Taking to the woods is supposed to be a chance to unplug.
Dip your toes in the water. Go on a hike. Get some sun. Swat some bugs. At least that's how the theory goes.
If I were any good at camping I would have left the phone, tablet and dozen backup batteries at home. But my addiction to screens is what some may classify as "crippling." There's no reason a phone or tablet can't enhance your experience outdoors, though. These gadgets can provide information resources like maps, to-do lists, fitness tracking and first aid info, as well as fun stuff like a handy camera and source of music for your treks. Maybe I'm just trying to post-rationalize my condition, but you seem like the kind of crowd that's in the same boat.
So without any further ado, this is how I camp with some fine apps and smartphone accessories for the summer.
My first step when preparing for a camping trip is to ensure that my various doodads stay alive in the wilderness. There are a few obvious best practices to extend your battery life and limit the number of times you have to top off: turn the screen brightness down, turn off your Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular radios, disable background apps, and only use your device when you really need to.
With that in mind, load up on backup batteries. If you get one that's big enough, it can keep you charged up for the entirety of your trip. You'll need to factor in portability and ruggedness with your battery choice, depending on how intense your activities are going to be. The good backup batteries will have an integrated charging cable so you won't have to remember to bring a separate one. On my last camping trip, I used the Goal Zero Venture 30, which offered speedy simultaneous charging to two devices, waterproofing, and a handy built-in LED flashlight. Obviously juice everything up before you hit the road. But once the backup batteries are dead, there are a few options. It's likely you'll have a car nearby, so make sure you have a 12-volt charger handy. This is a good thing to have in the glove box year-round anyway.
Goal Zero Venture 30 power pack
This 7800mAh battery pack is both rugged and waterproof and packs enough juice to charge your phone twice over (and then some). It comes with a built-in Micro USB charge cable and a pair of 2.4-amp USB ports.
TYLT PowerPlant 5200mAh
Tylt's PowerPlant 5200mAh battery is compact and portable while still carrying plenty of power to keep your gadgets topped up through the day. It has a built-in Micro USB connector and 2.1A USB charging port.
Samsung 2A fast-charging car charger
Top off quickly while on the road with this 2-amp car charger compatible with Quick Charge 2.0 devices.
Those cover the basics for staying powered up while camping, but I have fun using the more innovative solutions. My camping kit includes as much stuff from Goal Zero and BioLite as possible. They both offer expandable ranges for renewable energy generation, and make me feel that much more ready for the impending zombie apocalypse in the off-season. That said, these are very much secondary power sources. They take a lot of care to work efficiently, and even then, it will always be easier to plug into a car or wall outlet.
Goal Zero has a selection of solar panels and compatible accessories for storing power and offering lighting. Their gear is built tough with plenty of mounting options. They even have one battery with a hand crank, the Torch 250, for when things get especially dire. I had a Nomad 13 and Nomad 7 panel linked together, sitting on the car dashboard for about eight days with clear weather, and that was enough for a full single charge of my phone. You can read up on my full review here.
Goal Zero Switch 10 kit
This multi-function battery pack isn't just portable and handy, it also includes a fold-out solar panel to keep it juiced up off the power of the sun.
Goal Zero Torch 250
It's a battery, it's a flashlight and a lantern, it's a portable power system. And you can charge it with the built-in solar panel or hand-crank, your choice (unless the sun's not shining, naturally).
Goal Zero Nomad 13
The bigger the solar panel, the more sunlight it can absorb, and the more power it can generate. The Goal Zero Nomad 13 is big.
BioLite makes a series of wood-burning stoves that can pump out power over USB. Additional accessories can make these perfect for cooking and extra lighting. It can take awhile to get a full phone charge this way, but odds are you'll be having a bonfire at some point anyway, and a little extra battery in the process is welcome. I've enjoyed using the BioLite CampStove with KettlePot and portable grill for some time. On my most recent trip I got to try out their new NanoGrid accessories, which on their own offer a backup battery for your phone, flashlight and lamp array for your campsite.
Charge your gadgets with FIRE. The BioLite CampStove can cook things and make a nice little fire, but it also has a built-in thermoelectric generator and integrated fan to turn your bonfire into a battery.
