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April 5, 2013

Outdoor Journal: The apps I packed for a 33-mile backcountry adventure with my Windows Phone


My Windows Phone has hiked hundreds of miles with me. It’s carved up thousands of snowy vertical feet, trekked to the 14,411-foot summit of Mount Rainer, and last month accompanied me on a 33-mile ski trip around Crater Lake in Oregon.

Backcountry trips like Crater Lake are all about prioritizing gear and minimizing weight, so I’m always trying to see just how much I can get out of my phone. If you’re planning a serious outdoor adventure this spring, here are some apps that I’ve found handy to have along.

I started my trip to Crater Lake with the Weather Channel app to help me figure out what gear I’d need. In my mind, it’s consistently the best app for tracking weather in places that are off the beaten path, and it does so with a detailed Live Tile. The next step is finding the trail head. With downloadable maps you can use offline, Nokia’s HERE Drive is a reliable way to find your way around parks and remote terrain with little or no cellular coverage. For entertainment on the road and in the tent, I put the Amazon Kindle and Audible apps front and center. Here’s what my Start screen looks like:


Since Weather Channel told me to expect blue skies, I knew there was a good chance we’d have some clear, starry nights. Unfortunately I can’t identify much more than the Big Dipper in the night sky, so I pinned Oreo Skies to Start as well. There are also a few apps you hope to never use, but sooner or later accidents happen, so I added First Aid Manual, a very simple and well organized app that provides info on dealing with common trail ailments like cramps, burns, allergies, and bleeding.

During the trip, I lean heavily on my phone for its GPS and camera. MapSnap GPS allows you to track your location and progress, even when your phone has no cell signal. While most GPS navigation apps need connectivity in order to place your location on a map, MapSnap lets you upload a picture or file of your own map (something you should have anyway), then after some simple calibration, use the phone’s GPS to see your progress. I ran this app under the lock screen from sunup to sundown for three full days and never ended a day with less than 50 percent battery power in my Nokia Lumia 920. (I do bring a Goal Zero solar charger for trips of more than two days.)

As you can see from this screenshot of my trip map, there were only a couple places where the GPS lost signal—a combination of dense trees, narrow canyons, and maybe having my phone buried too deep in my pants pocket.


While nobody should ever rely exclusively on GPS for backcountry navigation, MapSnap did give us added peace of mind when identifying and avoiding three known avalanche zones.

Last but not least, my Lumia 920’s 8.7 MP camera with Optical Image Stabilization, combined with photo editing apps like Thumba, Photosynth (see Crater Lake capture) and Photo Studio, means I get amazing pictures of my trip without packing a bulky DSLR camera. And every image is automatically saved to SkyDrive for easy access and sharing.


That’s just a sample of how I use Windows Phone apps to create one backcountry device that does more than the MP3, GPS, camera, video recorder, e-reader and stack of assorted print outs I packed just a couple of years ago. I even found time to log a few thousand feet with the Winter Ski & Ride app at Mt. Bachelor while we were in Oregon, but I’ll save alpine skiing apps for another day.

Anything I missed? Fire away with your questions or own app recommendations, either in a comment or on Twitter @caseyamcgee.