In many ways, the smartphone is the new pocketknife. It seems obvious that if you needed to choose between them in your daily life, you’d choose the smartphone; likewise most people won’t bother to take a pocketknife traveling, but would find themselves (metaphorically, if not literally) lost if traveling without their smartphone. But even on hikes in the middle of nowhere, without phone or internet access, if forced to choose I would almost always choose to bring my iPhone instead of a pocketknife.
Below are some apps (and tips for things for which you probably already use your phone) to use while traveling, with a special emphasis on nature-oriented travel in Central America (for example, to our eco-resort at Isla Palenque).
(One caveat: These descriptions and reviews are for an iPhone 5 or later, running iOS 8 or later, since that is what I have. Many of these apps and functions are available on Android devices as well, or earlier versions of the iPhone and its OS.)
Getting The Most From Apps You Probably Already Have
Camera: Other than texting, your camera is probably what you use most on your phone, and unless you are bringing a professional camera, it’s probably all you need for capturing sights and memories from your trip. One tip, though: for just 99c, you can buy an app called Camera+, which lets you crop, straighten, adjust contrast/saturation/add filters, etc. If you want to make your photos look as good as possible, it’s the best $99 cents you’ll ever spend. I don’t think I’ve taken a photo without it for a few years now.
Texting: While you won’t be able to use standard texting while traveling internationally without incurring additional phone charges, you can get a free download of Whatsapp, and text over wifi spots for free. Just be sure that anyone else you want to text with has it too, because it only works with other Whatsapp users. I’ve been using this for years now, and even in the US I end up texting with it as much as the included messaging/texting app.
Google Maps: Did you know that you can store Google Maps on your phone for offline use for times you don’t have internet access? While it’s a bit of a pain, it can come in useful. And actually, if you are just going to be using it in one city or area, you can ignore storing it offline and just scroll around the area for 20-30 seconds at the level of detail you want, and it will stay in Google Maps cache anyway. And one of the amazing things about using this latter method is that even if you can’t connect to wifi, if there are hotspots in the area and wifi is turned on, Google Maps will know the location of it, and say you are there. In a city, the accuracy is very close, but in the sticks it will just register the last hotspot you passed by (on Isla Palenque, for example, it will either say you are at the Tented Suites or the Estate Rooms, even if you might be a mile from there).
Kindle: I absolutely hate carrying things around with me while traveling. If I have to, I’ll carry a backpack, but my strong preference is to only bring things that will fit in my pockets. So when I buy a guidebook, I get both a paper copy and a kindle version. The kindle versions of guidebooks aren’t as easy to peruse as the paper copies, which is why I buy both: paper for figuring out my itineraries, perusing on the plane, and planning my day in my hotel room. But I also have kindle on my phone, and buy the kindle version of the guidebook in case I need to access information while out and about.
Compass, Flashlight, Voice Recorder: While these aren’t often needed in your daily life or while traveling around cities, once you get into nature they all become very useful. The compass is helpful if you get turned around, and the flashlight is nice if dusk falls or if you want to peer into a hole or small cave. But don’t dismiss the voice recorder: it’s very handy if you hear a bird (or frog, mammal, whatever) that you can’t identify, for example. If you are staying with us at Isla Palenque, you can record its song and then ask a guide about it: more often than not, they’ll be able to identify the animal based on its sound.
New Apps You May Want To Consider
Pedometer: I installed Pedometer++ before my own most recent vacation, just out of curiosity, because I knew I was going to be walking around cities and a little countryside and I wanted to know how much I would end up walking. (Turns out we averaged about 6 miles a day, and went 11 miles on our last day, when trying to see every last thing we hadn’t yet.) There are a lot of different pedometers out there, but I chose the one I did because (a) it was free, and (b) it only uses the gyroscopic sensor to determine your steps, and doesn’t rely on accessing mobile signals and hotspots to track your exact location. While the latter functions are very nice if you are mostly tracking your walking around cities where you have a mobile signal, for international travel the simpler method is better.
Birding Apps: While I am not an avid birder (my nerdosity comes out in other ways 😉 , I am inherently curious, and when I see something I can’t identify it can sometimes drive me nuts. So I have two bird identification apps on my phone. One is BirdsEye Central America, Mexico & The Caribbean. It’s the only birding app I’ve found that covers our region of the world at Isla Palenque, but it’s (major) shortfall is that it only allows you to browse. Much better (but not available for Central America per se) is iBird Pro, which has a great search function that can filter birds by color, sound, size, etc, and help you figure out what you have seen. The North America version does include quite a few birds that are located further south, so it can be useful when you have no idea exactly why type of bird you’ve seen. Both apps (and all the decent birding apps I’ve researched) are $20, which, while expensive for an app, isn’t that much when you consider that these apps have a lot of information about the different birds they include, probably as much as a paper copy of a birding book would.
Other Nature Identification Apps:
For identifying fish, I use Fischfinder. While, like BirdsEye, it is missing a decent search function, the $3.99 price tag is easy to swallow.
There is also a free app by Project Noah that lets you add spottings of things you’ve seen (you need a photo of it), and even if you don’t know what it is, there is a community of people who will be able to help add information. Consider it kind of like a wiki-field guide. Even in Chiriqui, there is a small community of people that add spottings, and it can be a fun way for older children to engage with nature, as there are ways to add missions, badges, and the like, which can turn your hikes into a kind of game.
I’m by no means an expert on all the different apps out there for use traveling and hiking, so if you know of any others that I forgot to mention, please mention them in the comments. Happy Trails!