The BioLite PowerLight isn't just a flashlight, it's also a battery, with a built-in USB port to charge up your usual flashlight (i.e. your smartphone).
Spread some illumination from the PowerLight to the rest of your campsite.
Assuming your campground is amply removed from civilization, steady cellular connectivity just isn't a thing that's going to happen. This means you'll need to make sure you have all of the apps and data you need saved locally on your phone before you head out.
The first stop is Google Maps. Search for your campsite, tap the information bar at the bottom to bring up detailed data, and tap on the three dots menu in the top-right to Save Offline. You may want to zoom out a bit to capture your planned driving and hiking routes. We have more detailed instructions here if you need a full run-down on saving Google Maps offline.
Next, you'll want to see if your campground has any of their own materials available. If not a proper app, then brochures you can download, or even screencaps of or saved images from their website. This will ensure you're apprised of facility hours, activities, and trail maps. Poke around the National Parks Service website in the U.S. for your individual park and links to mobile apps. Parks Canada has a solid selection of apps too, though you may find third parties like AllTrails actually provide a better all-in-one mapping solution for hiking.
You won't be in the woods the whole time and will need to hop into town to gather supplies and see the sights. If you're exploring a new area, TripAdvisor is a popular authority on local attractions. It's handy for both planning ahead of time or scouting out spur-of-the-moment detours. Alternatives like Yelp can also help you find places to stock up and parks to enjoy. They can even find you a solid bed for the night when you feel like you've fed enough mosquitoes.
TripAdvisor's listings are all but ubiquitous in their breadth. From finding nearby attractions to booking accommodations to recommending restaurants if you've had enough of the trail mix, TripAdvisor is there and ready to help.
Yelp's a classic standby for finding great things nearby for a reason: it's really great at it. It's best known for its restaurant listings, with millions of reviews from regular users to help you determine if that's really a place where you want to dine.
Step aside, Google Maps: AllTrails is here to help. When it comes to hiking and biking in the woods, parks, and elsewhere, it's hard to beat AllTrails and it's positively enormous database of, well, trails.
Having a first aid app installed is only prudent. Sure, odds are your outing will go off without a hitch, but it's better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it or be able to get it. This information goes hand-in-hand with a well-stocked first aid kit. Be sure to check in on local wildlife advisories and fire conditions before leaving coverage, too. My recent trip to Vancouver Island was dab smack in the middle of an unprecedented batch of forest fires. If I was smart, I would have checked before getting on the plane, but I ended up bringing the whole BioLite stove set-up and being unable to use it, lest I accidentally burn down the forest.
American Red Cross Wildfire
Forest fires move fast and burn hot, so keep tabs on them with the American Red Cross Wildfire app. It'll keep you safe, and while it might mean that you end up canceling your trip, it's better than getting burned.
American Red Cross First Aid
From CPR to treating burns and cuts, the American Red Cross First Aid app is a go-to resource for first aid. You'll want a well-stocked first aid kit, of course, but this app tells you what to do with all of that stuff.
The Fun Stuff
Then there's the fun stuff: music, games and books. These can put a big dent into your battery life, so you'll want to take it easy with them on top of making sure they're available offline.
If you have a local music collection, put together your favorite summer playlist and haul them onto your phone. Bring some Bluetooth speakers along if you've got the space for it. I like the Qmadix Q-i-sound for their portability and stereo sound, but there are other speakers that are much better suited to the rugged environment, like the UE Roll. Either way, be mindful of neighboring campers; they're likely camping to get some quiet and serenity, which your music may or may not provide. Consider some headphones to enjoy your tunes privately. If you have a premium subscription to a music service, life gets easier. Generally with these streaming services you can cache songs locally on your device and peruse community playlists put together from a massive collection of tracks. Google Play Music, Spotify, and Rdio are just some of your options.
The Qmadix Q-i-sound speakers come in a pair, offering solid stereo sound in a nice and compact package.
Ultimate Ears' new UE Roll speaker is just plain fun. It comes in a range of colors and sounds great, and it's waterproof to boot. And for an improved listening experience, you can pair up two of them and listen to your tunes in stereo.
