Technology and Fresh Air: How Outdoor Apps Help You Explore

i-heartAs anyone in the Bay Area can tell you, there is still a huge disconnect between how we live our mobile technology and how pop culture portrays it. Nowhere is this more true than in the “tech nerd” character that still somehow keeps popping up. Nervous, stammering, sun-starved, Cheetos-stained: the tech nerd explains something to the hero, who has to say “In English, Chip?” (“Chip” is short for “Microchip”). She then tells Chip that he has to come with her on the mission, to which Chip falteringly replies, “You mean, outside?”

The only concession to reality is that shows now acknowledge that the tech nerd can actually be a girl. Otherwise, the stereotype remains true, and increasingly absurd. Tech enthusiasts, designers, and creators love getting outside, exercising, experiencing what the world has to offer as much as anyone else. We all know how mobile tech can help with exercise and staying healthy, but it can also augment and improve your experience in the great outdoors. Exploring nature means being able to appreciate it without ruining it, capture it without disturbing it, and immersing yourself in it while staying safe. Your smartphones and tablets can do all that, making our mobile tech a part of, and not apart from, the natural world.

The Best Outdoor Apps For Enjoying Nature


The first thing to take care of is getting around. I remember when I was in the Boy Scouts, at one of my first real camping trips, and we got lost in the woods, wandering for what seemed like 12 hours or more, never getting closer to our destination. It was harrowing. If we had technology (or, I have to admit, if the older Scouts were any good), that wouldn’t have happened. For both hiking and biking, there are numerous apps, like AllTrails or MyMapHike, that help you plot out a course, with geographical and topographical information. You don’t want to get out on the trail for your first biking experience and realize it is all uphill. Apps like these can help you plan your trip and find the right path for whatever speed you’re on.

Of course, once you are out there, you might not have any reception, which is why you can use apps like MotionX GPS, which saves your course, and moves with you, so you always know where you are and how to get to where you need to go. It can sometimes be fun to be a little spooked out in the woods, but you never want to actually be lost. You smartphone can keep you on the right path.

Staying Safe

The cool thing about nature is that it is literally inhuman, in a way that we can’t fully comprehend. Even saying “nature doesn’t care about you” is to indulge in somewhat comforting anthropomorphization. It just doesn’t care, period. Even so, we love nature, and need it. We go out to unwind, to get healthy, to understand ourselves better. More and more, we’re realizing that outdoor adventures can help treat PTSD and other brain-related ailments. But you have to be safe when doing so.

There are a lot of apps that can help with that. First Aid, for iOS and Android, lets you know what to do in almost any situation, from sprained ankles to burns to animal attacks. With graphics and videos, it helps you do the single-most important thing: stay calm. Other apps include the cutely-named What Knot To Do, explaining how to tie the right knot, and what you need it for. As a former mediocre Scout, I can tell you that bad knots lead to uncomfortable or even dangerous situations. The US Army Survival Guide teaches you how to build fires, find shelter, get food, or whatever else you need in an emergency. If something goes wrong, it’s good to emulate the best.

Appreciating Nature

OK, so, we’ve told you what can go wrong, and how you can get lost, but there is more to nature than stumbling down ravines and fending off ocelots. When out there, you want to maximize your appreciation, and there are two ways to do that: knowledge and silence. I admit the latter is up to you, but for the former, you can count on a few apps to really help you understand what you are seeing.

Peaks is an app that lets you identify any mountain, and its height, just by pointing at it. Apps like Project Noah not only let you identify plants and animals that you see, but by logging them, they help scientists create a database for that allows them to understand habitats and patterns. This aids in conservation and protection. To me the coolest are the apps that tell you what stars you are looking at, as long as you remember to look away from the phone every once in a while as well.

That’s sort of the point, overall. There are people who are disdainful of mobile tech in nature—Bill Bryson famously bemoaned the ubiquity of smartphones on his beloved Appalachian Trail—and there is no doubt there are some people whose usage is just obnoxious and overwhelming. But just as there are a few Scouts who can’t stay on a trail even when there are scared 4th-graders in their midst, the people who are annoying with their technology are the slim few, and ultimately beside the point.

Mobile tech helps us understand our world, and understanding it helps us appreciate and enjoy it, and, maybe most importantly, relate to it. We can’t make nature more human, but we can realize our place in it. Outdoor apps help us take in the beauty, see it and comprehend it, help us know together the connections that make for such a vibrant and awe-inspiring planet. And having your smartphone doesn’t mean you are dependent on it.

You can look up at the night sky, bright and clear away from the city lights, a veil of stars cast over endless dark. You can use your phone to see what that bright star is, the one you’ve seen chasing the winter moon across the sky. It’s Sirius, you see, one of the nearest stars to us. You turn off the screen, wrap yourself once more in the darkness, and think of how close, and how impossibly far, it really is.

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