Foraging Technology

Our Favorite Apps for Foraging

I’ll admit that it strikes me as a bit odd to be writing about which smartphone apps we use for foraging. After all, we’re talking about foraging which is essentially the world’s oldest skillset. With that said, the modern day forager can get a lot of wonderful things out of a wide variety of apps.

From navigating the backwoods to quickly saving your secret spots, we’re going to cover all the ways foragers can use apps to make the most out of their time in the field.

Before we get started, here are a few quick things to keep in mind:

Never Trust an App for Plant Identification. Apps that identify plants seem to be all the rage these days, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to use them as the foundation of your identification process. Take the time to learn how to positively identify edible plants the hard way, as it is totally worth the extra effort. Leaving your safety up to machine-learning AI is nothing but a recipe for disaster. Maybe there’s a future where apps can be trusted to greatly assist in plant identification, but we’re not there yet.

Apps are Best Used as Tools, not as Sources of Truth. Whether you’re navigating public lands or using a schedule to time the different harvests, know that you’re fully responsible for yourself while foraging. Even if the app told you that you were on public land, it’s your job to avoid trespassing on others’ land. So remember to treat your apps as merely tools to assist with your foraging.

Think Outside the Box About How Apps Can Help You Forage. There are many more functions than identifying plants that our suite of modern apps can help us with. From timing the seasons perfectly to remembering the location of your secret spot for beaked hazelnuts, the modern forager has a lot on their plate. Use apps to make the little stuff more manageable.

Different Kinds of Apps You Can Use for Foraging

Before we get to the actual apps later on in the post, I thought it would be helpful first to cover what types of functions were looking to cover with our choice of apps. The way that I see it, this breaks down into several different categories.

Navigational and Public Access Mapping Applications

First things first, most foragers will be spending a lot of time on public lands, and they’ll likely spend some time navigating the woods. There are really two parts of that statement that need to be addressed. First, any foragers should be very interested in understanding what public lands are available to them in their local area.

There’s no other way to put it: the more public land you can access, the more potential spots you have at your disposal. The second part of this is regarding navigation. If you’re going to have to travel to spots that are a good distance from your car, you’re going to want to do everything you can to ensure your safe return.

Even if you’re only navigating on trails, it’s just a good idea to have an app that you can use to navigate if you needed it in an emergency. Whether or not you need a navigational app can depend on your setting as navigating a field is very different from navigating a mature forest.

Apps for Organizing Your Spots

You might not think of this right away, but there’s a lot of utility and looking for apps that have the ability to save you time on the little things. What am I talking about here? Think about all the things that you need to successfully execute to have that perfect foraging season. From remembering the locations of all your secret spots to getting in the field, scouting out those spots at the perfect time of year, there are a lot of things that apps can help you with. Just because you don’t end up using your phone to identify the plants you’re gathering doesn’t mean that the phone’s utility ends there. From saving the GPS location and a plant’s identity with a quick snap of a photo to automating reminders about the upcoming seasons, apps can really help us stay on top of our game with little effort.

Local Habitat and Soil Information

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think it’s a good idea to use apps to identify the plants you’ll be foraging. Plant identification is complicated and best not left up to the chance that your photo is clear enough. With that said, there are a few apps that we can use in the field to help us at least get in the ballpark.

Here’s the bottom line: scientists have spent decades gathering data about a variety of aspects about the natural world. From native plant associations to soil maps to habitat ranges of all sorts of plants, we can our phone to quickly pull up the information relevant to our exact area.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we know exactly what to expect when we step onto a new piece of land, but it can help us get a better understanding of the big picture. Any forager that is looking to make the most out of their time in nature should always be looking to learn more about how everything relates to each other. With enough practice and the right information at the right time, a forager can learn to anticipate certain plants in new land.

