Nowadays there is a lot of concern about the amount of time people, especially children, spend with their noses glued to their smartphone or tablet, and a general bemoaning of the lack of fresh air and outdoor ‘wild time’ that people get, but the two needn’t be mutually exclusive.
I realised that my phone, which now accompanies me everywhere, in case of car breakdown/broken ankle/something that needs photographing, has actually enhanced my enjoyment of the outdoors sometimes, and can be used as a handy tool to prise the children away from their screens and get them outdoors. The recent craze for Pokemon Go apparently got lots of kids and teenagers out & about, and there are some really great apps out there to get you outside.
I’m going to tell you about some of my favourites, but if you look on your phone’s App Store there will be lots of alternatives. Some are free and some are paid-for, but none will cost you more than a few pounds, which for endless amounts of entertainment, is pretty good value. For the paid-for ones, there is usually a free alternative, but they often don’t have the functions you need, or involve so many pay-for add-ons, that it’s pointless.
First and best is ViewRanger. This is a mapping app, which downloads Ordnance Survey maps to your phone or iPad, and it’s brilliant. The detail means you can find exactly the footpath you are looking for, and as it’s downloaded tile by tile, you are not restricted to the normal OS map boundaries and can add to any area in any shape you wish – I’ve got the coast from Sidmouth to Weymouth, for example. It tracks your position, and you can record tracks, measure speeds, plot way markers etc. There are lots of functions I’ve never used, such as buddy beacons, and you can compare & share tracks with friends. It costs money, but the credits you get last ages, and it’s much cheaper than buying OS maps, especially as you can download tiles wherever you go.
Second is a new one that I only found today. It’s created by the Woodland Trust, and is called Tree ID. It’s a free app that allows you to identify trees by leaves, fruit, flower etc, and has a wealth of information about all the British trees. You can add trees that you’ve found to your personal log book (no pun intended), and it would be a good way to get children interested, ‘collecting’ as many trees as they can.
As a (very lapsed) runner, I have used Runtastic a lot. I’m not into times & stats any more, as just getting out there is a major victory these days, but it’s nice to get your mileage, especially as it all adds up! I use the Pro version, which I paid a few pounds for, and another feature I like is the fact it records elevation gained & lost for every run – if you live somewhere hilly, you may not cover vast distances, but you can climb Everest in a year if you want to! There are lots of alternative apps – many people use MapMyRun, Strava & others.
One of the biggest crazes of the last few years was Geocaching. This is basically a world-wide treasure hunt, with ‘caches’ hidden all over the world in towns, cities and wild places for users to find. Children love it, and it’s a great way to tempt them out for a walk. You will need to look it up online at www.geocaching.com or download an app (there are many, but I think you need to pay if you want a useful up-to-date one) to get near the cache, then it’s up to you to find it – in a bush, up a tree, down a hole, they could be anywhere! Each entry has co-ordinates, a physical description, difficulty rating etc, and some directions are coded for extra detective factor. There is no prize as such, you just get to add your name to the log book (take a pen!), and leave it for the next people to find. If you get really into it, you can hide your own cache, and log it for people to find. I know the National Trust have hidden lots on their land, and chances are there is one very near you right now!
A basic necessity for a day out is a good weather app – I like the Met Office one, as it seems to be freakishly accurate, and for anything like fossil-hunting, or even just a day on the beach, a good tide times app is handy. I use My Tide Times, which is free, and very clear to use.
A very nerdy one which I like but might be a bit odd, is the CloudSpotter app. This is brilliant for identifying clouds and sky effects (iridescent patches, haloes, ‘sundogs’ etc)and again you can take photos and add to a personal log. Also, if your ‘real-life’ friends are less than excited by a good Kelvin-Helmholtz wave formation, or a crepuscular ray, you can share the photos with other like-minded cloud-spotters. It sounds weird, but if you’re stuck in a traffic jam, sitting on a beach all day for some-one else’s benefit, or just a self-confessed nerd, it’s great.
Another nerdy one, but great fun for camping, is Star Walk. This one you point at the sky, and it gives you a full star map with planets, constellations and all the information you could ever wish for about the sky at night. If you know a little about stars, it helps you fill the gaps in your knowledge, and if you know nothing it’s a great way to start. If it’s cloudy, you can see what you should be seeing, and at Christmas we were showing Grandma the app and caught Father Christmas flying past! It’s another good one for children, but the content can be very detailed so it’s also good for keen adults.
My husband has a fantastic birdwatching app, with easy identification tools, and what is lovely is it also gives you a snippet of the birdsong. There are many of these around, and butterfly versions exist too. I know that when we were little it was all about the Collins Gem guides & I-Spy books but if it’s all in your phone, it’s a lot easier to carry!
Nowadays, most big organisations and charities have an app (National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust Nature Detectives, Ordnance Survey etc), so if you’re off out & about, see if there’s anything relevant before you set off. The Forestry Commission recently launched a fantastic Gruffalo Hunt, where you can see ‘real’ Gruffalos hiding in the woods through your phone, which my children would have loved when they were younger.
I’m not saying you must walk around the countryside with your head stuck in your mobile phone – still look at the views, still smell the flowers, still listen to the birdsong, but if it helps you plan a fun day, persuade the kids to join you or learn something along the way, it’s just another way to enjoy the great outdoors.