Smartphones are the ultimate technological multitool. They combine a computer, a camera, a camcorder, a GPS, a compass, a flashlight, a phone and access to a library of information, all in a handheld device that fits comfortably in your pocket.
For naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts, smartphones can be an amazing tool for learning about the natural world, collecting data and navigating the outdoors. The key for turning your smartphone into the ultimate outdoor tool lies in the apps you purchase.
There are many excellent apps for both the iPhone and Android operating systems; however, finding the good ones can be a challenge.
I researched many outdoor apps while developing my own iPhone app called iTrack Wildlife, which is a photographic guide to the tracks, scats, skulls and signs of 65 mammals of North America. I learned that the best apps are simple and intuitive and present complex topics in a way that is both engaging and understandable.
Smartphones can be handy tools for the outdoors. These are several of my favorite apps for the outdoors:
iBird Pro (iPhone, Android, $19.99-$29.99). There are many good birding apps. But iBird Pro has an exceptional user interface and great content with detailed information, paintings, photographs and several song variations for 926 North American birds. It also has an elaborate search function for finding birds by various field marks.
Audubon Apps (iPhone, Android, $5–$20+). Audubon makes many nature apps, including those covering birds, mammals, butterflies, insects and spiders, reptiles and amphibians, trees, wildflowers, mushrooms and fish. While the standard user interface is a little awkward, for many taxonomic groups Audubon offers the best guides available. It also offers a Texas compilation guide that is the equivalent of 10 field guides for $9.99.
Maps and Navigation
MotionX GPS (iPhone, 99 cents). This excellent GPS and navigation app is loaded with features, has a beautiful user interface and allows downloading of various maps for use outside of cellular range.
GPS Essentials (Android, free). A great free GPS app for Android with many of the same features as MotionX GPS.
GeographTX (iPhone, $4.99). This unique app can display dozens of different map layers such as vegetation, geology, hydrology, terrain, public lands, land use and more.
Maplets (iPhone, $2.99). Enables users to download official park and recreation maps for thousands of sites across the country. Other maps often don’t have details like trail names, campsite numbers, etc.
Topo Maps (iPhone, $7.99). Provides downloadable, GPS-enabled, USGS topographic maps for the entire U.S. This app is extremely handy for traveling in remote areas without a cellular connection.
Star Walk (iPhone, $2.99). Put a planetarium in your pocket. This app uses the compass and accelerometer in your phone so that the view is always properly aligned with the stars you’re seeing. It’s an incredible tool for learning constellations, planets and stars.
Google Sky Map (Android, free). Very similar to Star Walk, but it’s free.
Theodolite (iPhone, Android, $3.99). Combines the camera in your phone with a compass and accelerometer to overlay information such as altitude, direction, location and angle on photographs. Great for documenting the exact location of a photograph so the subject can be found again later.
iNaturalist (iPhone, Android, free). Allows citizen scientists to participate in research projects and submit sightings to an online database where other users can assist in identifications.
While smartphones can greatly enhance our enjoyment of outdoors, there are drawbacks. First, smartphones are fragile and their batteries are short-lived, especially while using GPS. They are great for navigation, but should never be relied upon entirely. Second, remember that the goal of using nature apps is to learn about nature, not to play with your phone while in the outdoors. This is both a safety and practical precaution. Awareness of your surroundings in the wilderness is critical to avoiding hazards as well as seeing wildlife.