Mashable, a digital media news site, recently published a list of 12 iPhone apps designed to enhance the outdoor experience, ranging from detailed topo maps to survival information, tree and bird identification guides to collections of state park maps. A few are free; most of the rest cost $3.99 or less. View the complete round-up here.
I believe that such mobile applications will become the de facto standard for backcountry use in the years ahead. Just as you use a GPS receiver today to track or identify your location, you'll soon be pulling out your GPS-enabled pocket computer/smart phone device to immediately have your location pinpointed on the relevant topographic and/or trail map, plus have access to a library of information about the surrounding flora, fauna, and natural environment.
You'll always need to carry a paper map for back-up, but it will increasingly be relegated to the survival/emergency-use-only portion of your hiking supplies. (That being said, tiny screens will never be able to replicate the broad sweep of terrain covered by a large, laid-out paper map.)
The current limitations of gadgets like the GPS-enabled iPhone—battery life, fragility, lower quality GPS receiver, etc.—will rapidly fade in the years ahead as GPS manufacturers like Garmin and Magellan begin to adopt smart phone/app-style technology, or as smart phone developers begin to adopt the rugged accuracy of today's backcountry GPS units.
It's coming sooner than you think.
You can read more about the rise of iPhone topo applications in my 2009 article, Digital Hiking Guides: Is There an App for That?
“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.