I know. The last thing you want to be bothered by in the wilderness is your mobile phone, right? Until recently I would have agreed completely. I'd take it with me for emergencies, but it would stay safely tucked away and forgotten in my pack. But these days, a phone is so much more than a phone, and I've found I want to use mine - an iPhone 4 - more often.
I don't mean I want to update twitter every kilometer, or check my facebook status - most areas I go have very sporadic reception so, thankfully, that is out of the question. But surely a phone with a gyroscope, GPS, digital compass, and camera has a place in the outdoors?
Here is a selection of a few apps I've found worthwhile while out in the wilds.
Of course, you should research weather conditions before you leave, but realistically weather forecasts are only accurate to any degree for about three days, and many only give a general indication of what to expect.
My three main weather apps are:
- gives a pretty good 15 day and hourly forecast, but its radar map sucks.
- on the other hand has a great radar and satellite map, but its forecasting sucks.
- gives you a forecast for a very precise location. Tap your destination (i.e. your campsite for the night) and get a forecast for that precise spot. Very useful, but I suspect US only.
I usually carry a Garmin Dakota 20 (review forthcoming) to track my hikes and provide occasional "position confirmation". Is GPS necessary? Of course not, with good skills. But there have been times when I've found it very useful, notably in the Badlands and areas where the landscape beyond your immediate proximity is hard to identify.
The battery life of the iPhone is not sufficient to rely on its GPS functionality for tracking, but for emergency geo locating it is a great backup, with very fast acquisition of signal.
I've tried a lot of GPS apps, but the ones I come back to are:
- a nice, simple app for tracking a route, getting elevation data etc. The only downside is the battery drain, making it next to useless for multi-day hikes. Has a good altitude profile, not that I need that much here in Minnesota.
- similar functionality to trails, perhaps a little nicer implementation. Again, limited by the iPhone battery life.
MotionX GPS -
By far the best GPS app in the App Store, MotionX GPS is a fully featured GPS device, on a par with the best from Garmin or Magellan. It does everything a dedicated GPS unit does, and makes an excellent
GPS system. You can track, get your position, take bearings, use a built in compass. It's very well designed and packed full of features - far too many to go into detail here.
One very important feature is the ability to download and save maps for the area you will be visiting. Many GPS apps forego this feature and rely on the data network for transmission of map data. Most places I've been have no reception at all, let alone 3G, so this is one area in which MotionX excels.
Elevation Pro -
GPS apps often give slightly inaccurate elevation readings. I often need a more accurate reading to set my Suunto Core (review also forthcoming) to the correct reference altitude so I get good barometric measurements. Elevation Pro locates your position on a USGS map, and also gives you the GPS elevation. Of course you can check a map yourself, but I often use it when I'm out and about without a map. It really doesn't do much else. Unfortunately US only.
General Outdoorsy Apps
First up, knots. I was never in the scouts, and never had any knots drummed into me. I still cheat at tying my shoelaces, I'm that bad. When I made the transition to tarps and bivy bags, I had to jump on the learning curve, and found a few apps to teach me the essentials. I found each app had its good and bad sides, and each one seemed to call the same knot by different names, which was a little confusing. I've found these knot-tying apps very useful tutorials and aide-memoire. Frankly, they all do the same thing, so it's your choice as to which you prefer. Here, I show the different ways they illustrate the clove knot.
- animated step-by-step photos. Tons of them.
- also animated guides. Also tons.
- Step-by-step illustrations. Not so many knots, but simple clear instructions.
- Something different. SpyGlass combines a milspec compass, tracker, inclinometer, sextant and a bunch of other stuff. You can determine the approximate distance to visible objects, the height of peaks or landmarks, and program in a course to a destination and see it using augmented reality. It looks like a sniper scope, and will make you feel like Jason Bourne (but not James Bond).
Here, the superimposed bearing
indicates the location of my house
In this, it is possible to determine the distance
and elevation of the radio mast,
if you read the instructions, which I haven't.
- One of the nicest reasons to carry an iPhone into the wilderness, pUniverse uses augmented reality to locate the stars, constellations, planets, and distant galaxies. Just point the phone at the heavens and it reveals what you are looking at. In these screenshots, I'm doing it in daylight, but it shows where things are nonetheless.
- lots of tips for using that condom you always carry with you (you do, right?) in your survival kit. Always useful for those situations when you find yourself lost in the wilderness with no food, shelter, navigational aids, and you need to catch and eat that squirrel using a... oh shit, the iPhone battery died.
I always carry a decent camera, but there are some great apps that use the iPhone creatively. The lens is not great, but if it's all you have...
- great implementation of multiple lenses and films to achieve old-school style effects.
- creates random variations on a photograph with usually interesting results.
- Pretty good Polaroid imitation.
Other photo apps
I use a lot, so rather than give example of all of them, here's a summary:
- seamless and simple panoramas
- creates short time lapse video files
- creates hiqh-quality panoramas from previous shot images
- allows you to add a depth of field
- creates a 5x4 focal plane effect
- excellent colour processor
- good basic Photoshop-style post processing
These are the apps I use most when out and about. I'm sure there are plenty more good ones that others use, so if you know of any, please let me know in the comments!