Bluant Pump HD Sportbuds
The Blueant Pump HD Sportbuds are built to handle your most extreme summer antics. They sound great, stay on your ears through rough and tumble, and they're waterproof — be that sweat or rain.
Games will be the most power-hungry of the entertainment options. Regulate how much time is spent on these, especially with kids. They're supposed to be enjoying the great outdoors, after all. Before counting on games working, flip your device to airplane mode and play for a bit to make sure they work. You may be surprised which ones need to check in with the internet mothership in order to run. If you're loading up a tablet, there are some good local multiplayer games out there so everyone can get in on the fun. I like Badland, Spaceteam and Ready Steady Bang in this category.
Badland's a simple game, but it's highly entertaining. It takes just one touch to play as you find your way through increasingly-spooky woods.
Spaceteam is all about ridiculousness. It pairs your phone up with others nearby and you all end up barking absurd orders at each other in hopes that your friends will be able to find the right controls on their phones before your ship explodes.
Ready Steady Bang
Ready Steady Bang is simple in many ways, from its concept to its execution to its spartan graphics. But it's still highly competitive and you'll find yourself drawn into this enjoyable wild west dueling game.
Finally there are books. Dig into Kindle, Google Play Books or Scribd and make sure the titles on your reading hit list are downloaded. These aren't especially demanding on space, and the wealth of visibility options ensure you can cuddle up to a book as easily at night in the tent as you can on the beach in the day. Reading on your phone or tablet will only be a serious battery drain if the brightness is high and you spend a healthy chunk of your time while camping instead engrossed in books. Personally, I find good old-fashioned print books are a bit more convenient in these instances because there are other things I'd rather put my device battery towards. Dedicated e-readers are also handy as separate devices because their batteries last forever and are easy to read in daylight.
The first thing that pops into your mind when you hear "e-books" is probably Amazon Kindle. And that's for a good reason — they're the grand-daddy of e-book reader apps with a great selection and refined experience.
Unlike Kindle, which is based almost entirely around a buy-a-new-book model, Scribd offers a unique subscription model that offers all the books you could possibly read as you need and want them for a mere $8.99/month — less than a paperback book.
Google Play Books
The Google Play Store is home to a wide selection of books, offering all the reading material you could possibly need to keep your wandering mind occupied should your camping experience take a turn for the oppressively dull (or in case you need something relaxing to do after a nice long hike).
I bring a lot of toys with me while I'm camping. Here's a list of the gear I took on my last trip:
- Samsung Galaxy S6 with OtterBox Defender Series case
- iPhone 5s with OtterBox Preserver Series case
- iPad Air with neoprene sleeve
- BioLite CampStove
- CampStove grill
- BioLite KettlePot
- PowerLight Lantern
- SiteLight Lantern
- Venture 30 Recharger
- Torch 250 Flashlight
- Sherpa 50 solar kit
- Switch 10 solar kit
- Jawbone UP3
- Qmadix Q-i-sound speakers
- Bose IE2 headphones
- Hennessy Hammock
- Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses
You might end up taking your phone through some treacherous terrain over the course of your trip. Even if you're already packing a case, you may want something a little more heavy-duty. Plenty of cases offer drop and dust protection, so the real differentiator will be if you need to keep your phone waterproof.
There are fully-enclosed cases, like those offered by Lifeproof. Though reputable and offering a degree of bump protection, limited access to inputs can put a damper on charging and listening to headphones. In these instances you may just want to toss on the case when you're heading to the lake. Even then, it's prudent to only take an intentional extended dunk with your phone if it's in a fully-enclosed water-tight bag. It's not pretty and not easy to use, but it will keep your device safe.
If you want to go all-out, Liquipel will treat your phone inside and out for waterproof protection, allowing you to slap on whatever case you're comfortable with and keep your inputs accessible. This way you're making few compromises on function, though it does involve planning beforehand to ship your phone out and waiting for Liquipel to treat it and return it to you. These treatments start at $60, with options for additional impact protection.
LifeProof's Fre cases offer both solid bump protection and decent water resistance. Slip your phone into one of these and you can rest assured that it's going to make it out the other side in one functional piece.
