Some say that technology goes against the very reason we are out exploring wilderness in the first place. This may be the case , but nearly everyone carries a smartphone in their pocket. The smartphone is a powerful tool that is beginning to replace that backpack full of heavy and outdated books. Some apps don't quit live up to expectations, but these 10 have become essential field tools.
Our Top Picks:
1. Camera (Free)
An impressive tool! We have this great tool in our pocket that has face recognition, auto zoom, high dynamic range capture, high resolution, crystal clear viewing screen, an array of editing tools and finger-tip publishing! While it can be used to capture beauty, perhaps most importantly your camera phone is there for documentation.
- Pay attention to Metadata. Did you know that your phone camera is capturing metadata with each photo? This includes the camera settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc), the date and time, and most importantly the location! These documented geocoordinates are essential to programs like INaturalist and others that locate your photos on maps. But here is the tip: DO NOT MESS UP AND POST A PICTURE ON THE INTERNET OF A RARE SPECIES, HABITAT OR MINERAL COLLECTING SITES THAT STILL HAS THE METADATA ON IT!!! To avoid the disastrous scenario of poachers swiping that rare orchid you found, simply make a copy of your photo or take a screen shot of the photo before sharing it. We do NOT recommend turing off the GIS feature because 99% of the photos you take are harmless when it comes to location.
- Crop. Don't hesitate to edit your photos! Start with cropping. A square crop is an easy way to hone in on a specimen while a 16:9 widescreen ratio can weed out dead space in a landscape photo.
- Stabilize. Always try to brace your smartphone or hand on something solid even if you think the light is bright enough for a fast shutter speed. Use a tree; a table, a rock, the ground... anything.
- Go Telephoto. If you are really into photography with a smart phone consider some adaptors that can take the standard factory lens to another level. My personal favorite is the PhoneSkope adaptor for spotting scopes. This gives you a realtime viewfinder for the youngin's. Set it up on that bluebird hole and crowd around! Combining your camera and spotting scope gives you super telephoto lens converting to something like 1200mm. Which does not even exist in the camera market!! Plus you can take video through it! Time to invest in that spotting scope you have always wanted!
2. Google Maps (Free)
I heard a quote recently from a millennial that went something like this...
The millennial: "Oh my gosh, what did people use before google maps?"
The ancient: "Umm, Maps"
The millennial: "No, I mean BEFORE maps"
There are probably hiccups somewhere in this application, but you would be hard pressed to find them. This mapping program is probably the most thoroughly developed application in existence.
- Use the Aerial Photography Layer (orthophotography). The world is at your fingertips! Yes it can be slooooow to load when you have just a single bar but the wealth of information available is worth it. For instance you can see the substrate of a river bed, distinct lines defining habitats, locations of rock outcrops, sometimes wild game trails, you can identify potential remote camp sites. You've eyes in the field that can help you make the call about wether or not it is worth it to push further or turn back.
- Check out the "Terrain" Layer. Turning this feature on shows the earth surface through shading and topography lines. The shaded relief allows you to study ridges, valleys and plateaus with ease. With labeled topography and elevations you can make all sorts of vital assessments. You will also find a wealth of place and river names that don't show up in the standard maps.
- Save Maps to use Offline. It seems like more often than not we loose reception in the field (not necessarily a bad thing...) You can avoid being mapless by saving the data to your phone prior to hitting the road. To do this simply search for a place, swipe the bottom bar up and tap the three dots in the upper right and then "save offline map" (IOS 9). This is perfect for that rare habitat exploration/survey.
- Place a Pin. A lot of locations you want to go to are not on roads but we still need directions to the nearest location we can pull off the side of the road! Place a pin on the map by tapping and holding your finger on the map for a second. This will put a marker on the map that you can then use the directions feature to get drive times and distance information. To move it or get rid of it simply tap somewhere else.
- Find Me. Don't forget the feature that puts you in context!. By tapping the crosshairs the map immediately places you on the map and shows your orientation... very handy in the field.
3. Sunscape (Free), Compass (Free), Tide Trac ($2.99), and NOAA Weather Radar ($1.99)
I've lumped these simple accessory apps together as must haves. They give you pin-point accuracy and allow you to plan ahead and not get caught off guard while in the field.
- Sunscape: This straightforward app doesn't mess around. It tells you the exact sunrise and sunset times for any location in the world which is obviously essential for being there when all things that are exciting happens! It can also save you from being on that trail an hour after dark, getting up way too early to go fishing, or missing that sunset view at the peak!
- Compass: Obviously it can orient you (sort of) when you are disoriented. I say sort of because one has to be careful not to rely heavily on this tool in critical situations because of its lack of accuracy. This accessory is better suited for resolving bets about which way is North and confirming estimations about slope aspect while in the field.
- Tide Trac: Clearly not very useful for a Blue Ridge expedition, but this tool connects you to the forces that power every aspect of natural history on the coast. If you enjoy coastal birding, fishing or boating then you need this app. Simply navigate the map to and select the closest station and bingo you've got an endless graph of tide data. It will show you high tide, low tide times and height, moonrise/set and sunrise/set.
