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Hiking App: NOAA Radar Pro

An Informed Hiker is a Safe(r) Hiker

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating

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Hiking App: NOAA Radar Pro

A late-December cyclone heading toward Southcentral Alaska, as seen on the NOAA Radar Pro app

Photo © Tap Nation via NOAA Radar Pro

Keeping in touch with rapidly changing weather conditions is one of the best ways to stay safe on the trail. It used to be that once you left home, you were on your own with nothing but the sky to tell you what sort of weather was heading your way. Nowadays if you're in a place where you get an Internet connection for your wireless device, you can use a weather app like NOAA Radar Pro to keep track of the weather in real time or as good as.

While I would never count on having cell phone signal on very remote hikes, you might be surprised where you can pick it up, especially if you're near populated areas. (I once got a phone call from atop Raven Peak in Alaska (near Crow Peak/Crow Pass), so if you're hunting for signal -- whether for this app or to make a call -- head for high ground.)

NOAA Radar Pro is currently available for iOS devices only -- sorry, Android users!

Hands-On Weather

The actual interface is dead simple. Zoom or scroll the map just as you would any image (touch and drag to scroll the map, double-tap to zoom in or pinch/spread to zoom in and out). If you want to know more about a particular area, touch it and leave your finger there until a marker pin drops into place. When I first tested the app this didn't always work, but it's since been fixed.

Tap the little blue arrow next to the pin and get the following information from the nearest NOAA weather station: A 24-hour forecast, 7-day forecast, and current conditions (temperature, what it feels like, pressure, humidity, wind, visibility and dewpoint). Severe weather warnings and watches show up as color-coded polygons on the map; tap the polygon for more information, and tap the blue arrow to get the actual text of the alert.

If you want more than a frozen snapshot in time, the app also scrolls through several hours of recent radar or satellite overlays. In one recent test I was able to watch a cyclone spinning closer to my part of Alaska, although it never materialized into the predicted violent storm on land. (I understand the story at sea was quite different.) This isn't quite real-time weather -- right now the most recent display is from a whopping three minutes ago -- but come on, that's about as close as it gets.

You can store and manage a list of locations so you don't have to hunt-and-peck for the right weather station (pins for stored locations are purple), or just keep dropping the single red pin wherever you want. Click the icon in the very lower right hand corner of the screen to manage your locations list; click the compass/GPS symbol just next to it to zoom in on your current location.

I'm not sure who NOAA partners with to get their international readings, but you can check weather all around the world. As I type this it's 32 degrees in London; 60 degrees in Perth, Australia; and 13 degrees somewhere in Tibet (I guess it's not too surprising that the information for Tibet is a little vague).

How Does it Help Hikers?

Adjusting the settings in NOAA Radar Pro

Photo © Tap Nation via NOAA Radar Pro

I can see the NOAA Radar Pro app being useful for hikers in a number of ways. In areas subject to flash floods, looking up and seeing blue sky above you is no guarantee of safety; you also need to know what's going on over any high ground, however distant, that might channel water in your direction. As long as you can get some kind of a wireless signal (which is so often the case on hikes nowadays -- don't get me started) you can check conditions in the surrounding area as often as you like.

Planning a road trip to your favorite trailhead? Staging at the trailhead campground for a long backpacking trip? Wondering what's up with those clouds on the horizon? No matter where you are, this app clues you in on weather conditions and forecasts in places you won't get in the weather report on your evening news.

Thumbs Up for a Simple Interface

I'm a bit of a dunce when it comes to mobile apps, so I appreciate NOAA Radar Pro's simple, yet customizable functionality. The "stack" and "gear" symbols in the upper right hand corner let you toggle between radar or satellite overlays, several choices for background maps, Imperial/metric units, and so on. You can also toggle severe weather warnings and other alerts on or off.

How to identify severe thunderstorms on radar

NOAA Radar Pro in a Nutshell

Pros:

  • Simple, functional interface
  • Accurate, real-time information
  • Unparalleled network of weather stations

Cons:

  • No option to see/list all weather stations
  • No access to archived readings

I give NOAA Radar Pro 5 stars because I love simple, functional apps that actually do what they're supposed to do. No unnecessary frippery -- just solid, accurate information that'll help you make good decisions on the trail.

That said, I do have a small wish list of things that'd make this app even more useful from a hiker's standpoint. I wish it had an archive feature so that you could look back on previous readings for a given location. That, paired with information about each weather station's elevation, could be quite useful for backcountry travelers piecing together the avalanche hazard puzzle.

I'd also love to be able to bring up pins for all weather locations/stations within a given section of the map, although I imagine that might take a while to load on slow connections -- so maybe we're better off without.

Have you tried NOAA Radar Pro? Rate it and leave a comment!

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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