• Canadian Geographic interns Brittany Harris, Justin Nalepa and Lillianne Cadieux-Shaw use the Army Survival Guide app to build a lean-to from a poncho. (Photo: Jimmy Thomson)

Matches, rope, compass... smartphone?

Smartphones are often considered an urban survival tool and not necessarily something on the must-have list for backpackers and campers. For many, leaving the phone behind is one of the great joys of getting out into the wilderness. Some app developers seem to disagree, though, and the overwhelming number of survival apps on the market proves it.

To save you the trouble of wading through the vast collection of guides, references, mapping apps and other nifty hi-tech backpacking tools, a few of the Canadian Geographic interns headed out into the wilds of Ottawa’s Britannia Bay Park to figure out which apps will keep you alive and which will just kill your battery. If you’re the type of outdoor enthusiast who has a backpack-mounted solar panel for phone charging, this list is for you.

1. iBird Pro ($5):

iBird Pro has a database of 938 birds, with photos, illustrations, maps and even bird calls.

“Looked great and worked great on my tablet. The biggest concern for users will be that it takes up a lot of space, so for most phones, this will be a big problem. It takes a while to extract the files when you first start it up, but it’s worth the wait as the app is a great resource for birders and bird enthusiasts alike.” — Justin Nalepa

(Looking for something similar, but free? Try iBird Lite, it has the same user interface but only about 50 species to give you a chance to try it out before purchasing the full version.)

2. Audubon Birds — A Field Guide ($3.15):

Coming from the well-respected National Audubon Society, this guide is one of several Audubon nature field guides.

“I love the look, and the user interface is great. The option to locate birds with the e-bird search is an awesome feature. One drawback I found was that you needed to go through every single species page and audio file to download them for offline use. If you have a constant Internet connection to search the database, then that’s no problem.” — Justin Nalepa

“The ability to listen to bird calls is both a handy feature for birders as well as a handy feature for people who want to annoy their colleagues and get away with it for a little while. It would also come in handy for spies, I think.” — Jimmy Thomson

The group locates a geocache site.

3. Geocaching ($9.99):

Geocaching was first popularized with the widespread adoption of handheld GPS devices. Smartphones have further expanded the market for high-tech wilderness fun.

“You can download caches as offline lists, but you’ll need a GPS or Internet connection to locate them. The compass on my phone worked great and brought us within a couple metres of the caches. It’s worth the money for the app; we had a lot of fun looking around, solving puzzles and planning our own caches.” — Justin Nalepa

“It was amazing to see how actively people use the Geocaching app, leaving comments and hints behind for the next geocachers.” — Jimmy Thomson

(Looking for something similar, but free? Try OpenCaching, although the app seemed to have fewer caches in the Ottawa area and wasn’t as up-to-date.)

4. Knot Guide ($2.03):

This app features illustrations of knots for survival, camping, fishing and more.

“The knot guides are easy enough to follow. The app uses step-by-step images along with directional arrows to guide you to where the rope goes through. Then you just swipe to move to the next photo. If you’re going to use this where you don’t have an Internet connection, you’ll need to go through every knot you want to use beforehand for the app to download the images.” — Justin Nalepa

“This app gives good photo demonstrations for all the knots you have forgotten since Scouts, plus all the ones they didn’t teach you because they weren’t very useful. And now you can have them on the go!” — Jimmy Thomson

(Looking for something similar, but free? Try Knots Guide. It has more than 90 knots and you don’t need to cycle through the knots to use it offline, everything is already downloaded. It doesn’t have the same step-by-step images, but uses a range of graphics, illustrations, images and written descriptions. You can also try Knot Guide Free; it’s the same app but with fewer knots.)

5. Animated Knots by Grog ($4.99):

This knot guide breaks down knot-tying into several steps to make them easier to follow than drawn knot guides.

