By Loren Drummond
The best outdoor technology gets out of the way and lets you enjoy your time outside. When I decide to add a piece of outdoor technology to my planning or hiking gear list, it has to do one of three things: help me get outside, help me unplug or help me deepen my connection to wild places. Ideally, it does all three. Here are a few of my essentials and why I think they’re worth using:
WTA’s Hike Recommender
One of the great joys of hiking is the feeling of exploring someplace entirely new. The anticipation of not knowing exactly what’s around the bend and how it will look, feel, or smell. One of the things I like best about WTA’s Hike Recommender is that it conjures this exact feeling. When I log in to wta.org, I get three new suggestions for hikes, often for places that have been off my radar (even after 10 years of working at WTA). When the rest of my news feed is “Top 10” and “Best of” lists, it’s a refreshing dose of serendipity wrapped up in a thoughtful hike planning tool.
Trailhead weather forecasts
There are so many great weather apps. (Too many, perhaps?) For weather and wildfire apps, I like to keep it simple and use the hyper-local weather forecast linked on every WTA trail entry. It’s solid, detailed data from the National Weather Service, without fees or ads. (If you need to get into details, especially in the winter, we have tips to help find the information you need.)
Hike Finder Map wildfire overlay
In summer, I also use the wildfire overlay on wta.org’s Hike Finder Map to see if I need to dig deeper into wildfire or smoke research. The data, updated daily from the federal InciWeb site, overlays the trail network, so it’s easy to get a good picture of what’s going on in different regions around the state or at the exact trailhead I’m headed to.
We are living in a golden age of digital maps. Mapping tools like Gaia and CalTopoca offer the chance to create your own routes and follow other people’s GPX tracks. Both of these tools are robust and offer free versions, though Gaia’s app is more user-friendly for mobile use and navigation. On trail, I still like to go old school and battery-free by consulting a paper map (Green Trails is the best in Washington) rather than my screen, but having a great digital mapping tool is well worth it.
Natural history apps
One of the best things about interpretive visitor centers is the signs that help you identify everything from mountain peaks to local flora. New knowledge helps you see, smell and hear more of the wild place you’re visiting. There are some phenomenal apps to make this happen anywhere. I love Peakfinder for peak identification. It’s a little pricey, but it does exactly what you want it to. Skyview is my pick for stargazing, Merlin for birds and Seek for wildflowers, but there are many great options, many of them free. Try a few out and see which ones get you the information you want without distracting you from your hiking experience.
Going fully offline is one of the things I value most about my outdoor adventures. That said, I still carry (and use) a satellite communicator. It’s nice to have the emergency response capabilities at hand, as well as the two-way messaging. The first time my wife and I left our son overnight, we were in the remote wilderness for a week. Knowing we could get word if something came up made going on that trip feel possible. It’s also handy for adjusting pick-up or drop-off logistics. Most of the time, my InReach exists as a small brick in my pack, ignored and unused. But it’s always along for the ride on backpacking trips.
If you carry a modern cell phone, you probably have an incredible camera in your pocket. It’s almost always worth carrying, especially to capture photos of the people you hike with. Great shots of your trail family can trigger a cascade of memories for years to come. Bonus: You can enter your favorite shots in WTA’s annual photo contest.
Technology is personal. It takes time to figure out what adds to your hike experience and what keeps you from enjoying the day. But whatever you choose, consider one last piece of technology: WTA’s mobile app, Trailblazer. Trip reports are an unbroken tradition dating back to 1966. It’s part of what makes WTA and hiking in Washington so special — hikers giving each other a heads-up about trail conditions and helping to make the next trail adventure even better than the last. Take 3–5 minutes when you get home from a hike to file a trip report using the app. And, as of November 2022, we have an updated version of the Trailblazer app, which makes it even easier to file trip reports and find the information you need to get out on trail.