Although I resisted bringing technology in the backcountry for many years – whether that be a simple watch at one time to today’s smartphones - one trip that left me stranded on the side of the road for hours changed my mind. A simple call would have resulted in a quick ride, but on that day getting a ride after 5 days in the mountains resulted in a failure even with my best smile. My phone lay in the car back at the trailhead – on the other side of the Continental Divide, and that burger I'd been thinking about since the day before - still out of reach as I pulled another crushed granola bar out of my pocket. Since, I’ve taken my phone on most trips and have settled on a few obvious and perhaps not so obvious uses for this 21st century multitool in the backcountry. Here’s a few of my favorite backpacking and hiking apps that have stuck around and actually stayed installed of my phone through the years.
Gaia GPS (TrailBehind $19.99)
This smartphone GPS and mapping app has become a frequently used application both on and off the trail. While Gaia GPS offers the ability to create and save tracks, work with gpx and kml files, and more, I don’t use the app full time – both to save battery and because I find it much more preferable to navigate with a paper map. My main use for this app is the sheer amount of data that I’m able to download to my device in the form of USGS topographic maps and aerial imagery. For any destination that I might be interested in exploring, I’m able to download detailed topographic maps for the entire area and even aerial imagery if desired for offline use. (Make sure to adjust the detail slider as needed, but higher detail will use more space) The physical equivalent to this would be a huge and unruly stack of paper – but these maps add not a gram to my 4 ounce phone. Combining this data with a larger overview map (Trails Illustrated Maps or similar) which receives the most use while hiking makes for a nice blend of traveling with a bigger picture map where you’re on the same fold for miles at a time, while still having the ability to look up the fine details if you need to – or simply if you like maps and are curious.
Additionally, as long as you’ve done your map download homework prior to your trip, the app will of course pinpoint your position – usually in less than a minute even after a cold start. Obviously there’s a lot of situations where this could be a benefit. I find this to be great on those days where you’ve perhaps been hiking offtrail, conditions were tougher than you expected, and you’re regretting the weight of that extra luxury item you threw into your pack at the last minute. Perhaps targeting a remote backcountry lake as a campsite that night…destination still out of view with light fading…you break out the map and compass to verify the correct direction of travel. But after making the determination, a quick spot check with the app offers a nice mental reassurance, and just in case you did make a mistake with your paper map and traditional navigation skills, it could even save you a lot of time. (If you do get a save – a good sign to practice more with that map and compass.) A quick spot check can also simply be nice for those occasional "are we there yet" moments.
The app is also very useful for planning routes both on and off trail whether online at home or in the field – by simply holding a spot on the map with your finger you can measure point to point distances, even manipulating the created line with multiple points following terrain. No more sort-of accurately measuring with a stick or string against a scale or by eye. This feature is also really useful when you’ve found that perfect campsite and aren’t sure if it’s the required distance from a lake, river, or trails – you can measure a close to exact distance from your current location with a couple taps.
Gaia works very well for the way I use it – and I don't even utilize all the features here - just keep an eye on battery life. For occasional use, only as needed, and with the phone turned off between uses you won’t even need to pack that battery pack or solar panel unless you’re on quite an extensive trip without any opportunity to recharge. Remember, always use apps like this as a supplement, and not a substitute for real maps and navigation skills – I’ve woken up to phones that don’t work on more than one occasion. (Bitter cold, forgot to turn it off, airplane mode mysteriously turned itself off, etc.) If you’re out a lot, odds are your phone will eventually fail on you in some manner.
What Knot to Do (Columbia, Free)
Another favorite and free is hard to beat. While I can honestly say that I’ve become a certified master of the half-hitch over the years, some of those other more obscure knots out there – infrequently used but highly effective in the rare case that you do need them, occasionally slip my mind. The free What Knot to Do App from Columbia contains just an absolute plethora of information on various knots that you might need in the outdoors, complete with step-by-step slides on how to tie each knot. Suddenly in a situation for example where only a man-of-war sheepshank or an oysterman’s stopper knot will do the job? This app has you covered. Or for that matter – the more commonly needed bowline and clove hitch are covered, as well.
And not the Nasdaq - Many apps you probably already have by default may be of the most use. The photo quality from smartphone cameras just keeps getting better – along with actual dedicated cameras for that matter, and while I’m usually after better photos than my iPhone can offer, it makes for a great backup. On a recent below zero degree trip, while fighting with frozen fog on my regular camera’s lens, I was at least still able to get a record of a great sunrise, for example. But if you’re interested in photography-specific smartphone app list, check out David Cobb's great article covering his 13 Favorite Photography Apps. And in a pinch a camera’s flash / the phone’s flashlight could assist as a backup light…for a while.
And on to more backups: the phone’s compass makes for a great backup or backup to a backup and of course – your stock maps or Google Maps app – you’ve gotta at least get to the trailhead right? Text messages, while not be counted on in an emergency will sometimes make it out from a surprisingly isolated place (perhaps unfortunately), with phone calls working to a lesser extent. Where I’ve found the phone function (almost forgot it was a phone there for a minute) most useful is on bailouts, as previously described rides gets a little easier.