Best Foraging Apps for Land Access and Navigation

Safely navigating the woods is one of the less-appreciated challenges of foraging. Sure, you can stick to foraging only along established trails, but we both know that eventually you’ll be drawn off-trail in search of some delicious wild edible.

Keeping that in mind, let’s allow technology to help us accomplish two main objectives when we’re out in the field. First, let’s have it help us return safely home. Ideally we won’t need to use our phone in order to navigate home, but it can easily serve as a tremendously valuable backup. Second, let’s use technology to ensure that we’re following the laws and only foraging on public lands or lands we have permission to.

OnX Maps: a Boon to the Forager

Before we dive into why I think OnX Maps can be incredible valuable to the forager, I do have to confess that this is a hunting app. It’s branded as a hunting app and the functionality is geared around what hunters need to navigate public lands. I’m a hunter that uses OnX and I understand that this might make some people comfortable, but I would like you to hear me out.

Almost every single feature on OnX Maps is equally valuable to the forager as it is to the hunter. Here’s the biggest reason why every forager that utilizes public land should consider OnX Maps: they have, by far, the cleanest way to quickly assess what public lands around you might be open to foraging. Here are some of the different types of land you can find in a single layer in OnX:

  • National Forests
  • Bureau of Land Management land (BLM)
  • State Parks
  • Land owned by State DNRs (or similar agency)
  • County and City-owned Land

Not only that, but OnX has a layer with the property boundaries of private lands available for quick access. So if you’ve got a buddy with some land and they’re cool with you foraging on it, you can easily stay within the property lines without constantly being a hassle.

From a navigation perspective, OnX covers the basics really well and it offers a clean interface. You can easily record a track, save waypoints, and it even allows you to manage your maps easily from a desktop computer.

There are many, many things that I could say about why OnX Maps is an almost necessary app for any forager that spends a serious amount of time on public lands. Here are some of the top things to keep in mind:

  • You can easily see all of the public lands from all sorts of sources
  • Information such as logging records from the U.S. Forest Service is cleanly integrated into the app
  • Get the following information about a private parcel of land: acreage, owner name, shape, etc.
  • Easily measure the distance of a trail or the size of a shape you draw
  • Quickly pull up local weather information
  • Check integrated trail maps that allow for both mileages and an approximate slope
  • Check the radar or look for active wildfires in your region

The caveat to all of this is obviously that this is a paid application with a yearly subscription. As of current writing in October 2020, the cost is pretty reasonable at $29.99 a year for one state’s data. You’re allowed access to all 50 states with a yearly fee of $99.99, but I don’t think many foragers would cover that much ground to cover the price.

With all that said, here’s an example of what kind of information you can pull up in OnX:

screenshot of the onx maps hunt app showing public land areas in northern wisconsin

The parcels that you see outlined are all publicly owned land that is almost certainly open for recreation. Each of the different color overlays represents a different type of owner (state DNR, National Forest, local city, etc.) and it’s easy to pull up the information associated with each parcel just by tapping on the screen. For example, by clicking on this parcel I can see the following information:

screenshot of the onx hunt app showing ownership information for public lands in northern wisconsin

As you can probably see, this is incredibly useful information to have when scouting for new locations to forage. The reality is that residents of the United States have hundreds of millions of acres of forestland that is open for foraging. A tool like OnX Maps does a fantastic job lowering the barrier to entry, as it effortlessly solves the main question of “where” exactly can we forage.

So while I understand that you might not have anticipated adopting a hunting app, I think it is well worth your serious consideration. It can only improve your time spent foraging, and it has the chance to make a great impact.

BackCountry Navigator TOPO GPS PRO

I like this app for a few simple reasons. First, a disclaimer: I’ve been using this app for almost a decade and I’m also a creature of habit. So I don’t necessarily know if this truly is the best pure navigational app out there, but I do like it.

The main reason I like this app so much is that it offers a rich library of map layers complemented by a powerful navigational interface. This interface isn’t as user-friendly as OnX Maps, but it offers a lot of functionality.

