Sunday, August 24, 2014

Apps for long distance backpacking

Wondering how to manage your finances, keep track of your resupply and gear, and do all the other life-maintenance stuff you have to do while you are out on the trail for months on end?  You can do all of this from your smartphone.

Here is a rundown of the apps that I found most useful on (and off) the PCT.   New apps are available all the time but this should provide ideas of the possible uses of a smartphone on a long trail.
Logistics and financial apps.
Navigation and PCT related apps.

Most hikers were good about this, but as a reminder- while on the trail, please be courteous to others who may be looking for a wilderness experience and step away from people if you need to use your phone.  Or wait til you get to town.
Catching up on blogging and email in town.
Logistics/ money
Several apps made it possible to manage my life while on the trail.  I paid my bills and accessed my bank accounts using my smartphone.  I also stored spreadsheets with information about my resupply boxes and gear (to make repairs and reordering easier).  

mSecure ($9.99)
Stores all your passwords, account information, and logins in one place, protected by a single password.  This was a huge breakthrough for me because otherwise I get lost trying to remember all of the different logins and various numbers.  Just can’t forget the single master password.

USPS Mobile (free)
Helpful for keeping track of resupply boxes.  Scan in the barcode/ QR code of your resupply packages, track your packages, and search for post offices.  I ordered pre-paid boxes to leave with my resupply person, so I stored the tracking numbers in this program and could see when they were delivered.  Can also search for PO locations.

Banking apps for your bank (free for Bank of America)
Apps for your bank are helpful for locating ATMs and for accessing your checking account.

Google Drive (free)
A cloud storage tool that allows you to store your files online so you can access and synchronize them via the web or on multiple devices like your computer or smartphone.  I’d previously written documents and worked collaboratively using Google Docs (like office so it has documents and spreadsheets) so it was easy for me to move all of my files here and which is why I use it the most.  However, dropbox and others are similar.  I cached important documents on my phone so I could access them even without a connection.  Files that were most helpful to have stored on my phone included:
    - Emergency contact numbers
    - Gear lists including weigh, size and style, and where I bought them in case I needed to order a replacement or get it repaired on the trail
    - Spare gear lists so I knew where my stuff was located at my parents’s house and how it was labeled to make it easier for them to send me anything
    - Manuals for electronics and other gear (in pdf's)
    - Resupply schedule/ distances between resupply stops created using Craig’s PCT planner
    - Food ideas and recipes for the trail for when I got to grocery stores and needed ideas on what to buy

Social Media
Posting my photos and doing a blog allowed me to share my hike with my friends, family, and blog readers and allowed me to feel connected with them. 

Facebook (free)
The ‘PCT Class of 2014’ page was a popular place for asking questions about everything PCT related, for getting rides and places to stay, lost gear, finding people, and trail updates.  Sure a lot of the information could be found on the postholer FAQ or PCTA website, but many find it easier to use to get a quick answer without having to scroll around when you have limited time and connections.

Instagram (free)
Fast, easy interface and a good alternative to facebook.  Many PCT bloggers share photos via instagram (search for #PCT or #PCT2014).  I didn’t use this while I was on the trail, but did use it when I had to get off the trail and it made it easy to keep up with other PCT hikers. 

Bloglovin (free)
Used this to follow blogs while on the trail.  At first, I followed blogs of PCT hikers that were ahead of me so I’d know what to expect and where to go on town stops.  Later, I’d use it to follow blogs of friends I met on the trial so I could find out where they were.  Much easier than going to everyone’s individual websites.  Another website that had many PCT blogs was the PCTA journalist, but I never figured out a good way to read it on my phone. 

Blogger (free)
This app is outdated and has limited functionality, but unfortunately it is the only thing I’ve found that works with my blog platform.  Do NOT do a blog on blogspot.  I’d already been using blogspot for years and didn’t want to switch to a new site, but in retrospect I almost wish I had because this was a pain in the neck and the formatting got messed up when I posted via my smartphone. I ended up typing up my blog posts in an email rather than using this app because it lost a few posts when I didn’t have service.   I used the Blogger app to add the photos to my blog posts once I’d sent them in via email. 

Looking through my photos at the end of each day was a great way to reflect on my experiences on the trail.  I ended up sending my camera home and taking all my photos using my iphone.  It turned out to be too much of a bother to have to transfer my camera photos to my iphone where they could then be uploaded or posted on my blog.  I preferred the simplicity of a single device.

ProHDR ($1.99)
Takes consistently better photos than the regular iphone camera program especially in high contrast lighting.  It has a self timer feature.

VSCOcam (free)
Awesome photo editing app with lots of features.

MyPics ($2.99)
Backup your photos every time you are in town because you don’t want to loose your pictures.  I use Picasa web albums because it works with my blog.  Whenever I had wifi, I would upload all my photos into a new album, and then share this with my family and post a link on my blog.  Other people used facebook or instagram, and there are also things like flickr, but be sure to find something that is fast and has plenty of storage, and set it up before you leave.

