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On the Trail with Technology by Hank Plaisted, UVTA Board Member

October 16, 2013

Back in July, Jonathan Frishtick wrote about a couple of his favorite web sites, both oriented around mapping. This month, I’ll be furthering the conversation about how trails cross with technology by discussing trail oriented smart phone apps, which are practically like having a GPS unit on steroids.

Before I get too far, I should mention that I’m a computer tech by profession but only succumbed to the smart phone mania last spring in anticipation of a trip overseas. Six months in and I must admit I’m sold. While I was away I used it extensively to find food, lodging, and especially information on the parks and recreational areas where I was traveling. Now, I’m not the type who responds to every email, text or call immediately, and there’s no compulsion in my bones to be constantly connected, but I do love the way I can use my phone for navigation and information gathering.
To get started I’ll put in a shameless plug for our very own Trail Finder app. If you’re looking for trail information in our region, Trail Finder is the key that unlocks the door to all you need to know, so check it out. While Trail Finder includes a live tracker, it’s not a complete trail tool. To check out the Upper Valley Trail Finder and download the app, visit uvtrails.org. Read on for more on those.
Technology has advanced to the point where your phone is a highly accurate GPS device which, when combined with good software design, means you can plan and track routes right on your phone. Even when there’s no cell signal, you can often download maps in advance and some apps will utilize the accelerometer and compass to keep tracking your location. Your phone will continue to work as a GPS without cell service, but it will be much slower. So, now that you have a GPS on your phone, what can you do with it?
When considering trail apps, here are the basic features that almost everyone wants:  ~route tracking utility, detailed speed and/or pace, and time, distance, and elevation tracking. These are almost universally provided in any app you might use, but with varying accuracy and ease of use. Most people want a fairly decent underlying map with good detail and contours, and the ability to upload and store routes. In order to accomplish the latter, most of the apps expect the user to create an account on-line which is updated either automatically or when the user chooses, depending on settings. In that regard, Google gets a leg up on the competition with their Google’s My Tracks for Android, which ties to your existing Google account (assuming you have one), meaning there’s one less user ID and password to think about. One more common feature is the ability to set automatic and/or manual waypoints.
For many, sharing through social networks is also important and has the added advantage for the developer to get a little free promotion. Take note of whether an app includes link to the major social networks like Twitter and Facebook, or if shared data is housed on their own site. That can limit the audience if your friends aren’t using the same app, but on the other hand, you may make new friends. Of course sharing these days usually means pictures, so an app that has a built in link to your camera is convenient for sharing images from the trail, and has the side benefit of being a great tool for trail maintainers who can utilize the geo-coded pictures for planning trail work.
Many, if not most of the apps you’ll find will offer both a free and pay version. Typically, the free versions waste valuable screen space with advertising or omit a key feature to lure you into paying. With that said, it’s usually worthwhile to check out the free version first to make sure you like the interface.
One of the first questions to ask is, “What information is important to me?” That should help you identify the features you want in your app. For example, are you interested in creating and sharing maps of the routes you’ve taken, or maybe just like to keep track of where you are in the woods? Perhaps you’re primarily concerned with tracking fitness goals.  While many apps are rich with features, finding the one that suits your perspective is the trick. Sometimes, there are so many features that it’s difficult to actually use the tool effectively, so be cautious with the one size fits all apps. A perfect example on the iPhone is a compass. There’s a pretty nice one built right into the phone, so I generally don’t feel the need for one in the app. But that’s just me and you may like an integrated compass, or one with more features than the default provided with your phone.
You might be wondering what app I use? I found Map My Hike to be a simple and straightforward app, but as a map enthusiast I found the underlying maps sorely lacking in detail. The audience for this app seems more oriented around fitness, because it includes tracking of heart rate and caloric consumption, for example. That’s not really my interest, so I kept coming back to the Trimble Outdoors Navigator. This well designed program offers all the basic features noted above with some nice perks. For example, you can choose from a range of base maps like USGS type contours, or aerial photos for example, and even download maps so you can use the app when you’re not in cell range. Route tracking is easy to setup with slick editing features for naming routes and waypoints. Sharing is via the Trimble Outdoors user site.
In closing, I’ll note that relying on an electronic device as your sole means of navigation is folly. Batteries die at the worst possible moment; phones get wet and fail, etc. Carry a map and a regular compass when you go deep into the woods. Oh, and if you do bring your phone, please turn off the ringer….
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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 25, 2013 10:12 pm

    Thank you for your thorough and dynamic insight to the many values of the relationship between technology and trails. From a fitness and health perspective, I predict that the ability to track, access, and measure outdoor trail use will contribute to improving exercise adherence. People seem to enjoy gps and smart phone apps while navigating unknown or known recreational territories. Recent research outcomes about why less than 35% of Americans engage in regular exercise point to the issue of ENJOYMENT. There is nothing as fun as living in an area with so much support around connecting people with nature and community. Upper Valley Trails Alliance models public health advocacy and stewardship for others.

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