High tech gadgets and apps for hiking
The digital age has sure revamped how people take to nature, how they capture their outdoor memories and how, if needed, they get rescued in time of an emergency. When I first started hiking, many decades ago, one was totally self-reliant once off the beaten track. A map, compass and navigation skills, along with some basic survival skills were necessary for back-country travel and if there was an emergency, the rescue didn’t start until long after someone realized you were missing.
While many go to the outdoors to leave technology behind, not one item of equipment has become more popular than the smartphone while on the trail. Built in GPS and mapping software provides real-time location and direction even when cell service isn’t available. The phone’s built-in cameras have reached the quality level to replace carrying a separate camera for all but the most die-hard outdoor shutterbugs. And new advances in GPS and satellite technology make finding lost or injured hikers much easier.
When I head to the woods, I tend to turn my Android based phone off and place it in a ziplock bag for most of my trip. I don’t care if I have service or not, and a few days away from social media is a blessing. About the most use my phone gets while in the woods is as a music player if I’m struggling with a difficult section of trail, or to unwind at the end of the day to fall asleep.
But I have been experimenting with a few “hiking” based apps for my maintenance and fun hikes.
After a good bit of online research I decided to test out “MapMyHike
” and “All-Trails
.” Both phone based apps work on IOS or Android based phones and both provide relatively accurate tracking. I’ve used both on local hikes of varying length and both recorded my hikes without any input on my part except starting and stopping the tracking. Both tax the phone’s battery so I suggest a quality external battery pack (I use a Dark Energy Poseidon, the absolute best I’ve found so far) for any hikes longer than an hour.
After trying both apps, I have found I prefer All-Trails over MapMyHike. The main reason is I love how All-Trails allows the user to enter all kinds of information about the trails, and makes the hikes available to other users. Looking for a new trail in your area? Pull up All-Trails and enter a city, park or trail name and all trails saved by other users pop up on your screen.
After your hike you can save and share your trail information, not only with other All-Trails users, but with your friends via social medial. And, All-Trails saves your information and offers reviews and comments from other users who have hiked and logged the same trails.
For back-country hikes I am just starting to use a new app I found called onX ROAM. For a $10 annual subscription the user gets extensive, nationwide, public lands maps that show points of interest, geographical features, roads, and trails along with weather maps and forecasts. Private lands maps are available for an additional amount. I’ll be testing ROAM extensively while on an upcoming backpacking trip in South Carolina so stay tuned for more info.
The last bit of technology I want to touch on are personal location/emergency beacon units. In the past few years, personal location beacons (PLB’s) have become more and more reliable and affordable. Up until the first SPOT Locator was introduced several years ago, outdoor enthusiasts were limited to extremely expensive PLB’s that were out of touch for most. Now, not only is SPOT on their third generation but a new system by DeLorme, the inReach satellite communicators are available at extremely affordable prices.
Before a recent solo, back-country hike in northern PA, I purchased a SPOT Messenger at the local Gander Mountain on clearance sale. This is one of the original SPOT units, but for $67 I couldn’t beat it. Be aware, there is a monthly service charge and an annual commitment with SPOT and in the long run, I’ll be looking at the inReach system due to the fact that one can start and stop service monthly with DeLorme. At $300 plus, just for the inReach locator, I decided to try the SPOT.
During the many years of being a husband, father and outdoorsman, my safety has been a point of contention between myself and my family. My family doesn’t like not knowing where exactly I am and if I am ok, lying along a trail somewhere with a broken leg or getting gnawed on by a bear. With the SPOT messenger, I am able to send one of three pre programmed messages via email and/or text message. Before leaving for my Potter County trip I set up the following messages:
“Just checking in. I am safe and everything is good
“Checking in. I am safe and will call when I have cell service,”
and lastly, an emergency message:
“ Bad news. Not getting out on time. Don't send help yet. If you don't get a OK check in in an hour, I need help.”
I explained the last message to my spouse that if something happened, I got lost, there was a bad storm, I was sick or hurt, and I wouldn’t be getting out of the woods at my estimated time, I would send the last message. IF she didn’t receive the “Just checking in” message again, that meant something serious happened.
One of the neat features of the SPOT is it’s ability to track the progress of the owner through a GPS based tracking feature. The unit sends updated GPS coordinates to the system every ten minutes while “tracking” is initiated. Anyone with access to your online account can see where you are at on your hike, where you stop for the night, etc. My wife was able to watch as I progressed through twelve miles of hiking and 4000 feet of elevation change on a Google map based image. One word of caution, the SPOT was fine going up the mountain and across the ridgeline, but once I started down the back side, the GPS lost signal and there was a large gap consisting of more than a mile missing on the tracking map. This also means that the SOS function will not work.
The SOS function is, to me, the most important feature of the SPOT or any other PLB. In a life-threatening emergency, activating the SOS button alerts authorities to your current location and dispatches rescue personnel. If the SPOT doesn’t have GPS service due to terrain or weather conditions, the SOS function WILL NOT OPERATE
. The fact that I had a blackout on my hike, in the same location going in and out, concerns me but wasn’t a surprise. Many of the reviews I read on the SPOT products, especially the original SPOT device, expressed concern for the conductivity and ability of the SPOT to maintain satellite connection. So for now, I will continue to leave a detailed agenda of my hikes, dates, expected camping locations and a final check-in time, just in case.
The main thing to remember with technology is, while it’s amazing and great when it works, electronic devices are bound to fail so having basic land navigation, map reading and medical/survival training are a must anytime you head into the great outdoors.
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