A hiker on Paintbrush Divide. New smartphone apps provide an array of tools to use in the outdoors. (Mor/Flickr — click to enlarge)

NOLS expert shares best smartphone apps for the outdoors

by Kelsey Dayton

— May 20, 2014

 About a month ago I stunned everyone I know. I finally caved and got a smartphone. After years of resisting I was forced to change cell phone providers and decided it was time.

Kelsey Dayton

My resistance had been in part because I loved my old flip phone with its sparkling lights that flashed a caller’s name and its ability to survive falls in snowbanks and on trails year after year. But I also hesitated in upgrading because I didn’t want to be connected all the time. So much of my time is spent in front of a computer that I savor the time I can’t check my email and I didn’t trust my will power to self-regulate when it was time to put a device down.

As a late and half-hearted adopter of technology I was slow to start exploring the ways I could use my phone outside. I went outside to disconnect.

But as I began to timidly explore my new smartphone I realized it didn’t have to be something that kept me tethered, it could be a valuable tool to help me escape daily life and responsibilities.
The challenge of building the best tool possible by selecting apps was overwhelming, so I turned to Darran Wells, an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and an associate professor of Outdoor Education and Leadership at Central Wyoming College. Wells not only spends extended time in the outdoors hiking, climbing, and biking, he also teaches the next generation of outdoor educators.

Strava Group: cycling, running, and triathlon club (Track your progress and challenge your friends!)

In the last couple of years Wells has started introducing apps in outdoor skills classes. He teaches students how they can use navigation apps on expeditions, skiing apps to help evaluate avalanche terrain, or trail locating apps when mountain biking.
Learning to use apps isn’t mandatory and there’s isn’t a phone skills test since some students don’t have smartphones. “But it’s becoming such a valuable tool and so many students do have them you can’t really ignore them anymore,” he said.
Smartphones are part of the NOLS Wilderness Navigation manual, noting people should know the capabilities of their devices — at what altitudes and temperatures they still function.

Wells acknowledged technology in the outdoors can be polarizing. There are people who think a wilderness experience isn’t genuine if you take technology along. He sees it as an additional tool that can make life easier. It’s one thing if you are going out for a few nights or even a week to go technology free. But if you are an outdoor professional spending 10 weeks in the backcountry each year, having a little music to listen to in your tent isn’t a big deal.

A phone can also lighten the load by eliminating the need for a camera or field guide. On one of Wells’ expeditions, the group carried more than 50 pounds of cameras and books. It also can help in emergency situations. Some smartphone applications — “apps” — allow texting for help even when your phone doesn’t have service, which is much cheaper than buying a satellite phone.

But there’s a few things to remember, Wells said. If you plan to use your phone don’t forget solar chargers. And don’t let technology be a substitute for learning skills yourself. Technology can fail. You still need to know how to read a map and find your way without your phone. You also need to know when to turn it off, he said.

I asked Wells for some of his favorite smartphone apps and why he loves them. Read what he said and then be sure to pass on your own favorites.

Best for mountain bikers: MTB Project
It’s a great way to locate trails while traveling in areas you’ve never visited. It provides everything you’d want to know about biking in the area and offers 3-D maps of the trails. It’s basically a free guidebook, Wells said.

Best for pushing yourself running or riding: Strava
If you run or ride, Strava offers a way to compare your workouts with friends. You can’t always coordinate training schedules with others, and knowing exactly how fast and far your friends are going can push you a little harder. It also logs everything you do, so you can track your improvements and you can’t cheat when bragging about your workout.

Best for wilderness navigation application

Best for wilderness navigation: Spyglass
Spyglass provides a variety of navigation data all in one app that also includes a heads-up display. It’s amazing to use. It’s “virtually idiot proof,” Wells said. That being said, no one should go into the wilderness without basic navigation skills and a non-digital map. Also, augmented reality apps take a lot of battery power, so if you are in the wilderness, don’t forget your solar rechargers.

Best for identifying plants, birds and animals: Audubon Society field guide apps
These are comprehensive and really interactive, Wells said. If you spot a bird you can look it up by color, shape or even verify it by hearing a recording of its song.

Best for weather: Dark Sky
There are a lot of weather apps, but Wells likes Dark Sky with its cool satellite images and alarms that go off when precipitation is imminent.

Best GPS: Motion X
There are a lot of GPS apps out there that offer similar functions but they are more expensive, Wells said.

Best for backcountry skiing: Mammut Safety
This app measures slope angle, altitude and helps assess risk. It can also access your local avalanche report.

Best for stargazing: Planets
There are a bunch of apps that allow you to pan your phone across the sky and get information on the constellations, but Wells thinks Planets is a good one because it has a 3-D sky view.

Best for first aid: No app necessary
Instead of downloading an app, save your first aid manual as a pdf and put it on your phone. That way you have access to the entire manual in the field, Wells said. “Why carry five books when you can carry a solar charger and your phone?”

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. In the Android Store, Spyglass appears to be a magnifying glass or telescope app. Is the app described in the article Apple only?