This is my second review of smartphone apps for animal/horse people. This isn’t an exhaustive list – there are other mapping apps and emergency locator apps available, some with mixed reviews, and many of these are beyond the scope of this blog post. There are some other hack tracking apps available that are not free/have poor ratings, so I didn’t download or test these. I also wouldn’t test/use any apps that used any sort of automatically generated emergency alarm in the event of a fall, since these have a tendency to go off when unintended, and are likely to panic a horse and CAUSE an accident. If you use an alarm, it should probably be user activated, which is why I’ve always carried a whistle. I tend to think that developers who use alarms in their apps probably don’t know that much about horses. And riding with a buddy is always smarter than relying on GPS that may not be able to signal your location if you have an accident.
There are also apps such as CoraVault which can store your EMR (Electronic Medical Record) in the event that paramedics need to identify you and reach emergency point of contacts, review medications, and other pertinent medical information. Of course, an app such as this is only useful if: 1) EMRs know that you have it AND look for it in an emergency, and 2) Your phone did not get busted in your riding accident. Sometimes a low-tech medic-alert bracelet is better.
Using any of these apps requires one to carry an expensive and sensitive gadget into the semi-wilderness, hoping it functions, and also hoping that you return without a cracked screen or the device irretrievably broken. So it helps to have your phone already secured in a case that is rainproof, dustproof, and shockproof. If you’re going to be out in extreme cold or unable to charge your phone, your phone is reduced to a useless brick unless you have a supplemental battery pack.
Common sense must be employed when travelling in the wilderness too, so while the magic GPS arrow or pre-plotted course is handy, you don’t exactly want to try to navigate a crevasse or steep cliff with your horse just because your device is urging your forward via the most direct (but not necessarily the best) route. There’s no shortage of stories about pedestrians trying to walk across 6 lane highways or drivers finding themselves on non-navigable roads in the middle of a blizzard because their GPS sent them down that path. Unless you’re a wilderness instructor or in the military, you should not let your GPS get you into a terrain for which you don’t have the proper skills.
Here’s some of the smartphone apps I thought had the greatest potential for usefulness. It’s nice to see that the equestrian market has been catered for too.
While this app was originally created to keep track of family members or “circles,” it’s useful to see when the riders in your family get to and from their destination while out with their horses. Also great for family members to keep track of horses being trailered to events, especially if weather is a concern. You can receive real-time alerts when circle members arrive or leave their destinations. It also has the added benefit of being able to track lost phones (with a premium membership). If your phone can pick up a cell tower while you’re trail riding, circle members can see where you are on the trail. It’s accurate, free and really easy to use.
Map My Tracks offers you a Google Map and plenty of performance measurements such as speed, pace, duration, elevation gain/loss, elapsed time, and top speed. You can share your activities on Facebook and Twitter including auto tweets when starting and stopping your ride. This application is tailored for runners and had no routes for riders. Upgrading to Map My Tracks PLUS provides more stats available for runners such as performance reports, detailed heart rate analysis, and training plans for $29 per year – all features that aren’t particularly useful for riders. Map My Tracks is easy to use with a simple interface but is not without some annoying adverts in the free version.
This app is free but offers in-app purchases for optional topo (topographical) or special-purpose apps (but most people would find it useful without special purchases). It also has an offline mode. Learning curve is much steeper with this app than some of the others, but it’s more feature rich (including over 40 stats), so it’s useful to plan your trip before you leave (and purchase the maps you need before you get to your destination) rather than try to figure out all the features in the field. While some other applications focus mainly on US and Canadian topo maps, My Trails also offers many European maps from Yahoo, Bing, Google and other global providers. Key indicators are available such as altitude, speed, and rate of ascent, so it’s useful for measuring training for your horse.
This is one of the lesser-known Google android apps, but it’s free, extremely easy to master, and very accurate. You can pause your recordings as well. Make sure that you don’t start the timer before your phone establishes a GPS signal, otherwise, the timing for your ride won’t be accurate. It’s good for conditioning a horse too, since it also tracks speed, distance, and elevation. You can view your live data while recording and make annotations on a Google map . Save your ride and access it afterwards at any time, or use the satellite playback, which “flies” you along your ride on a Google earth satellite image. You can share tracks with your friends and make them public via Google+, Facebook, and Twitter. Of course, with simplicity and an uncluttered map area and user interface come some downsides – if you need more detailed topographical maps then this isn’t the app for you, at least not with the current version.
Trimble is really the “Cadillac” of navigational/planning tools. The mapping options are superior to other applications. You have the option of using enhanced overlay maps for public lands, property lines for private lands, forest roads, and weather. Over 68,000 US and Canadian map offerings include aerial, terrain, street and hybrid maps. Many maps are provided and updated by the US Forest Service, and are therefore helpful in locating forest roads and campsites.
Most of the features are far beyond the scope of this review, since I didn’t pay for the memberships that are pretty much required in order to use most of the services. So while I couldn’t evaluate all of the services provided, such as printed maps etc, I can say that if you’re competing in the Tevis 100, planning to ride through a ghost town, or are going to appear as a contestant on the Mantracker TV show, these are the apps for you. The time required to become competent with the various fee-based features provided means that it’s not cost-effective for anyone but the most serious back country aficionado.
The Trimble apps are best suited to planning your trip on your computer or iPad and then downloading/syncing with your phone, or loading them on to your memory card (an enhanced paid service) so that the possible lack of a cell phone tower won’t be an issue. Optionally, you can also download someone else’s pre-planned trip to your phone.
Trimble offers the most precise compass of any of the applications I looked at – you can choose between true north and magnet north. Trip Cloud allows you to access your trips on any of your devices. You can also record videos that are automatically geo-tagged for your location and send them to YouTube. Stat-tracking is also available for distance, speed, elevation, and more.
Other useful features include Smart Paste: Copy GPS coordinates from websites and instantly map their locations into MyTopo Maps. Trimble also offers the ability to order waterproof custom printed maps on paper – supposedly printed and shipped within 24 hours (although I didn’t test it!)
The downsides to these apps (there are a few) is that the learning curve is steep and there are lots of additional fees. You really need to go through the tutorials or YouTube videos in order to feel competent in using the app. Virtually everything comes at a cost – you must pay yearly or monthly to use most features. I was also annoyed by constant reminders to rate the app, which was not something I felt comfortable in doing after only a short period of use.
Viewranger GPS was voted “#1 Outdoor App” and “One of the Best Apps of 2013” (Google Play). It’s a free app with available in-app purchases for premium maps – I found it to be the most feature-rich free app with the most usability – most people will get by with the range of free offerings and won’t need to purchase anything additional. Viewranger has a massive library of expert and community generated specialty routes (created and uploaded by other users) which are free, while adding a premium map to your download may cost from $1.99 to $129.99. Most user experiences are walking trips, and although users can upload their maps for horseback riding, skiing, flying, canoeing/kayaking, hiking, and wheelchair accessible routes, most routes are for walkers. Plenty of stats are offered and your tracks can be stored on a free web account or shared on Facebook and Twitter, with the option to add Flickr photos. You can also share your location with PIN protected BuddyBeacon. This app has a good balance between the features offered (free maps, stats, compass) and won’t require as much time to learn as some of the higher-end applications.
If you’re good at getting lost in general, I’d suggest reading GPS for Dummies. Not that I think anyone reading this blog is any sort of dummy, but reading a primer on GPS technology is a good start to knowing how to read digital maps and learn about waypoints, tracks, and just generally getting more out of your GPS device. Because some of us don’t want to bumble through hours of hard terrain with a paper map in order to find that pristine waterfall!