From simple stroll to an all-day trek, apps help enhance the great outdoors

By Jack McCarthy Chronicle Media

AllTrails app

Sometimes the point of a walk in the woods is to simply escape the digital deluge of email, chats and shared video.

Ah, peace and quiet.

But that same technology has also spawned a collection of useful smartphone apps that can enhance that stroll and even make it a learning experience.

A recent University of Illinois Extension Service online seminar showcased apps that can find and detail trails near and far, ranging from a walk around a neighborhood pond, a ride along a riverfront bike route or even a run along a rustic nature trail.

Other complementary apps can also identify plants and birds observed along the way.

“Most of these apps are pretty easy to use,” said Melissa Records, an Extension Service Master Naturalist who provided a tour through a series of mobile applications. “You can really just open them up and go and try them out, play around with them when you’re hiking. That’s really the best way to learn and find out what it can do.”

Records spoke on an Aug. 24 “Get Outside! Using Apps to Enhance Your Outdoor Experience” Zoom conference.  A Master Naturalist since 2016, she has also has varied interests  ranging from archaeology, cartography, library science and computer and gadget testing.

Nearly 70 persons dropped in on the live, hour-long session, conducted from Urbana-Champaign.

The free or inexpensive apps — generally available for both iPhone and Android devices — can help enhance a spur-of-the moment trek to a nearby forest preserve or even help plot a lengthier Labor Day weekend trek.

Why use a smartphone app?

“They’re really convenient,” Records said. “When you’re out using a smartphone app, you don’t necessarily have to carry a map, a compass, trail guides or identification guides. You may not need to carry a clipboard and pens or a camera. The apps do not necessarily take the place of those tools, but they do provide you lots of capabilities in one easy place.”

Here are some apps for hiking, biking and exploration:


Developed by the Prairie State Conservation Coalition, this 99-cent app allows organizations to create guided nature tours, including entries from more than 40 nonprofit land conservancies. It features nearly 50 tours from throughout Illinois and is organized by region. Several destinations merit multiple entries like the Starved Rock region, which has five separate tours. Some of the tours feature audio narration. Downloading a tour prior to leaving home is recommended. For example, the Conservation Foundation’s guide to canoeing the Lower Fox River is 59.11 MB while another featuring Naperville’s McDonald Farm checks in a 37.62 MB. “Plan ahead,” said Records, who helped create one of the tours.


A recent Apple App of the Day, this free download uses installed location information to identify top nearby trails, best views and even trails less traveled. Individual locations offer a map, length of routes and elevation and even user reviews. All are rated on ease of use and offer additional information on wheelchair accessibility, whether it is kid-friendly and allows dogs (usually on leashes). There’s also the option to enter a city, park or trail to find potential destinations. Enter “Chicago” and the app identifies 449 trails within the city while typing in “Rockford” calls up 220 trails. “You can also filter your search by looking for specific characteristics of a trail,” Records said.

Other apps

The free MapMyRun which tracks hikes, bikes rides and even lap swimming and offers performance statistics. An MVP version costs $5.99 per month or $29.99 yearly. Maprika’s free program also tracks hikes against online and offline maps. At $29.99 per year for one state and $99 for all 50, the onX Hunt app offers detailed public and private boundaries, landowner names and hunting districts.

Where to find apps

With some exceptions, mobile apps are available for iPhones through a built-in App Store application or via Apple’s App Store ( For Android phones visit


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