When you're going to get wet — and we mean wet an Aquapac case is what you want for your phone. Slip it into this bag and it'll keep it not just dry, but fully usable too.
Skip the cases and go for the full treatment with Liquipel — they'll coat your phone inside and out so it's waterproof all on its own.
If you're going to be spending more time on the trail or otherwise in rough-and-tumble activities, OtterBox has been making tough cases for a long time. The Defender series has a built-in screen protector and plugs for inputs that amount to decent splash protection, though you'll want to go with Lifeproof if being waterproof is a high priority. Supcase and Ballistic also make tough cases that are worth a gander.
Ballistic Explorer Case
This rugged smartphone case spares no expense, with integrated protection for your phone's fragile glass display and handy plugs to keep dust, water, and what-have-you out of your various vital ports. It might not take a bullet, but it'll take a plunge.
OtterBox Defender Series
OtterBox is a go-to for many for a reason: they make solid protective cases. They're well-established and have refined their designs over the years to be an easy choice. Their flagship Defender Series cases offer more than just bump protection — it's straight-up drop protection.
Supcase for the Galaxy S6
What's better than one case? How about two — because that's essentially what the Supcase is: two layers of protection in one case, with a heavy-duty holster for quick access to boot.
Your phone can take some solid pictures, and may very well be your primary shooter while you're adventuring. If that's the case, you may want to consider a lens upgrade with Olloclip. From fisheye to macro to telephoto, the right Olloclip can significantly enhance your shots and offer plenty of creative possibilities. There are a few companies that offer cheaper, universal alternatives with similar results.
Olloclip for Galaxy S5
Thanks to their narrow but quality range, Olloclip is the leading name in smartphone camera lenses. Their mounts slip onto your smartphone and offer several lenses from zoom to wide angle.
Apexel Smartphone Lens
If you're looking for a more universal solution, Apexel's Smartphone Lens kit might be your answer. It brings multiple lenses to the party and simply clips on over top of your camera.
On the software side, there are plenty of ways to tweak your shots and have them shareable the second you get a data connection. Snapseed remains hugely popular thanks to being easy to use on both tablet and smartphone. Use that or your device's built-in editing suite to make brightness, contrast, and other basic adjustments. If you want to get creative, I'm a fan of everything done by Pixite. Fragment is one of their more popular apps that allows you to add all sorts of funky kaleidoscopic effects. Easy links between their other apps allow you to make something really unique with additional layered effects. For something a little more subdued, Instagram's Layout app is a simple way to get multiple shots in the same frame. This is perfect for a quick update that encapsulates one of your outings (though you'll probably want to include full-sized images in an album later). For sending a postcard home, pick up Over. It has a ton of typographic options for you to put messages on top of your photos. Be sure to take a look at some of our favorite photo editing apps for a wider selection.
Snapseed lets you make subtle or significant changes to your photos with a simple and easy-to-use interface that offers a wide array of powerful tools for image enhancement. And these aren't just mere filters we're talking about.
Sometimes a story is best told through multiple photos, and Instagram Layout's a quick and easy way to take a few (or a bunch) of your snaps and put them into a single collage that's easily shared to your favorite social media sites.
If you want to get extra fancy, that's exactly what Over does. This app lets you overlay your own words on top of your photos with a wide range of fonts from fun and goofy to serious and stoic to convey exactly that mood that you're going for.
There are filters, there are collages, and then there's Fragment. Instead of tweaking your photos, Fragment splices them together with crazy geometric patterns that, well, they're just plain cool.
Google's own Photos app is great for backing up and organizing your photos. It automatically uploads your stuff to the cloud and assembles them into collections based on dates and locations, and makes easily-shareable photo stories out of it all.
My trip out to Vancouver Island was the first time I had seriously used Hyperlapse. These super-smooth, high-speed videos compress a lot of action into a small amount of time. They're particularly great for moving shots from the plane, down the road, and along hikes. My biggest challenge was making sure the angle was consistent and everything was in frame. The OtterBox I was using with my phone had a clip stand which could prop open and anchor to the Goal Zero solar panel on the car dashboard, or to the front of my shirt, but in those cases, you're crossing your fingers that everything will shoot right since the screen gets covered once it's holstered. Get a proper mounting system, such as one with suction cups, a tripod, a body harness, or, yes, even a selfie stick. You'll look like a doofus on the trail, but the footage is worth it.
