An Apple geek’s guide to your National Parks

For our summer vacation this year, my partner and I took advantage of our America the Beautiful Pass. So we just returned from a two week trip to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Olympic (with stopovers in Seattle and Portland). There are more blog posts than you can shake a walking stick at about the merits of bear spray, good shoes, and sunblock. So I am going to share my own expertise: what a modern technophile can do to prepare. Particularly when it comes to the Apple ecosystem. I’ll be referencing these three parks specifically, but these tips may apply to other treks into the wilderness.

Getting ready: hardware

You’ll want to make sure that you have all of the accessories you’ll need before you set off. You’ll be far from any major stores, Amazon Lockers, and most of the lodges and inns don’t really have a concierge service where you can have packages delivered. Here are a few of the accessories I found quite useful.

USB-C Car Charger

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If you’re visiting one of the big National Parks there is a good chance you are going to be driving in. This is my favorite car charger on the market. It’s built well, it charges your devices extremely fast especially if using a USB-C to Lightning cable, and you can even charge a recent USB-C MacBook or MacBook Pro. Perfect for long rides in the passenger seat. Don’t rely on the USB charger that’s built-in to your car; they often charge at a much lower speed. Some can’t even keep your iPhone charged if you’re using navigation.

Dash Mount

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This is my favorite dash mount. The two clips grip securely to the vent of almost any car. It holds your phone with less wobbling than any other one I’ve used, and it is compact enough to easily toss in your bag.

Lenses

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Your iPhone’s camera can take really incredible photos. Especially the models with dual lenses for optical zoom (iPhone 7 Plus, 8 Plus, X). But sometimes the views are so grand that they don’t fit in your camera’s view. This is where a wide-angle lens comes in handy. There are several add-on lenses for your iPhone on the market, but many have questionable lens quality or build quality. After playing with (and breaking some) I have settled on Moment. Their lenses are a bit pricier than others out there, but the lenses are fantastic and the durability is quite amazing for such a small product. They also offer a telephoto lens that would be helpful if you are trying to capture photos of wildlife, though my photographs tend to lean more toward landscapes. The wide angle lens doesn’t seem to be on Amazon currently but here is a link to their store.

This tree wouldn’t have fit in the frame of my camera without the wide angle lens. Even with the lens it doesn’t quite fit. Sitka Spruce are serious.

What’s different about Moment is that instead of being a clip that attaches to your iPhone, you buy their case that is designed for your specific phone model. Then their lenses just twist and lock onto the case. Their cases are quite attractive and they even have a lanyard slot so you don’t drop your phone in a geyser (lanyard not included).

Water Protection

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Water resistance began with iPhone 7. They are rated to be able to last a short time under several feet of water. However, Apple makes no guarantees and not every seal is perfect so it’s inadvisable to start capturing underwater photos without some additional protection. You can, however, find waterproofing kits such as this one. As better as this is, it’s probably not a good idea to take it diving without thorough testing. But if you want to get some kayaking photos or some quick underwater pics this would work perfectly. Or if you just want some extra protection at the beach. And the lanyard is quite useful as well for times that you’ll have slippery hands. Touch ID won’t work with it though, so phones with Face ID are much handier with these.

HooToo Tripmate

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There are plenty of battery packs out there to choose from, and many are great. But this one is unique. in addition to being an extended battery pack, the HooToo Tripmate is a portable wireless router. It lets you connect to a wireless network and share that connection to all of your devices. This lets you get all of your devices online where you have paid access such as on a plane. Or it just makes it simpler to get the whole family online in one step instead of getting the access codes onto everyone’s devices. The router feature isn’t for novice computer users though. The instructions can be difficult to follow if you’ve never set up a wireless router before.

Getting ready: Apps

There are some great apps out there that will give you access to the information you need. Additionally, in many wilderness areas, internet access might be extremely limited or nonexistent so you’ll want to download some things to your iPhone ahead of time.

National Parks apps

The official NPS apps are a great resource of maps, event times, even geyser eruption predictions. Just be sure to tap Settings > Download Data ahead of time. View all NPS apps or these specifically:

REI National Parks Guide

While the NPS apps are great for general information and looking for things to do, REI makes an incredible app that has detailed hiking trails with information, difficulty level, and points of interest. The app contains all of the map data so you just make sure you install the app before you head out. Don’t worry, GPS is based on satellite positioning so you can see your current location even without cellular service.

