The digital outdoors

Enjoying nature means harnessing new technology, not leaving it at home

Ballerina Tree, Bryce Canyon NP, USAIf you’ve ever stood atop a mountain in the pouring rain, soaked to the skin, with a flat camera battery and only a basic idea of how to get home – as I have – you’ll know that the natural world demands huge respect. And that means knowing what to wear, what to pack, and how to arm your smartphone with the right apps for every scenario. If you’re camping, hiking, or just going for a walk, you need to be prepared for anything – and technology can help.

Best foot forward

You might start your trip in bright sunshine and dry weather, but it likely won’t stay like that. That’s particularly true if you’re headed up a mountain range or down a valley; high ground has ever-changing weather systems, and the thinner the air the colder it gets as the sun starts to set. Walking boots are becoming lighter, but be wary of so-called ‘approach shoes’ that are really just sneakers that look suited to hiking. Much safer are more traditional designs that give support to ankles, so avoiding accidents; a twisted ankle can be a serious, even life-threatening injury if you’re far from civilisation.

Stay cool

Just as important for trips into the wilderness are layers. Since you can’t carry endless suitcases, a capsule wardrobe in a backpack is a must. I always wear a merino wool t-shirt, which wicks away sweat and can act as a warm base-layer (it also dries incredibly quickly, and doesn’t smell even after a long, hot hike). Add a lightweight fleece in a stuff sack, as well as an ultra-thin micro-jacket that protects against rain and wind. Micro-jackets are designed for easy travel, with some even packing into their own side-pocket, and clipping to a belt loop.

The backpack you choose is also critical. Choose something waterproof, preferably with a separate rain cover to attach in case of showers. If you’re walking in any kind of humidity, it’s easy enough to get wet just from your own sweat, so choose a backpack with a curved back panel. As well as keeping most of the backpack off your back, it allows air to flow across you, keeping you drier and cooler.

Power to the people

Ask any regular traveller what their most treasured gadget is and they’ll tell you it’s their smartphone, of course. A great way of remaining connected wherever you are is a MiFi and data SIM card bundle, a small, portable wireless router that ensures a 3G or 4G signal almost anywhere in the world.
However, a few hours of messaging, browsing the web or navigating using apps like Google Maps, CoPilot or CityMaps2Go, and smartphones becomes useless hunks of metal. Cue a portable battery, but not those super-slim products that fit in a pocket; they are only good enough for a small top-up. Go for something rated at least 4,000mAh, like the Huawei Y6 Pro, which can work in idle mode for 24 hours, with only 10% battery charge. Opt for a battery has a 5V-rated 2.1-amp USB output if you want to speed-up the re-charging process, though here’s another tip; put your smartphone into ‘airplane’ mode and it will recharge twice as quickly. A waterproof case is a good idea, too, though a ziplock bag works just as well for downpours.

Magical memories

If you’re hiking, camping overnight or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors, extra power for your phone is a must. Being able to call or get online could be crucial in an emergency, but a smartphone is about far more than safety. Most of us now use a smartphone as our primary camera for capturing memories, but this year’s dual lens smartphones are threatening even professional DSLR cameras. On the Huawei P9, one of its two cameras captures the image in RGB colour while the other delivers it in monochrome, with the latter ensuring sharper-looking images. The P9’s clever algorithm instantly merges both images. As well as making striking monochrome images possible when out and about, the P9’s 12-megapixel Leica lenses also offer light painting modes including Silky Water, which is ideal for creating professional-looking smoothness on fast-flowing stress and waterfalls.

Enjoying the darkness

Another of the light painting modes is Star Track, which can capture the movement of stars in dark rural skies, if you keep the phone still. That’s key because surely one of the joys of being out in nature is the precious darkness. To stand under a night sky bursting with stars is a real treat, but to really appreciate it does require patience; night-adapted eyes take 20 minutes of uninterrupted darkness to cultivate. During that time, don’t be tempted to look at your phone – it will kill your night vision in an instant! If you want proper darkness and a moon-less sky, choose the week before New Moon. It’s also worth knowing that the Milky Way will arch above you at around 10pm only between July and September. However, for detailed answers as to which star is which, only planetarium apps like Sky Live, SkySafari, Night Sky and Star Walk 2 will do; all have ‘night mode’ that gives-off only red light, which doesn’t damage night vision.

For some, hiking, walking and camping is about getting away from technology, but used correctly it can keep you safe and help get more from the great outdoors.

Jamie Carter edits TravGear.com and is the author of A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide