This is the second post in our 3-part series about Smartphones in the Backcountry. We just wrapped up a primer on all things-smartphone in Part I. Now we’ll take a look at several types of apps that will be essential to making the most of your smartphone in your outdoor activities. These will include apps for navigation, activity tracking, geocaching, and a few others that you might find useful. We’ll look at a few of the more popular apps in each category and have a brief overview of each. Lots of ground to cover, so let’s get to it.
Again some heading jumps for your convenience…
Apps for Topographic Mapping & Navigation
Mapping and navigation apps are the bread and butter when it comes to getting around the backcountry via smartphone – though it’s important to remember that there’s no substitute for carrying a good hardcopy map of any areas you plan to venture into. These apps will allow you to track your route/position, access a compass, measure point to point distances, and more. A typical approach to using navigational apps is to create a route plan at home using the planning software of your choice (that will be our topic for Part III), upload the route to your mobile device, then import it into your app. By downloading the relevant map sections to your phone, they’ll be available while out on the trail.
Sidebar on Maps
I am NOT a mapping expert/enthusiast. I’m sure there are a few of you reading, and no doubt you know much more about the subject than I do. I use maps like most “normal” people, that is, find a decent one of my area of interest, download (and print) the sections I need, and I’m good to go. For those of you who are non-experts like me, you may not know that not all maps are created equal! There can be limited choices for certain locales, you’ll also find that various map sources provide different levels of detail for a given area. The resolution of digital maps varies between sources as well. Those of us in the US will generally be using USGS maps (Caltopo maps are nice). US Forest Service maps and BLM maps can also come in handy. For Asia and Africa, Russian Military map sources are probably the better choice. In other parts of the world including Europe there are yet more map sources such as OpenCycle to consider. Key takeaway – the more map sources an app offers, the better for you.
- US Topo Maps: ($9 / limited free version)
Developed by ATLOGIS Geoinformatics. The user interface (“UI”) is clean and pretty easy to figure out. It helps that there is a very short tutorial to get you started the first time you fire the app up. There are dedicated buttons to: get location, record a track, go to a point/follow a route, change map/overlay, and drop a way point. Although there are just a couple of clunky UI features (why does pressing “back” not exit a menu?), for the most part it’s excellent. There is no dedicated compass screen unfortunately. To view the compass you must do one of the following: request location, switch to “go-to” mode, record a track, or view the trip master. The default map source is USGS and there are alternative map sources as well. It’s easy to choose various overlays (such as slope shading) from the menu. The app is responsive and map tiles are fast to load. Waypoint (“WP”) info is just a touch away on any given WP and includes options to share or go to the WP. Where this app falls short is its lack of zoom. It literally stops zooming 1-2 levels sooner than some of the other apps, which also seems to be the biggest complaint it receives in the app store. Maybe the developer will resolve this by adding map tiles with higher zoom levels and detail. There is a free version which is good for a demo, but it cannot download map tiles for offline use. Recommend at least giving it a look.
- Trimble Outdoors Navigator: (free)
Developed by Trimble Navigation. This app has a lot of problems. The UI is a mess. What appears to be the central most menu of the app is displayed at launch, after that it can only be accessed by pressing the “back” button enough times. The help menu is also on that “sneaky” central menu, so hopefully users will find it before needing help and not realizing they need to press what would intuitively be “escape” in most other apps. Worse yet, help is not accessible unless cell service is available! Yikes… Moving along the list of issues, map tiles are slooow to render which is an annoying problem. The zoom does get in nice and tight, however the painfully slow rendering of map tiles discourages zooming and panning! The selling point of this app seems to be that it caters to those who have a Trimble Outdoors subscription. This is essentially access to a large, members only database of trips, trails, GPS tracks, and photos which can be searched, browsed, and uploaded to the mobile device. Sadly this app is a terrible means of providing access to all of that information, much less using as a stand alone navigator. Not recommended! Maybe if you have a Trimble subscription… but even then it’s hard to reconcile all of its problems.