There are several different layers of satellite imagery available, so you can switch them up to find one that suits your needs best. The app also has a variety of topographic maps available, including custom topo maps from the U.S. Forest Service.

Also, there are a ton of options that allow you to customize your main screen, which can be really useful for those looking to make their screen just right. I’ve also found that the tracks are more accurately represented on the screen when compared to OnX.

Here’s where this app is available:

Avenza Maps: Your Best Source for Official Map Layers

While I don’t personally use Avenza Maps much for navigation, it does offer the best collection of freely available maps for use when navigating the wild.

Featuring maps from local counties, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Parks system, ATV/UTV trails, and so much more, every forager should check out what they have to offer in their local area.

Think of it this way: Avenza Maps is the best option for you to bridge the gap between that paper map with all of the detailed information you love and navigation in real life.

It’s hard to summarize what’s all available in Avenza Maps, because it is so specific to your local area. Either way, I suggest that you at least give it a try and check out what free maps they have available. Many of the apps for download are paid maps, but there’s still a lot of great value to be had in the free section.

Here’s where this app is available:

Best Foraging Apps for Keeping Yourself Organized

I’m assuming you are like me: you probably started foraging for something easy like blackberries and then it was only a matter of time before you had a dozen different seasons to keep track of.

This can be a lot of fun, but at some point it becomes easy to miss a season or forget to process your foraged goods in sufficient time. Here’s where we allow technology to the rescue. From scheduling alerts of upcoming seasons to tracking the exact locations of all your secret spots, there’s a lot of ways technology can benefit us.

Google Photos or Photos for iOS

Before I get into why this functionality is so helpful and so valuable, I do have to confess that I resisted this for a very long time on the creepiness factor alone. Here’s the deal: I have no social media presence, I’m quite skeptical of the ways our phones are mined for information, and I’m constantly this close to going back to a flip phone.

With all of that said: man, is it convenient for a forager when you can snap a picture of a newly found plant and have the exact GPS attached directly to your photo. Is it a bit creepy? You bet.

Find a cluster of American hazelnut bushes? Snap a quick picture. Come across serviceberry bushes but it’s a bit too early in the season? Grab a picture. It’s just so easy and so terribly useful.

The real beauty is that the convenience doesn’t have to end in the field. It’s easy enough to add that picture to an album dedicated to that plant species when you get back home. Now, with a photo stored in the correct album and the exact GPS coordinates attached to it, you can easily remember that secret spot any time in the future without any additional work.

Here’s a rundown of how I use Google Photos to keep track of my foraging spots. When I’m in the field I snap a picture of any plant that I want to remember later for foraging. Usually this plant does not have the fruit or nut ripe at this point, as I’m merely saving this location for later in the season. Once I open the app, I scroll down to the pictures that I took when out and about and then tap on the image I’m going to open:

screenshot of pictures of plants in the google photos mobile app

After the image opens up, I go up to the top of the screen and tap the ‘3 dot’ icon to get additional information:

image in google photos app with red arrow pointing to three dot icon to find more options

This then changes the screen to look like the following:

screenshot of google photos app with the button for adding a photo an album highlighted and also gps coordinates highlighted in bottom

I’m interested in two different things when I open up this screen. First, I want to confirm that GPS coordinates were attached to this image. You can see at the bottom of the screenshot that this is the case.

Second, I want to then add this picture into the appropriate album. As you might expect, I organize my foraging pictures by plant species, so I would put this image in the ‘Blackberry’ album. You can do this by clicking the ‘Add to album’ button that is highlighted on the left side of the screenshot. This will pull up a page that allows you to select an existing album or create a new album. I’m going to create a new album, and it’s as simple as clicking this button and then entering a name:

screenshot of creating new album in google photos app

I’m not actually going to create an album for wild blackberries here, as almost every trail in our area is absolutely crawling with them. To find an existing album, go back to the main menu for Google Photos and click the ‘Library’ button at the bottom of the screen:

screenshot of library tab in google photos app showing different plant species organized by album

As you can see in the above screenshot, I have a variety of albums for different species of plants. I’m happy with the simplicity of this approach from a data collection standpoint, but I am looking into better ways to utilize that data once I need it.

