Ten years ago, it wasn’t hard to get lost on a hike: read the map wrong and you could wander too far into the woods or down the wrong trail. But over the last few years, digital tools like trackers and apps have made exploring the outdoors safer and more accessible.
Whether you’re a casual hiker or experienced adventurer, this technology (combined with your analog hiking essentials) can help you navigate, communicate and handle emergencies, especially when you don’t have cell service.
Finding your way
Waze and GoogleMaps often aren’t that useful, even on a short hike, because they require a cell signal and often don’t have route information. To help you figure out which trail you’re on, or how much uphill you have left, you can turn to mapping technology specifically designed for all sorts of outdoor activities, including backpacking and skiing.
Gaia GPS, a free map app, is cherished by avid hikers for its library of maps and over 300 overlays. You can choose one that shows active wildfires in your region, for example, or one that indicates the steepness and tree cover on ski trails so you don’t get in over your head on the slopes. For a monthly $3 fee, you can also get access to fancier options, like National Geographic’s iconic trail maps of popular destinations across the United States, which are highly detailed and include famous landmarks, lookouts or waterfalls.
OnX, another navigator app starting at $2.50 per month, has three versions tailored to three different activities: hunting, off-roading and hiking. If you want to drive a Jeep in Moab, say, the off-roading version can tells you how difficult the trail is. And if you’re hunting, fishing or just exploring off a trail, the hunting version has borders that show land ownership, so you can know if you’ve wandered onto private property.
If you’re not ready to commit to a monthly fee, REI’s Hiking Project is a free app that allows you to download trails on your phone and track your progress.
You’re enjoying a well-earned rest halfway up Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks when your brother, while trying to take a selfie, falls off a rock face and hurts his leg. You’re not schooled in first aid and are hours from the trailhead and cell reception. Enter GOES Health, a new wilderness medicine app that helps you evaluate injuries, make a diagnosis and plan for evacuation, if necessary.
On Mt. Marcy, for example, you would input your situation — cliff/rock fall — and click on the leg on a body illustration to identify where the injury is. After a few basic questions, the app would provide a possible prognosis: “You might have a fractured bone.” Then you could watch a video on how to make a leg splint and follow instructions on how to get your brother back to the trailhead.
GOES Health costs about $6 a month; a pricier version lets you chat with a wilderness medicine doctor, assuming you have a cell signal or satellite phone.
Communicating with the outside world
Amiththan Sebarajah, a long-distance hiker from Vancouver Island, B.C. who has trekked more than 7,000 miles, often hikes for months at a time. To communicate with loved ones, he carries a Garmin InReach (about $400, plus subscription), which is part satellite phone, part GPS and a staple of many outdoor enthusiasts.
Although these sorts of devices have been around for years, the newer versions are smaller and offer features like weather alerts and the ability to retrace your steps to find your car. SPOT is a less-expensive, pared-down option ($149, plus subscription). It has a single button to alert an emergency response team that you’re in trouble or to quickly send a text via satellite.
Other gadgets make it easier to find you if you’re lost or injured, even in avalanche debris. For example, if you have a jacket or helmet from a brand like Arc’teryx or Helly Hansen, you may already be using a reflector by RECCO without even realizing it — just look for the logo. Emergency response teams, including ski patrols, often carry detectors that can alert them that a reflector is in the area. If a reflector is not already in your gear, you can add one to your helmet or backpack, or wear it as a belt.
Even with these new devices to help keep you safe, a key part of wilderness safety is still old-fashioned preparation. When you rely too heavily on technology, it can “create a safety bubble that can be potentially reckless, if not dangerous,” Mr. Sebarajah said.
If you are a backcountry skier, you should still carry avalanche safety equipment, like a beacon, shovel and probe. If you’re hiking, you may be able to call for help, but you need to stay safe, warm and well-fed until it arrives. And all of these gadgets can run out of juice or get dropped in a lake, so don’t forget to bring a paper map and a portable charger, like Goal Zero’s Venture 75.
Hannah Singleton is a freelance journalist based in Salt Lake City who covers the outdoors and the environment.
Dr. Susanna Ashton has been practicing medicine for over 20 years and she is very excited to assist Healthoriginaltips in providing understandable and accurate medical information. When not strolling on the beaches she loves to write about health and fitness.