“This app has a much larger file size than some of the other knot apps, but it has a lot of detail and description, as well as a follow-along slideshow. It covers a wide range of activities and the knots you can use for them. In the description, it offers advantages, disadvantages and alternatives to help you find the right knot for the job.” — Justin Nalepa

“This probably kills your battery faster than Knot Guide, so use it only in the emergencies in which you have access to a reliable power source and lots of time.” — Jimmy Thomson

6. Parks Canada Learn to Camp (free):

Parks Canada developed this app to help urban dwellers break into the wilderness and enjoy some of our national parks. It has basic information for novice campers, such as packing lists and recipes, intended to make camping less intimidating.

“A great camping app that’s not only free, but works offline too! The camping checklist is great for keeping track of what you have, need and what you’ve already packed. The Camping Basics feature has lots of helpful information to be aware of before, during and after your trip. There’s only a short list of recipes, but it helps that they’re all designed for camping use. Although not a complete list of all camping sites across Canada, the Where to Camp section provides enough information to start planning your trip, especially if you’re looking to camp in or around any national parks.” — Justin Nalepa

7. Army Survival Guide (free):

The Army Survival Guide teaches how to build a basic survival kit.

This app brings the survival guide developed by the US Army to your smartphone, and includes information such as how to gather food, build shelters and navigate in all types of environments.

“I had a lot of fun with this app. There’s a lot of info and some useful illustrations to help guide you along. The way it’s outlined and described is very clear and to the point, but it gives you confidence that if you were stranded with only this app, you’d be able to survive. Most importantly, now I have a properly outfitted survival kit ready to take whenever I go outdoors for an extended period of time.” — Justin Nalepa

“I feel like this app would give you a really great chance of surviving for as long as your phone’s battery lasts. It’s probably a good idea to use your phone to call for help before you get too carried away with lean-tos and squirrel snares.” — Jimmy Thomson

8. ICE: In Case of Emergency ($3.99):

ICE provides your medical information to hospital workers or first responders if you are unconscious.

“Works as a digital medical ID bracelet for your phone or tablet. You have to input all the data, but once you do, you can send the info to anyone or set the app to be accessible on your screen even if your device is locked. It’s great for anyone with medical conditions or allergies, as well as for those unexpected emergency situations.” — Justin Nalepa

9. First Aid — American Red Cross (free):

The Red Cross's first aid app provides instructions on how to care for victims of most common mishaps. It also directly links with 9-1-1 and has safety tips to keep users out of trouble to begin with.

“Simple, easy-to-read instructions with illustrations, photos and videos to follow. All the content is downloaded, so it works fine even when there is no Internet connection. It’s useful for almost any medical situation, particularly if there are no professionals around to help. It also includes an interactive quiz to test your knowledge on various subjects and scenarios.” — Justin Nalepa

“This seems like to type of app that is best used well before you actually need it. It might be stressful to try to learn to stop a serious bleed on the fly.” — Jimmy Thomson

10. Moon Phase Pro ($0.99):

This app tracks the phase of the moon between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., and even allows you to see the dark side of the moon.

“The interactive moon is amazing. The detail in the shadows and highlights looks beautiful, and being able to spin the moon around or check the dark (or bright) side by using two fingers to scroll is entertaining. Not to mention the heaps of data about the moon’s location and rise and set times, along with a monthly calendar, make it a great app to have on your phone or tablet.” — Justin Nalepa

(Looking for something similar, but free? Try Lunafaqt sun and moon info; It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, but has a lot great information for what it is.)

11. Sundroid Pro Sunrise Sunset ($2.99):

This app tracks the movement of the sun, moon and other celestial bodies, including sunrises, sunsets and solar eclipses.

“The app has everything you could want to know about the sun and the moon: a tracker to find out where they are or where they’re going to be; times for twilight and golden hours; the rise and set times for the sun, moon and all the planets for each day and the month; and even a yearly event calendar to let you know what’s coming up.” — Justin Nalepa