- NOAA Weather Radar: The source for nearly all the data on weather in North America, this app can show the reality in the atmosphere rather than relying on weatherman percentages (we all know how accurate that is). My personal favorite feature is the Hi-Resolution National Radar Loop: pure data. Being a loop, you can begin to understand how the weather systems are developing and where they are headed. Often you can quite clearly see a small break in the area you are located while the general forecast puts it at 80% chance of rain. You can also see the spring and fall neotropical bird migration happen in mass on the radar! You can even see insect migrations on the radar! For more information about this visit: Clemson Bird Radar
4. Peak Finder ($3.99)
There is nothing like getting to an overlook in the Blue Ridge Mountains and looking off into the Appalachian vista at all the peaks! Now you can line those up with a database of names! No more pretending you know which mountains are which, now you can test it out. Simply hold the phone up and pan around in a virtual fashion and you'll see the peaks align. What you will find is that the national database of names does not always line up with the local vernacular traditions, but you will be impressed with all of names you have never heard of. Hopefully this app will inspire you to go out and bag a few more of those peaks.
- Calibrate North. Each time you use this app you should calibrate North. This will help with the alignment. Do this by tapping the compass in the upper right.
- Zoom In. Tap the screen to zoom in and see more names in the distance. It will also show you the degrees above your location along with degrees north.
- Go Virtual. Not only does this application show you the view from your location but you can also search for peaks and virtually look at the view from those locations too, without having to actually go there.
5. The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America ($19.99)
Birds were probably the first natural history subject to break into the mobile app market. As a result there are a litany of options out there for bird field guides, but just like the print versions, there is one that stands above the rest: The Sibley Guide to North American Birds. The cost of this app is high. At $19.99 this is by far the most expensive app on my smartphone. What also hurts is the amount of storage it occupies: 447MB. It is all worth it folks. If you have any interest in birds, treat yourself to this fine app.
If you can't manage the cost, try Cornell Lab's Merlin Bird ID app (free). Limitied to 400 birds, a great guide for people who are just starting out.
6. All Trails (Free)
The free AllTrails app is super easy-to-use, helping you locate trails in your area, view on-the-ground route track, directions from your current location, and other trails near the one you have chosen. You can create tracks to share, edit trail information or add new trails, access trail reviews, view photos, topo maps, and more. Best of all, you can access trails maps and information when offline (a common occurrence in remote areas). The app provides a well-organized menu and a set of useful features that you'll really use. Another benefit of the app is the large number of users, which results in many informative trail user reviews.
7. Flora of Virginia (TBD)
Imagine all plant species of Virginia at your fingertips... keep dreaming because sadly this app does not exist yet, but we had to include it on the list. The anticipation of it is killing us! If it is anything like the 5lb hard bound version we are in for a real treat. Here is what they are saying about it online:
"The App will contain everything you love from the book, with a lot more besides. It will combine six other ecological databases with the Flora’s own data. Emphasis will be on habitats, ecological earmarks of natives. Also appealing, of course, are portability and updatability. And a unique, simple Graphic Key!"
I'm personally excited to see a key to all flora of Virginia in an interactive format. Hopefully they will link to the definitions!! If you would like to see this developed as much as us, please visit their website and pledge your support! Flora of Virginia
8. Notepad (Free)
The most basic of all apps, this one stems from primitive desktop text editors. It is simple there for you to write your thoughts down quickly. All naturalists need a notebook to document observations, musing and questions. This is a no frills version of a classic field journal. If you need a little more organization look elsewhere.
- Voice Transcribing. Use the voice transcribing tool to eliminate typing. It doesn't matter if it records "Double-breasted Pillow Fluffer" when you when you sad "Double-Breasted Cormorant". Speed and ease is paramount here folks.
- Species Lists. Use this as a way to document a species list when your are in a pickle.
9. iNaturalist (Free)
With the iNaturalist app, you can learn about flora and fauna in a particular area, and contribute your own photos and observations to help document species in your region over time. The app lets you upload photos of the plants and animals that you see while out exploring, and get help identifying them by syncing with the iNaturalist online community at iNaturalist.org. You can add notes and species name, record GPS locations, explore observations from around the world, and keep track of updates from people you follow.
Note: contributing observations, helping to identify species, commenting, and other interactive features do require you to sign up for a free account.
10. Star Walk ($2.99)
This is one of those apps that illustrates our amazing advances in technology. You can have the entire galaxy in your hands! With these virtual skies comes clarity and simplicity that takes years to get by standing alone in that hay field. Sure we all want to be that guy who is an encyclopedia about the cosmos, but seriously why would you want to store that huge database in your head!?
I think you could pick your poison with any of the long list of great star viewing applications, but either way, you have no excuse for not having one of these virtual night sky tools on your smart phone. Take a moment and download one now. You won't regret it the next time you see that uber bright beacon in the sky and wonder if it is a planet or a star...
All of the Audubon series, however many of their apps get poor reviews for ease of use and reliability.