I’d love to see an option to pull up a map with pins for all of the different pictures found in an album, but that doesn’t seem to be possible in the Google Photos app. I think it’s possible to extract this data with code, but I think it would require working with an API.

Here’s where this app (or a similar app) is available:

Google Sheets: Free Option for Storing Data

I’ve spent a lot of time working with Google Sheets for a variety of reasons, but I haven’t used it much for foraging. Sheets has a lot of interesting capabilities, and I think it could be very valuable for a forager looking to manage their foraging data if they tend to geek out like me and take a technical approach.

Google Sheets is great for many reasons, but here is a quick summary for those that aren’t familiar with it:

  • Using Google Sheets is free and has a very user-friendly interface
  • The vast majority of people don’t need a separate application on their computer for spreadsheets: an in-browser experience is more than fine
  • A lot of things are possible once you consider integration into the Google suite of apps

Some might be concerned about giving Google too much information, and I understand that concern. However, I don’t fear Google learning about my secret spot for beaked hazelnuts, so I’m comfortable with the trade-off.

Here’s where this app is available:

Notion: an Intriguing Option Worth Exploring

I’ve used productivity and workflow apps in the past (Trello being a good example), but Notion is the first app that I’ve actually managed to use more than a week.

Before I discuss why I think it’s helpful, I think it’s important to state that, yes, Notion can be a little intimidating when you start from scratch. The best and worst part about Notion is that it is basically a blank slate, so there are a million things that you can do with it.

Here’s the deal: if you are interested in using an app to help you better stay on top of the mountain of assorted tasks that come with a great foraging season, Notion might be a great solution for you. It truly is a do-it-all app: everything from note taking to task management to data storage is possible.

I’ve only spent the last month using Notion to manage my work-related tasks and projects, so I have yet to explore how to best use it to manage my foraging headaches. I can promise you that I will be experimenting with this in the future, and I’ll report back with any interesting ideas or thoughts in a future post.

Here’s where this app is available:

Best Foraging Apps for Learning About the Local Environment

While we shouldn’t allow apps to take over our identification of the plants we forage, we can use technology to quickly get the science that we need for our specific location.

SoilWeb: Gain Insights About Your Local Soil

At first glance this app might seem a bit too technical for most people, but hang in there for a minute. The SoilWeb app was developed by the California Soil Resource Lab at UC-Davis, and it’s job is to quickly provide you information about the soil in your current location.

Why might this be useful to the average forager? One of the types of information you can find in this app is referred to as the ‘Use and Vegetation’ sections, which may explain a great amount about your local habitat.

It’s probably easiest to just get to it and show you how to use it. Fortunately, this is perhaps the simplest interface I’ve ever found. When you load the app you should see a screen like the following:

screenshot of the soilweb mobile app with an arrow pointing to the get soil data button at the top

This will come as no surprise, but we’re going to simply click the ‘Get Soil Data’ button the arrow is pointing to in the above screenshot. What this will do is pull your location data (you may need to grant the app permission before it does that) and then it will pull up a screen that may look something like this:

screenshot of possible results from soilweb app query

Let’s quickly walk through what this is saying. First, the soil in my current location consists of two different soil types: Plainfield and Watseka. Second, you can see that the dominant soil type in my location is Plainfield, as it contributes 94%.