- Backcountry Navigator: ($12 / free demo)
Developed by Critter Software. This has been my go-to app for a while now. The UI is very decent, although not the best I’ve seen, it’s satisfactory. It has dedicated buttons for: search, get location/follow track, a map layers menu (map source, overlays, etc), trip database menu (tracks, waypoints, etc), and a general settings menu. The app settings allow you to also show or hide dedicated buttons for “get location” and “create waypoint”. I think the UI could be a bit more polished and could benefit from a set of dedicated buttons similar to the ATLOGIS app above. The map tiles do render quickly and we have access to Caltopo as a map source (as well as many worldwide map sources), so I can forgive a less than perfect UI! It’s great that we have access to Caltopo, unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a way of integrating any of the awesome overlays that Caltopo offers such as fire activity or slope-angle shading. Panning and zooming is very fast and smooth however creating a WP is slightly clunky, and selecting a created WP is even more difficult. It requires having the “long click on map” option enabled which is somewhat annoying. In some cases when attempting to “long click” an existing WP, a new WP is created instead. Back on the plus side there is a very nice compass screen which also has night mode (black background) and an orienteering display mode. A mini-compass can also be displayed right on the map (a nice touch). Backcountry Navigator has quite a few options that can be customized, and they’re well organized. The price of the app seems fair, though some of the add-on overlays are a little pricey… $10 for BLM boundaries for a single state? Ouch. Overall highly recommended.
Activity Tracking Apps
There are apps that can record a track (such as the navigational apps above) and then there are apps that really get into tracking activity data and providing various metrics and stats based on the accumulation of data over time. These types of apps are generally used by runners, cyclists, or anyone who is interested in capturing as much personal performance data as possible. A typical way someone would use these apps would be: activate GPS on a compatible device (smartphone, watch, or athletic monitor), start the app, set it to “record”, and go for a run, bike ride, hike, etc… Once the activity is finished, save and synchronize it. That last step requires a cell signal to access the web, although many apps can sync the data later when a signal is available. There are quite a few mobile apps that cater to this niche, we’ll quickly talk about a few of them.
- Map My Run: (free limited version / $3 ad-free limited version / full features with $30 yearly subscription)
Developed by Map My Fitness Inc. (Now owned by Under Armor). Map My Run is a running-centric app as you probably deduced from its name. It’s also a very you-centric app, as opposed to the more social oriented applications. It does also have social features, and allows for tracking various activities and workouts, but it’s built around running. When you start it up you’re presented with your workout screen which is ready to track your activity, whatever it may be. Where Map My Run is very strong is in its ability to integrate with training plans for various distances, including logging your nutrition. Some of this is done via integrating (seamlessly) with other apps in the “Map My” Suite, and beyond the basic features a “MVP” membership is required ($6/mo or $30/year). Although the interface is of Map My Run is well designed, the free version of the app is absolutely plagued by ads… ads on the bottom of the screen, ads in the menus, random full screen pop up ads, and product placement integrated into many of the features. As good as Map My Run is, all the ads become very tiring; it just goes waaay too far. You can pay a few bucks to not see them if you like the app and it’s limited set of features. If you’re on board with paying subscription fees, then definitely give it a look because the full suite can be quite powerful with a paid subscription.
- Strava: (free limited version / full features with $60 yearly subscription)
Developed by Strava Inc. Strava is a very social fitness app. It is primarily focused on cycling and running, although other activity types can be recorded as well. When first starting the app a “feed” is presented, indicative to it’s social nature. The feed shows your own activity, as well as the activity of people you follow and this can be filtered by clubs you participate with as well. This design puts the emphasis on “oh, let’s fire up Strava and see what everyone has been up to” much like the way you would check other social sites as part of your daily routine. The UI is straight forward as Strava is a fairly bare bones app – which is nice because it is not cluttered up by extraneous features/buttons/menus. The Strava web interface provides some additional functionality, however several of those features lack refinement (the route building tool is junk, and there is no real training plan integration). Where Strava shines is its presentation of leaderboards, clubs, forums, and especially the segments (small route sections defined by other users) which are automagically captured in your activities. These features make Strava a good motivational tool by instigating fun and friendly competition with your friends and others who are active in your area. Premium users ($6/mo or $60/year) get access to heart rate data and more in-depth metrics. If you’re not up for paying subscription fees, good news – the free version is completely ad free, kudos to Strava for not dirtying their image with cheesy ads! A highly recommended app to check out, especially if you plan to stick to the free version.
