Hiking with smartphones is a no-brainer. Which is to say that some hikers would never think of going out on the trail without an app tracking every step and calorie burned. But for others, the whole point of a hike is to unplug and get out into nature. So if they carry a phone at all, it’s only for emergencies.
I come down somewhere in the middle. On one hand, I think a lot of hikers do have a problem disconnecting. What’s the point of leaving home if you’re going to spend your time on the trail texting and talking?
Here’s how to be smart about using your smartphone for hiking.
Locating Trails. Although I still believe in the value and detail of a well-written trail guide, the capacity to use apps to browse for nearby trails, especially when you’re in unfamiliar areas during vacations, is one of the key benefits that smartphones offer hikers.
Free and low-cost trail apps are available for many national and state parks, and many hiking organizations also offer extensive information for smartphones. More visitor bureaus are also creating area guides and apps that include trail details.
Performance tracking. If one of the reasons you’re hiking is to lose weight or achieve fitness goals, maintaining a log will take the guesswork out of assessing how far or how intensely you just hiked.
Hiking isn’t a competitive sport but with an accurate record of your outings, you can compete against yourself and assess whether your performance is improving. It’s also just fun to see how many miles you’ve hiked in a month or a year. And a log is a great way to keep from slacking off by reminding you when you haven’t been out on the trail for a while.
Audio Trail Guides. Many parks, including Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, now offer interpretive trail guides for smartphones. All you have to do is call in, then punch in the number appropriate to a specific stop,and you’ll get the same interpretive information contained in printed guides.
Emergencies. Definitely a no-brainer: Your phone will provide a bit of insurance if you run into problems, such as getting lost while hiking. But you also still need to follow basic rules of hiking safety because topographical barriers mean it’s easy to lose cell coverage out on the trail.
Keep your phone away from your body. The science is still rather confusing but studies recommend that you should carry your smartphone as far from your body as possible. The phones emit electromagnetic radiation and in 2011 the World Health Organization classified them as a “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
No direct cancer links have been identified but more studies will certainly be forthcoming. Meanwhile, you’re best off stashing your phone in a backpack where it won’t be in direct contact with your body for the duration of your hike.
Protect Your Phone. Your phone won’t do you much good if it’s damaged. You’ll want to protect against potential damage from dropping your phone, as well as a variety of weather conditions, including rain and, especially in the desert, blowing dust and sand. If nothing else, stash your phone in a ziplock for at least some measure of protection, or consider buying a durable protective case.
Watch your battery level. Always make sure your phone is fully charged before hitting the trail. Especially if you’re using a tracking app, it’s easy for the battery to quickly get drained because of the constant use of the GPS. A dead battery means your phone will obviously be useless in an emergency, so if you’re intent on recording your hikes, you’ll want to pick up a rechargeable battery case, which can double your available power time.
Keep your ears open. I know that many of you like to listen to music when you hike or workout. Music can definitely be a motivator but in addition to closing you off from the sounds of nature on a hike, your music will also limit your ability to listen for potential threats, including such dangerous wildlife as mountain lions and bears.
There are many places on the trail where your sight lines are compromised and you’ll need to keep all of your senses engaged, so think twice about where and when you listen to music on hikes.