Can Smartphones and Tablets be a Outdoor Tool That Replaces Traditional Outdoor Tools and Skills?

Today more than ever outdoor enthusiasts are using their smartphones and tablets to access digital resources while planning, navigating, and documenting their outdoor pursuits. It's amazing to think that the smartphone that we carry in our pocket today has more computing power than NASA did back when they were trying to get a man into space.

While most of us don't need the computing power of NASA. I wanted to see if my mobile devices could be used as tools during my outdoor activities and if could they replace traditional tools and skills. I want to learn more about what digital resources and smartphone apps are available and what value they bring to the experience of my outdoor activities. Will I be a total adopter of technology and leave my map and compass a home? Let’s find out!

Can mobile devices replace traditional navigational tools? 

This won't be a post about the "Best apps of 2019" or the "10 must-have outdoor apps". A quick internet search will find you those articles and reviews.  This will be a series of posts to see if a smartphone and a tablet can be tools that can successfully be used in my outdoor pursuits.

What apps and online digital resources provide utility, enhance efficiency for tasks performed often, and are intuitive to the user? Do they provide value and enhance the outdoor experience? If the app or online resource has a paid version, is it worth the purchase (does the purchase enhance the experience)? I am also going to take a look to see if the app has a companion website site and the value of that resource. Does the app work offline or does it have to have cell or WiFi service to work?

My focus will be on apps and online resources that provide three core functions support planning, navigation, and documenting outdoor activities.

I use Android devices for personal use and an iPhone for work. While both have their followers, lovers, and haters I am going to focus my research and blog post series on the Android operating system.  Now that I have that out of the way...

I see my mobile devices being used in two different ways. This is mostly due to portability and the size of the devices.
The tablet is used for: 
  1. Planning 
  2. Offline resources  
  3. Telling my story 
The smartphone is used for:
  1. Camera & video
  2. Note-taking 
  3. Map & navigation system 
  4. Offline resources  
  5. Plus all the other things a smartphone can do
To help me control the chaos of both mobile devices I set up folders on my home screens to mirror each other. This should help me keep organized and help with workflow. The following are the naming conventions for my folders.

Controlling chaos with folders
  1. Documents & Notes
  2. Productivity 
  3. Geospatial & Mapping
  4. Weather
  5. Communication
  6. Photography
  7. Browsers
  8. Social
For the most part, each folder on the two devices will have the same apps.

Battery management and other accessories:  

Unlike traditional tools such as maps & compasses, mobile devices have batteries that need charging in the field. So my Mobile Device Field Kit (MDFK) will be made up of a wall charger, USB charging cable, USB Battery, and a solar panel. It is also a good idea to protect your mobile devices and use a case and away to keep the phone waterproof.

NOTE: I could do a post on just what are the best USB batteries and charging systems on the market, but that is not the scope of this post series. I was on a military training exercise and was in the field for about 10 days and during that time I saw about every brand and type of USB battery and solar set-up there. Guess what? They all work! The only difference is how much they weigh and how much time it takes to recharge.

There are several steps I take to help with battery management although some might interfere with regular usage. 

> Put the phone in dark/night mode
> Set the screen to time out after 30 seconds of non-use
> Turn off app sounds and notifications
> Turn on airplane mode
> Turn off apps that use location services, i.e. Facebook

Anyone that is out for just a day trip such as day hikers can normally get away without taking any special steps to manage battery life. It is best to test personal battery usage in a controlled environment before using the mobile device in the field.
One of the most common misunderstandings about using a mobile device such as a smartphone as a GPS is that you do NOT need cell or WiFi service for the GPS to work. The phone uses the same satellites as a stand-alone GPS unit but uses the phone's built-in antenna and GPS chip to receive the signal from the satellites. I will cover this in more detail in a later post when I cover mapping and navigation apps. It will also be important for us to learn about which maps we can download and use offline.

Just like any outdoor skills you need to understand the tools you are using and must practice those skills before you venture out. This is no different and you should learn to use the apps and resources in a controlled environment before using them on the trail. Understanding what they can and cannot do before you hit the trail.


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