- Endomondo: (free limited version / full features with $30 yearly subscription)
Developed by Endomondo.com. Endomondo blends together ideas from other apps to come up with its own way of doing things. The app is geared toward cycling and running, but as with the others you have a ton of activity options to choose from. When the app starts it is ready to being tracking an activity and displays several stats – all of which are customizable. A quick swipe to the side reveals the map with your current track, swipe back to return to the stats. The UI of Endomondo is very easy on the eyes; every menu is decorated with simple icons to make finding the right selection a little easier when you’re on the move. A cool and fun feature is the ability to create challenges for your friends, which is available even in the free version. It’s a shame the free version features a bottom banner ad however. I often wonder if the revenue from such ads is worth yucking up an otherwise great presentation, oh well. The web interface offers some additional functionality such as being able to turn any workout into a route, it’s even possible to upload GPX files and turn them into routes. Alas, even the web interface has ads, sigh. Premium members ($6/mo or $30/year) have access to training plans, heart rate data, and weather data. Endomondo has a lot of great features, many of which are available in the free version. There’s something about the look and feel of Endomondo that’s just very inviting. If you can live with some ads it’s worth checking out, if you’re considering paying subscription fees definitely give it a look.
Geocaching apps provide the functionality that geocachers would typically find on their handheld GPS unit. Assuming that these apps are utilizing the widely popular geocaching.com database, they’ll have access to all of the caches and associated data that is contained there. This also means that the same user benefits and/or restrictions for non-paying geocaching.com members will apply (more on this below). Geocaching apps will be used mostly in the same way a GPS would, meaning that the cache data is downloaded to the device in advance so it’s available out in the field where cell service may or may not be available. Then it’s simply a matter of selecting a cache to find and go hunt for it! We’re just going to look at a couple of options in this category…
- Geocaching: (free limited version / $10 full featured version / unlimited access via $30 annual subscription)
Developed by Groundspeak Inc. Geocaching is the free app from Groundspeak (who owns geocaching.com). It’s important to differentiate between the free, paid, and paid subscription. The subscription provides unlimted access to the database at geocaching.com, without a subscription only some caches can be accessed (green dots on the map), and daily access is limited. It doesn’t matter if you have the free or paid app, that will be the case. As far as the apps go, the paid app offers some additional features one of which is the ability to download cache data to the phone for offline access. Since this is pretty important (!), the free app may as well be considered a free demo. The app itself is very straightforward, upon launching it all of the caches in your area are shown on the map. Tap on a cache to see its details and/or choose to navigate to it. When navigating a simple tap brings up the full compass. It’s simple and most of the lacking features are not critical, sans the ability to work offline, which is a total bummer. Regardless of which app you’re going to use you must sign up with geocaching.com for at least their free membership. If you’re a casual geocacher the free/free combo might make sense, the more “hardcore” treasure hunters will probably go with the paid/paid option. Other combinations like free/paid or paid/free complicate the decision further. This is a case where the developer is getting in their own way with multiple apps and lots of pay walls, which might lead would-be customers to alternative apps.
- c:geo: (free)
Developed by c:geo team. If the geocaching.com app is the official one, then c:geo is definitely the unnofficial, underground, “eff the man” geocaching app. A free (or paid) geocaching.com membership is still needed, however c:geo subverts many of the restrictions put in place by the good folks over at Groundspeak. It’s able to do this because it does not use their official application programming interface (what’s known to us nerdy types as an “API”). Instead, it data mines information from the geocaching.com website and pipes it directly into the c:geo app. Is this a little Black Hat style? Yep. However Groundspeak has so many paywalls and a convoluted two-app suite that it is actually less convenient to use their own products! On the other hand we have c:geo which presents us with a nice map of all the same caches with the ability to download them – any of them – for offline use! We can filter by cache type, and look at as many as we want each day. The interface is very straightforward but also offers more in terms of handy features once you start digging in a little further. Once navigating, it’s easy to switch between map or compass with a couple taps on the menu. The only features that are really missing are the abilities to track and message friends who are presumably also out caching in the same area. Hardly deal breakers though. As a bonus c:geo can connect to all of the OpenCaching networks (which are managed by Garmin). Anything less than highly recommended would be an insult to this app and the c:geo team. Check it out and if you feel a guilty about using it, try paying the geocaching.com annual membership and see if it helps 🙂
Of course there are probably other apps that you would find useful when heading outdoors. These are just a few that come to mind. Do you have others that you like to use? If so, let us know in the comments section!
