number of popular and not-so-popular trails.
I used this app all around South America and was impressed by the number of trails I did that Maps.ME could keep up with. The best part is that the maps can be downloaded offline, and you can access information like nearest restaurants, hostels, bus stops and trail shelters without going online. The GPS tracker did a fairly good job, but there were some super remote locations where it couldn’t keep up with my hike.
The app is totally free and available on iPhone and Android – well worth downloading for travelers, but perhaps not to be relied upon for totally accurate trail data!
Closing thoughts on topo map apps:
There are a huge number of topo map apps out there, each with different specialized used. Most apps offer a free trial refund for the first few days of purchase, so you can try it out before you commit – just make sure to read the small print before you buy.
If you’re new to hiking and unsure which app to go for, try a few of the free options and head out on your favorite trail. Eventually your requirements and preferences will become clear, and you’ll have a whole host of apps to chose from.
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Suzie Hall has a passion for all things wild and is a scuba diver and Orcalab researcher based in Hanson Island off the north coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. She spends most of her time exploring this great wide earth and her travels have taken her to some remarkable locations including Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan and the wild British Columbia coast. Fueled by a drive to protect our wild spaces and their inhabitants, Suzie works in conservation projects around the globe and lives to write about the amazing people, places and wildlife she encounters.
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