First Aid

The American Red Cross released this app in the early days of the App Store and it has saved lives. In particular, there was one story about a man who saved his own life using the app after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. You’ll probably never need this app but it’s free and takes up almost no storage. So download it.

Night Sky

The skies can be hazy if there are any nearby forest fires. But if you are lucky you can get some good stargazing in. There are many apps that give you augmented reality star maps that include stars, constellations, planets, even satellites. Be sure to download an app before you go just in case.

‎Night Sky
‎Night Sky
Developer: iCandi Apps Ltd.
Price: Free+
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Google Maps

You very likely already have Google Maps on your phone, but before you head out into the wilderness be sure to download a map of the region for offline use. To do this tap the menu icon on the upper left corner then Offline Maps > Custom Map. Position the view over the area you want offline and then tap Download.

‎Google Maps - Transit & Food
‎Google Maps - Transit & Food

Wikipedia

While you still have internet access, download the official Wikipedia app, then search for any articles you may be interested in reading and tap the bookmark icon to save a copy to your phone. That way you can read about the park while you are there. Search for the articles about the mountains, the geological features, the lodges, some of the main historical figures. Basically, skim through the main article and look for any links that could be interesting to read about while you are out.

‎Wikipedia
‎Wikipedia
Price: Free
Tap the bookmark icon at the bottom of an article to save a copy offline.

Entertainment

Some of the National Parks are quite large and you’ll probably be spending a lot of time driving to or through them. Be sure to download music, podcasts, books, and audiobooks ahead of time in whatever apps you use for those things.

Saving battery power

There are a few things you can do to conserve battery power. The most effective is to get a battery pack, which you definitely want to do if you will be out all day long (or multiple days) and using your phone for navigation and photos.

Turn on Low Power Mode at the beginning of the day. Even if your phone doesn’t typically run your battery down, having poor cellular service can really affect your battery as your phone is continually trying to update in the background, download new emails, etc. and has to use extra power to do so because of a low signal or because it has to try over and over when the network is too busy. Low Power Mode turns off many of these background processes so that it doesn’t try so hard to do something futile. Low Power Mode automatically turns itself off when your phone gets charged, so you’ll need to turn it back on each time you head out.

Be warned that if you turn on Airplane mode to save power your GPS will also be turned off, which means you can’t use trail maps and if you take photos they won’t be geotagged. Instead, you could turn off cellular data which will still save a lot of power. That leaves GPS and phone calls enabled but anything that requires internet access (such as iMessages) won’t work.

What to expect for internet access

Cellular access in the National Parks is often quite limited. This is due to a variety of factors: restrictive tower permits, operating and installation costs to cover so few people, mountainous terrain, and depending on the park you’ve also got to deal with earthquakes, forest fires, and geothermal activity. But not only can the coverage areas be a challenge, congestion is a huge problem in popular areas and times. Even when you do have a signal it might not do much more than let you send a text message, never mind post your selfies on Instagram. So if you check out your cellular provider’s coverage maps just remember that signal does not equal speed. We had both T-Mobile and Verizon devices, and their coverage was quite similar.

The colors of Grand Prismatic Spring were amazing, the cell phone service not so much.

I get it, I’m here to experience nature so I shouldn’t worry about this. And I’d be happy to let go of my cell phone signal as long as I could get online on occasion. But during the summer in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton internet speeds are excessively slow. Probably due to the sudden popularity of the parks in recent years. Web pages would time out and not load. Occasionally my iPhone would download new email messages if I left it alone for long enough. Forget downloading any attachments though. I ended up paying for WiFi access at Old Faithful Inn and Lake Lodge, but it wasn’t much better. I ran a speed test and got 20 kbps, which is roughly what dial-up used to be. We seemed to get by with it back then, waiting for 10 to 30 seconds for a web page to load. But now that web pages are many times larger 20 kbps can load a modern web page in about 5 minutes. By comparison, my home internet connection is 1 gigabit, about 50,000 times faster. I didn’t need to use the internet much while I was there but I spent way more time than I wanted to on the computer just waiting for things that I had to do.

Even standing right next to a cell phone tower on Signal Mountain I couldn’t do anything online. Oops, I mean look at this amazing sunrise over Jackson Hole. And note the bear foraging for berries in the foreground, just to the right.

When we got to Grand Teton the situation was a little better. The flat terrain of Jackson Hole means you can get a signal most places. The internet speed was still just a trickle, but almost usable. I could at least send and receive emails or look something up if I was willing to wait a few minutes.

