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Gearhub: Five phone and watch apps to enhance your time outside

Nature meets digital


While so many of us look to the outdoors for a break from our phone and computer screens, there’s no denying that some amazing innovations have come at the intersection of the fitness and tech worlds.

Countless devices and apps can now track your movements, heart rate, altitude, and more. Finding out which of these might interest and benefit you isn’t easy.

Hikers, bikers, runners, and nature lovers can come to appreciate any of these apps below, which are available to download on smartphones and smartwatches.


Price: $7, one time

Best for: Hiking, trail running, backpacking

What it does: My personal favorite digital companion, WorkOutDoors is a versatile map and fitness app that’s worth every penny of its modest price. Select any area of the world you want to download a map of, and that area will be available offline on your Apple Watch for your next outdoor excursion. The maps are fantastic—they accurately display all trails, roads, campgrounds, and other landmarks nearby, along with your location—while it also tracks workout data like your distance, elevation, heart rate, and pace. The best part about this app is its eye-catching design and intuitive interface. It squeezes in a remarkable amount of information without overwhelming you.


Price: Free or $36 per year for premium

Best for: Hiking, trail running

What it does: AllTrails is another reputable map app that can serve as a useful guide for hiking, trail running, and more. The app’s free version is most helpful for researching hikes ahead of time. Search the area you want to hike in—say Big Sur—and then peruse the list of trail options. Each individual trail page has tons of great information about that hike, including comments, reviews, and updates that have been submitted by users. The downside to this app is that many important features are behind the premium paywall. For $36 a year, AllTrails+ subscribers can download trail maps for offline use, access the watch app, and take advantage of other mapping features.


Price: Free or $80 per year for premium

Best for: Running, cycling

What it does: Strava is a popular fitness app among runners and cyclists that promotes community and competition. Like a social media site, the app enables users to record workouts and post their routes and metrics to a feed that friends and followers can see. It shows when you break a personal record or achieve a certain goal so your friends can give you kudos. And it crowdsources popular routes near you so you can try them out and see how you measure up. The premium version takes what the free version does well and expands on it with additional social and analytics features.


Price: Free

Best for: Nature walks, hikes

What it does: Anyone who loves the outdoors would be wise to download iNaturalist. This app—a partnership between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society—invites users to submit photos of the nature that they come across so that scientists can work on identifying them. Those observations—of plants, trees, insects, rodents, anything alive—remain in the app as pins on a map that other users can click on to see. Born as a student project at UC Berkeley in 2008, iNaturalist is now looking to reach 100 million users by 2030.


Price: Free

Best for: Bird watching, nature walks

What it does: Another awesome nature app, Merlin specializes in identifying birds. Whether the bird’s in your backyard or the Los Padres National Forest backcountry, Merlin taps a database of 800 million bird sightings to help ID it. All you have to do is snap a photo, record a snippet of the song or call, or provide a general description of the bird to find a match. Bird packages can be downloaded ahead of time so that no cell service is required. First launched in 2014 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Merlin now IDs birds in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania.

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