Winter solo with darkness rolling in at 5 p.m. and a long wait in the tent until first light? Download a movie or a few episodes of your favorite show at home and you’re covered. As someone who also writes about the trail on occasion but isn’t a paper and pen type of guy, any type of word processing app can be very handy. Apple’s Notepad app works in a pinch, but I usually like a word count and Apple’s Pages app, or an apparently no longer made app called DraftPad that I use, is great when an idea for an article hits my mind in the tent at night, or while waiting out a cold and rainy shoulder-season morning…there’s no reason to hold that thought until the trip is over. If you’re more of a speaker than a writer, voice memos can easily be substituted here.
iBird PRO (Mitch Waite Group, $14.99)
I always try to learn something new on every trip, and birds are usually an easy target. The iBird PRO app, with information, range maps, and identification filters covers every bird in North America. I’ve found some of the more advanced filters and search features to be inaccurate / conflict with the listed range maps in many cases, (observed state / month specifically) which is unfortunate and it’s a problem that’s persisted for years with this app, but the information is still there albeit with a few more taps and searching time.
No more “Let’s remember to Google that when we get home” situations here – research right away in your tent that night. Or, I’ve even identified the owl above my tent that kept me up all night on one trip – the app even has included recordings of bird calls to play back on your phone. Playing the owl’s song back through my phone’s speaker only served to intensify the noise above my head that night, however…
Mammals (Audubon, $4.99)
In a similar fashion to the above, Mammals can also be a handy for identification purposes or just interesting reading to pass the time.
I haven’t found this one quite as useful as iBird Pro, simply because many mammals are often reclusive and the ones that aren’t are already household names, but it’s been handy on occasion nonetheless. (Was that fleeting shape a bear cub or a wolverine?)
iBooks (Apple, Free)
A great Apple app that lets you save PDF files directly to your phone, and with Android equivalents available – with iBooks I’m now able to carry the complete user manual for anything from my camera to my watch to my water filter right on my phone.
Quite helpful for those situations where you realized you forgot to set the declination on that digital compass and are tired of guessing at the right sequence of buttons, or maybe anything from your inReach to your SPOT to your Steripen is giving you a flashing LED sequence you’ve never seen before. And, considering I can store every issue of TrailGroove Magazine right on my phone, the app frequently helps with some great reading, too. Android? You probably already have a PDF app, but just in case here’s Google Play’s selection.
Google Earth (Google, Free)
I’ll occasionally use this one at home for trip planning purposes. If you’ve ever used the Google Earth App or it’s big screen equivalent prior to visiting the actual place you may have had your share of “wow…it didn’t look quite like this on Google Earth” moments, but nonetheless, combined with topo maps and other trip planning tools Google Earth is a good tool to have in the trip planning toolbox.
In the Field
While there are plethora of smartphone cases out there that will help with shock, dust, and moisture, I just use a small Ziploc bag to offer some additional protection for my phone on the trail and previously had good success with a small Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil dry sack. These solutions won't really help to keep your phone from breaking if you drop it, but it does help with scratches and dust. Obviously if headed out on a rafting trip I'd look for something with more waterproof protection, but stored inside the Ziploc (heavy duty freezer, double zip type), then placing that inside something like my waterproof hip belt pocket with water resistant zippers has done the job for me. Battery life is always your limiting factor, but I'm able to easily go on a week long trip or more without a recharge - even using the phone daily/nightly by starting my trip with a full charge, entering airplane mode, and setting the screen dimmer to the lowest possible level that I can still see. Although it's tempting to turn airplane mode off just to see if you do have signal in your tent - use with caution. I've had my battery suddenly take a large drop just from a quick cell signal search. Apple made things easier by allowing GPS use in airplane mode with a recent update, so thankfully no longer do I have to mess with removing my SIM card in an attempt to use GPS without the phone's cell radio. I have found my iPhone's battery to be poor in the cold - even stored in an outside pants pocket is not sufficient in single digit temperatures or below - it wants to be stored right against your body. If the phone does get too cold and displays the charge symbol when you know there's still juice left, you can wake it back up using body heat, hand warmers, etc. By staying in airplane mode, using the GPS sparingly, and keeping the phone turned off I rarely feel the need to consider bringing any type of recharging solution. (Even 30 minutes of video with sound uses just 5-6% of charge) if I did need to recharge I'd pack the PowerFilm Solar Charger we reviewed here in Issue 6, and there are of course many rechargeable battery packs out there which do pack a punch if you're not into solar.
Technology in the backcountry is a debatable topic, but at just a few ounces and taking up essentially no pack space, I’ve found a smartphone to be a great multipurpose tool on the trail – albeit with limitations. Any electronic device can fail and in some instances, all this information can start to creep its way into replacing skill and knowledge. If not managed well, it can even become a distraction for others or yourself…for a great read regarding many of these issues, see @PaulMags excellent article here in Issue 19. These limits with technology vary from hiker to hiker however, and can be dealt with...and of course luckily, you can turn a phone off. While I’ll never be that gentlemen I saw in the Bridger Wilderness last year jamming to heavy metal music (no disrespect to the genre) playing through a Bluetooth speaker attached to his pack, I’ve found that a smartphone, when used wisely, can indeed enhance my experience outdoors by making some things a little easier while learning a little more along the way.
So, what are your favorite outdoor apps?