- Sky Map: (free)
Developed by (Google) Sky Map Devs. This app is one of many “night sky” apps that are around. In a nutshell, point it at the sky and it can help you identify planets, stars, and constellations. It does this by using the phone’s GPS and compass along with the camera so it is battery intensive, but if you can afford the battery life it’s good fun and educational too!
- Photographer’s Ephemeris: ($5)
Developed by Crookneck Consulting. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a handy tool for photographers who are interested in knowing the positions of the moon and sun in the sky, what time sunrise and sunset will occur on a given day, the times that moonrise and moonset will occur, the phase of the moon, and how light will fall across any given location on a given day. This app will be extremely helpful to anyone who wants to take a planned approach to landscape photography and even night sky shots or star trails.
- Dioptra: (free)
Developed by Glideline Systems. Dioptra is a very simple app that uses the phone’s camera to measure and record angles and capture the info in photos taken by your phone along with relevant GPS info. This can come in handy in a number of ways, such as measuring slope angles, geo-locating features on your hikes, and even checking for the position of Polaris for your night photos. Nerdy is the new cool, don’t be skeered! Dioptra is still young and lacks some refinements (such as compass calibration and anything resembling a menu), but seems to be on the right track.
Making Sense of Differences and Discrepancies
You might think that any apps running on the phone utilizing the same GPS signal will more or less report the same information. This however is not the case! Anyone who looked carefully at the screenshots above may have noticed that each of them was showing the same activity (a local route that I call “Nine the Hard Way”), yet the activity details are all somewhat different. It’s typical, and really not all that mysterious. Here’s why…
- Polling Frequency: Every app that utilizes the GPS will have a polling frequency. That’s fancy talk for how often it will communicate with the GPS Satellites to get a fix. More satellite pings equates to smoother tracks and better accuracy, but it also taxes the phone battery harder. Developers will try to work out a good compromise, usually favoring accuracy. In some cases the polling frequency may be a setting that can be customized, giving the end user control over their accuracy and battery consumption.
- Interpretation: It’s up to the developer to interpret the location data that is being gathered from the GPS satellites. They may use proprietary algorithms to smooth paths and clean up data, thus leading to differences between apps. Elevation is a notoriously sketchy metric to trust; it’s very plausible that app developers tap into other phone resources as additional data points, then use fancy maths to produce more accurate elevation data. Here is what Garmin has to say about it.
- Accuracy: Accuracy can vary app to app. Why? Who knows. There are already a number of ways that error is introduced into GPS data. Apps have to negotiate communication with multiple satellites and there is probably some behind the scenes transacting that must be handled by the developer. Varying approaches to handling these transactions could explain some realtime variance in application accuracy.
- Other Stuff: Most of the apps we mentioned gather and/or calculate other data aside from what the GPS provides. Differences in anything that’s calculated based on user input, feedback from performance monitors, or other sources of data is totally up to interpretation. There are probably a dozen formulas to calculate any given metric, so don’t be too surprised if one app tells you that you burned 1500 calories and another says it was only 1000. The best way to determine what you believe is do some research into the subjects you’re curious about and make some of your own calculations, then see what jives and what doesn’t. Anything that can be verified by an alternative trusted means (such as checking actual mileage) can shed a lot of light on an app’s accuracy.
What’s Next? A Segue to Part III
Ok, so that was a ton of information… fingers… so… cramped! It’s only the tip of the iceberg too. There are a lot of apps out there, so try a few, make use of free demos, and find the ones that click for you. The next installment of this series will be an overview of trip planning software. Anyone who is breaking into cross country exploration or heading out for long runs into uncharted territory will want to give it a look. We’ll target two tools: Google Earth and Caltopo to talk about route finding, checking elevation profiles, studying the terrain, exporting data for use on your smartphone, and printing scaled maps. Hike It. Like It.