Science, Tech & Environment

Here are four ways your cell phone can help you on your next camping trip. Plus some cool apps


Your iPhone could be a big help next time you go on a camping trip.


Mike Segar/Reuters

Let’s face it: when most people say they want to get away and unplug, they rarely do it.

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Even when out in the wilderness, the lure of email, Facebook, Twitter and other Internet addictions is simply too strong.

So, if you already know you're not going to leave your smartphone at home, why not make good use of it? Why not install a few wilderness apps that can turn your phone into an all-in-one camping tool? There are apps that can map out the trails you want to hike, watch the sky, tell you what mountains you’re looking at — even transform your phone into an emergency beacon.

Bob Parks, a writer based out of Brattleboro, Vermont, says he keeps his phone on airplane mode when he is out in the wilderness so he won’t get pinged from work, but he still enjoys using some of these very handy apps.


Some apps allow you to download maps and use them offline. You have to do some prep the night before to make sure you’ve got all the maps saved, Parks says. They might take (gasp!) up to an hour to download, but once you’ve saved them you don’t have to worry about an Internet connection.

Parks stresses that you should still bring your paper map and your compass and take a little time to learn how to triangulate and get a bearing. But after that, you may be able to just use the apps for their convenience and extra features.

Parks recommends Back Country Navigator and Gaia.

Geographic Information

Sometimes you reach the top of a mountain, enjoy the view for a bit and then you start to wonder, “What am I looking at out there?” Parks says. For this, he likes to use a “peak finder” app.

“There’s a brilliant app,” Parks says, “that uses your GPS and your compass to draw a very elegant line of [the] horizon...and it labels all of the mountains, far and near...It kind of feels like augmented reality. You can look right through [your phone], and see the peaks behind it and [learn] their names.” It’s similar to the Sky Walk app for watching the stars, planets, and constellations — which is another of Parks’ favorite outdoor apps.


“There are amazing weather apps from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration),” Parks says. “They have high-def radar and you can get five-minute updates of a looming storm coming toward your tent. Or you can get the AccuWeather app. That's free, and gives you the weather pattern right at your micro-location, so I like both of those.”

Location signalling

Parks says he is intrigued by a couple of new apps: Bugle and Hiker Alert. They essentially turn the phone’s service provider into a beacon, he says.

“You tell the app, ‘Look I'm coming back in 72 hours at a certain time and this is where the trail head will be, and this is where I'm going,’” he explains. “If you're not there within a couple of hours — with a little bit of leeway — [the app will] alert your loved ones and friends ... [and]automatically send out a beacon giving your location.”

One of the apps has a feature that provides the GPS location of the phone itself. Parks cautions that “phones can go wrong and are subject to Murphy's Law. They can get wet and fail.” It’s still best to know where you are and how to use basic hiking and camping tools. “There’s still no substitute for a good map,” he adds.

Besides, if you're using a compass, you're generally looking up at the mountains and trees around you — and you’re better able to spot possible hazards.

“When you're looking down at a phone, you might be walking along, stumbling,” Parks notes. “You might want to put the phone away while you're walking along, just to enjoy the view.”

Other favorites

A hammock-hanging app: calcualates the tension and the precise angles for the lines on your hammock based on information (e.g. your weight) that you give it

A campfire app: a panoply of apps provides recipes, campfire songs and scary stories for late-night entertainment.  

Geocaching App, which is essentially a treasure hunt played on a global scale. The idea isn’t new, but the app has widened its appeal. Participants hide a small box or a film cannister something similar near where they are hiking or camping, and leave hints on the Groundspeak website about how to find it. There are currently over two million of these hidden all around the world, graded by the difficulty of finding them or of the terrain.

An Electronic Insect Repellant App: Actually — don’t bother. A team of Brazilian team researchers found people got 30 percent more bites with the app on.

Parks is planning to take his next camping trip at the end of month, with his kids, ages 11 and 13. Along with his smartphone, he plans to bring a solar panel for recharging the phone, an extra battery, paper maps and a compass.

You might be surprised by one thing: Parks' kids have no trouble parting with their technology when enjoying the outdoors.

“Every family is different,” Parks says. “And since I cover technology, they rebel and they become Luddites.”