Hyperlapse takes your long and rough video clips and magically condenses them into smoothed-out timelapses that make it seem like you're floating right on down the trail.
iStabilizer smartFlex Tripod
One half tripod, one half gripper, the iStabilizer smartFlex can stand on its own three legs or wrap around whatever you need, and it includes a built-in universal smartphone grip.
Amzer Bluetooth Selfie Stick
Sure, you might look (and feel) silly, but when it comes to taking selfies, it's hard to beat a phone on a stick. Amzer's selfie stick forgoes the wired trigger for a wireless Bluetooth option.
If you're interested in taking your shots with a grown-up camera, your mobile device can still help out. An Eyefi memory card can wirelessly beam your photos to your phone, and many newer cameras have similar features built right in. Some companion apps even let you use your phone as a remote shutter or to program time lapses. Eyefi's newer Mobi cards have a snazzy app and cloud service available for your photography syncing needs. Just make sure the pairing process between camera and phone is all set up before leaving — it can be a hassle troubleshooting without a PC and limited connectivity in the bush. If you're particularly shutter-happy, you'll also need to monitor storage on your device, since it can fill up quickly with full-resolution photos. This process will take a bite out of your camera battery, so it's wise to leave automatic transfer until your latest outing is done. Failing wireless transfer, there are plenty of SD card adapters available for mobile devices to shunt over photos for editing.
Eyefi Mobi Pro
If you're bringing a traditional camera on your trip, an Eyefi Mobi Pro card makes it easy to share your photos directly from it to your phone.
BassAcc Card Reader
That Micro USB port on your phone is good for more than just charging — the BassAcc Card Reader adds full-size SD and Memory Stick Pro card slots as well as microSD and Memory Stick Micro M2 slots, and even a full-size USB port.
An easy, all-in-one card reader for your phone.
Between your phone camera and a point-and-shoot are stand-alone camera accessories like the HTC Re and GoPro HERO4 Session. These are good picks for those that are a little more extreme since they're waterproof and rugged, plus have a wealth of mounting options. They're also quite smartphone friendly, with dedicated apps that ensure you get good shots. Dig into our HTC Re camera review to see what it can do. It's a fun camera and quite affordable, while the more-expensive GoPro HERO4 Session is built for taking a beating.
GoPro HERO4 Session
GoPro's dominating the action camera market with their Hero series, and the HERO4 session is their latest and most compact entry yet.
If the expensive GoPro's not your style, the fun and affordable HTC Re might be the action camera for you. It's handheld or tripod-mountable, waterproof, and has a simple, but useful, smartphone app for controls.
Feel the burn
Your camping trip is going to be full of moving around. There are so many different things to do out there and the latest fitness trackers will make sure you get a full picture of your experience. The Endomondo app is basically built for cyclists and hikers, with a route planner to help you find something appropriate to your fitness level. Runtastic Pro is another hugely popular fitness app in the same vein. In terms of hardware trackers, I used the Jawbone UP3 during my hikes. It kept good tabs on how much ground I had covered daily, and exactly how poorly I slept in the woods. I suspect I'll keep using after I get home in the vain hope that it will needle me into more healthy day-to-day living.
Endomondo is a full-body fitness app, offering tracking and training for just about any activity. If you're hoping to get a little bit more out of your hikes in the woods, Endomondo is the app you want to do it.
Jawbone's latest fitness tracker continues with their trademark light, stylish, and practical designs, but this time packs in more tech than they've ever managed before.
Runtastic Pro is good for more than just running — you can use it to plan hikes through the forest and up the hills as well. It also offers the ability to share your routes with your friends, you know, in case you get separated (or in case you want to brag about how awesome a time you're having).
Pack it in
Hopefully all of this gives you a strong foundation for making the most out of your gadgets while hunkering down in a tent. Who knows, maybe even the outdoorsy purist in your group will appreciate the usefulness of a bit of technology. Give us a shout in the comments and let us know what tech you use to enhance your camping experience!