The best thing we can do next is to explore the data associated with the soil types that contribute to the majority of our local soil. In my case this means that I’m only interested in the Plainfield soil type, but it’s very possible that you may have two (or possibly three) different soil types to look up depending on your location. Once I click the blue box towards the top of the screen that shows the soil type name and the percent, I’ll be taken to a screen that looks like this:

screenshot of the text description of the plainfield soil series in the soilweb mobile app

As you can see at the top, there are three different tabs that contain information:

  • Description
  • Details
  • Links

We’ll have some use for all three sections, but you’ll probably get the most use out of the Description and Details sections.

The majority of the Description tab will only be useful to soil scientists, but there are a few sections that we can make use of. Most important to us is the ‘Use and Vegetation’ section, which is near the bottom and looks something like this:

screenshot of the use and vegetation section of the plainfield soil series in the soilweb mobile app

If you take a minute to read over the text you’ll quickly realize why this information could be valuable to a forager. Included in the text are the following bits of information:

  • Common ways this type of soil is planted with agricultural crops
  • Approximate areas of distribution of this soil type
  • Specific trees that are commonly present with this soil type

While the screenshot above only contains trees that are commonly present, many other soil types offer a more expansive list of plant species. Needless to say, this app can be a great opportunity to get a quick understanding of what you might expect on a piece of land with only the click of a button.

The other parts of the Description tab that may be useful are the following:

  • Distribution and Extent
  • Geographic Setting
  • Introduction (just the first paragraph at the top)

We can leave everything else to the scientists. Regarding the Details tab, the most valuable information for our purposes is probably in the Forest Productivity and Soil Suitability Ratings sections, as they are the most relevant.

The Links tab contains just that: links to two different soil applications that are designed to show the extent of the currently selected soil type. I’ve found some value in these mapping applications, but the outlines aren’t specific enough for us to really get a whole lot of use out of them. Also, while these browser-based applications can run on a mobile device, you’re probably going to want to switch to a desktop for a better experience.

So while the reality is that the SoilWeb app really only does one trick, it does that trick very well and is often very helpful for our purposes.

Here’s where this app is available:

Any App Featuring Satellite Imagery

I’ve covered this in greater detail in this post, but you can trust me when I say that satellite imagery is a wonderful friend to the forager. From easily finding groves of oak trees to finding a hidden ramps spot that’s just a thick carpet of greens every spring, there’s a lot you can do with the right satellite images.

There isn’t really a clear cut app that can do everything that I’m looking for in regards to satellite imagery, but my point is that you should merely leverage the satellite images on your existing apps.

Here are some of the ways you can use satellite images to benefit your foraging:

  • Finding groves of oak trees based on the fall colors late in the season
  • Locating sections of land recently clear cut
  • Finding tamarack bogs when looking for associated wild edibles

There’s a lot more that could be covered here, but just understand that understanding how use satellite imagery gives you the opportunity to make the most out of your time in the field. There are few other tools with as much potential in this modern age, so take the time to explore how it can help you most in your local environment.

Sun Position: Train Your Brain to Think About the Sun’s Patterns

While I wouldn’t call this a necessary app for a forager, I think it can be a very valuable addition. As you might guess, this app allows you to use augmented reality to show the approximate path of the sun in your current location. It also has the capability to show the sun path for any other day of the year, as the path of the sun varies highly over the different seasons.

Why might you need this? This app can easily serve as a great way to quickly remind yourself about which parts of the landscape will get the most sun throughout the day. This is undoubtedly more useful to the gardener, but a forager is certainly capable of benefiting from this knowledge.

Here’s where this app (or a similar app) is available:

Final Conclusions

I hope that you enjoyed this post and that you found a few interesting ideas that might save you some time or frustration the next time you’re in the field. While apps certainly can get in the way of our enjoyment of nature, I think when they are properly used they can really help open up this world for us.

From helping us successfully navigate our way back to the car to quickly and easily storing the location of that thicket of wild plums, apps are here to make our lives better when used correctly.

If you enjoyed this piece and you’re interested in other pieces that take a deeper look into what’s possible when we use technology to make the most out of nature, check out any of these articles:

By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.