Cellular speeds were much better in Olympic, likely because it’s simply not as crowded. There was no service on any of the mountain trails we visited but that was okay. Once we got back to the main roads and towns everything worked just fine.

There were three places that actually had good WiFi speed while we were in Wyoming: The WiFi at Jackson Hole airport was pretty snappy, a good last place to get things downloaded that you forgot. Signal Mountain Lodge had decent WiFi for guests, which I tested at 11 megabits. So maybe you’ll have luck at other lodgings. And Dornans, a shopping center not far from Jackson Hole Airport, had speeds that seemed to fluctuate wildly depending on the crowd, but it was always good enough to at least look up a few web pages or download a small app. Go eat at their pizzeria and get the password from the menu.

The other trick is to wake up in the middle of the night. When everyone is asleep the internet speeds are better. Not good, but better.

Photography tips

Apart from hiking, probably the most common thing for you to do in the National Parks is to take photographs. And for most of you, those are going to be on your iPhone. Here are some basic tips for getting the best photos from your iPhone:

  • Use the rule of thirds. This is easily the single most important photography technique you can learn. If you don’t know about it already you can drastically improve your photos just by taking a few minutes to read about it. To turn on the gridlines go to your iPhone’s Settings app > Camera, and turn on the Grid.
  • Learn how to adjust the exposure. Doing it while you take the photo rather than by adjusting the image later results in a photo with better detail. When taking photos that have lots of sky and water, your iPhone may have a tendency to overexpose, resulting in a sky that is washed out or in waterfalls that have no detail because they are completely white. To adjust manually tap the screen where you want the camera to focus. A little box appears with a sun icon to the side. Drag the sun up or down to increase or decrease the brightness.

    Screen capture of the Camera app with the Teton mountains in the viewfinder and the focus and brightness selector enabled.
    Tapping an area to focus reveals a sun icon on a slider that you can drag to adjust the exposure.
  • Learn how to access your Camera app quickly. You never know when you’re going to see an amazing fleeting moment. On iPhone X it’s obvious, just hard press the camera icon on your lock screen. On other iPhones swipe left on your lock screen.

    I would have missed this moose in Moose, WY if it weren’t for being able to open my Camera app instantly.
  • Take a lot of photos. But use your downtime in the evening or while waiting in line for a bathroom (the bathroom lines in many parks are a little long) to cull your photos so that you don’t end your trip with an overwhelming amount of editing to do. I end up keeping only about one in ten photos. I’ve been told that professional photographers throw out far more.
  • Don’t forget panoramas. To change camera modes just swipe left or right while in the camera app. You can even take tall “panoramas” by turning your phone sideways. If you want to start the panorama from the other side just tap the box before you start the photo and the arrow reverses.

    Take a tall panorama by turning your iPhone sideways while in Panorama mode.
    Take a tall panorama by turning your iPhone sideways while in Panorama mode.
  • Use Live Photos. They are a cool way to relive moments. To take a Live Photo on your iPhone 6s or later tap the little circle icon at the top of your camera viewfinder so that it’s yellow. When you take a photo you’ll get a photo with a small amount of video before and after it. As you’re scrolling through your photos you’ll see them come to life. But they are far more than just that. If you press on a photo the full video will play, with sound if you have your vibrate switch turned off. You can also slide your photo up off the top of the screen to apply other effects such as Loop, Bounce, or Long Exposure. Try those out to see what they do. You can always change it to a different type of Live Photo later. They work particularly well with photos of water. Just be aware that with those special options audio is removed and the photo will be slightly cropped so that the photo can be stabilized.

    Applying the “Long Exposure” setting to a Live Photo works great with waterfalls.
  • Once you get your photos on your computer be sure to title them so you remember what they are. For some reason, you can’t title images or view titles in iOS. But in the Photos app on your Mac go to the View menu > Metadata > Titles. You can add a title by clicking on the title below any photo thumbnail.

    The Photos app with titles turned on.

Apple Watch tips

Apple Watch is a great accessory to take on a hike. If you use the Workout app to start your hike you’ll get all kinds of fun information such as a map, elevation gain, calories burned, and heart rate. And starting with watchOS 5 later this month a new workout type is “Hike” which makes your watch pay closer attention to elevation for more accurate calorie calculations.

The Whole Photo Album

To view my full vacation album follow this link.