PCT apps/ Navigation 
The PCT is well marked for the most part but I used my phone frequently for navigation.  Especially to check my mileage and see distances to water and campsites.  I still carried and used paper maps and a compass.   They really came in handy for the snow.  Sometimes the location given by these apps was WRONG (especially under tree cover) so they are not a substitute for traditional map and compass skills.
Where are we?!?!  MeToo and Blue Yonder use their phones for navigation.
PCTHYOH app (free)
One of my favorite apps.  Stores helpful PCT information in one location for easy access.  I used this frequently to look up the water report.  This is how I also go my weather reports- locations along the trail are already entered and the format is easy to read.  It also has pdfs of Halfmile’s maps, and has lots of helpful links.  The only trick was to remember to refresh this app while in towns or when cell service is available to get the latest updates.

Halfmile PCT (free)
My most frequently used app.  Simple design and interface, so less clutter than Guthooks.  Tells you your location (i.e. your mile on the PCT) or how far you are from the trail.  It also gives distances to various landmarks like water sources, campsites, and roads.  Highly recommended!

eTrails (free)
This was another favorite app for the PCT because it had natural history and historical information.  I liked to read it in town so I would know more about what I’d be seeing the next section.  It also had lots of information about side trails especially for peak bagging and it showed roads and water sources that were not in some of the others apps.  It seems to be more set up for section hikers because the mileages were by section and didn’t coincide with Halfmile’s miles which was the only thing I really disliked about this app.

Guthook’s Hiking Guides
I had these but didn’t end up using it as much as Halfmile or eTrails.  But other people preferred the interface.  I thought it took longer to pick up a location.  I would definitely use this again though because it was valuable to have multiple sources of information on campsites and watersources.  I also really liked that it provided a place for virtual "register" entries.  This allowed users to update information such as saying if the springs were still flowing- I used that often in NorCal and appreciated the extra information.

Gaia GPS
This app allows you to use your cell phone as a GPS and functions without cell service.  It requires that you download maps and tracks or waypoints prior to your hike.  I use this often on my backpacking trips at home and really like it, but only used it once on the PCT.   Guthooks and Halfmile are what I used on the PCT for navigation.  The only time I used it was when I was taking an obscure side trail back to the PCT after getting off the trail unexpectedly.  If you are just going to stick to the PCT, you don’t need it, but if you plan to do side trails, it’s very helpful if you can download the maps beforehand.  Note that it will drain your battery life quickly if you aren’t careful, so read up on how to use it to avoid this problem.

Other related information

Adventure Alan’s how to use the iphone as gps mapping device (excellent reference for how to save battery life)

Gadgets’ Gadget Guide on Postholer- on how to choose a smartphone

Halfmile’s cell phone report (where there is cell reception from ATT, Verizon, T-Mobile and where to get WiFi along the trail)

Disclaimer: I purchased all these apps with my own funds and these opinions are my own.


  1. I used almost *exactly* the same apps on my PCT thru.

    I also put all my bills on Autopay 2 months before I left and that saved a ton of worry.

    1. Very nice to hear that these worked for you too. Good recommendation about putting bills on autopay too. Thanks for sharing that!

  2. I keep meaning to thank you for writing this post. I have wanted to do a similar one for years and never get around to it. Now I have one to link to people who ask me about apps. I have some photo ones I would add that are DipTic, PicTapGo, and Snapseed. Thanks for doing this post!

    1. Great to hear from you, Wired! Thanks so much for suggesting more photo apps too- I'll check those out. :)

  3. I notice in your screenshot you have the Gaia GPS app. I was wondering what you though? Did you use it on the PCT? How do you think it would work for shorter trips or day hikes? I am looking for something to track distance, altitude, route, etc without draining my battery.

    1. Hi Chantal,

      Great question! I didn't review Gaia for the original post since I only used it once on the PCT, but I'm going to update the article now to include it because it's something I use often when I'm OFF the PCT.

      I love this program. There are other ones, but this is the only one I have tried- it cost money but was recommended to me so that's the one I got. I use it often on shorter trips and dayhikes, especially if I am going to be going somewhere new that is not well marked, when I am going solo, or when I will be bushwhacking.

      I have not used it to track distance or routes because that tends to drain the battery and I have not needed to use those features. For more information on how to reduce battery drain, check out the link to Adventure Alan's guide above.

      I do use it to mark waypoints. I also download tracks or points of interest that I find online and then load them so I can find them in the backcountry.

      I have used GPS units in the past, mostly for work, and I find this functions in much the same way as a GPS but has an easier interface than the Garmins I have used.

      My favorite feature is that I can download different map "layers" so that means I can decide if I want to save just the topo map, or the layer that shows the images with trees and other features.

      Let me know if you have other questions!