You’re hiking up a ridge as the activity tracker on your wrist counts your steps, measures your heart rate, and marks waypoints as you go. An autonomous camera drone sweeps slow circles above you, recording every step from a bird’s eye view. You sit down and use your smartphone to check in with your emergency contacts and live stream the view of the lake below to your subscribers as your shoes tell you through your headphones that you’re pronating too much. And on your back, solar panels soak up the sun to power all these gadgets as you hike.
It’s undeniable: technology has changed the way we experience and share our time on the trail. And it continues to change faster than any other category. Here’s a rundown of the most exciting tech trends in outdoor products, some of which are straight out of a sci-fi novel.
Video Drones Getting Cheaper, Easier to Use
Camera copters used to be strictly the realm of professionals with either training, experience, or a big budget (often all three). But wallet-friendly drones with simpler user interfaces are becoming more and more prevalent, as evidenced by the programmable, autonomous Lily drone (set for summer release, $999; lily.camera) that will follow its subject without anyone at the controls. For the budget-conscious, the 2x2-inch, sub-$100 VIDIUS camera drone ($95; axisdrones.com), is a great introduction into controlling a flying camera.
Live Stream Straight From Your Phone
Recording your trip and playing it back when you get home is so past tense. Users are opting to share their experiences live in order to give their viewers a more immersive, immediate experience. Twitter’s Periscope live streaming app (free; iOS, Android) brings people along with the broadcaster. POV giant GoPro is banking on this trend by allowing its cameras to connect with Periscope’s app, providing more angles, mounting options, and drastically better image quality than smartphones allow.
Virtual Reality Comes to the Outdoors
For a totally immersive experience, new 360-camera rigs like the 360H6 ($200, 360heros.com) use several cameras to record every perspective of a scene (they basically link several GoPros together to simultaneously record different directions at the same time) to let viewers relive and share their experiences in ways like never before. Imagine you’re watching a video on your computer and you want to see what’s going on to the left or the right (or above or below) the frame. Just swipe the screen with your finger or mouse to shift the perspective in any direction. Or, you can use a virtual reality headset that lets you look around the scene just by moving your head around. Viewing products range in cost from the Oculus Rift ($599; available for preorder at oculus.com) to the Dodo Case P2: Virtual Reality Cardboard Pop-Up Viewer, which turns a smartphone into a virtual reality viewing screen ($25; dodocase.com). And you don’t even need a headset – just move your phone or swipe your screens in any direction to look around.
High-End Sat-phone Features on Your iPhone
Apps like Cairn (free; iOS, Android coming soon; cairnme.com) turn your smartphone into a true safety tool, by enabling many of the features of expensive messenger devices like SPOT Satellite Messenger and Delorme inReach. Cairn will continuously track you as you hike, allowing you to check in with emergency contacts and show you where you’ll find cell coverage. It will even send a map of your most recently tracked locations to your preset emergency contact if you fail to check in on your device.
Platonic Tinder For Adventurers
Apps are also finding new ways to bring outdoor enthusiasts’ together. Gociety (free; iOS) is built for connecting people who want hiking/travel/adventure buddies. It’s like a platonic Tinder for outdoorsy folk without the creeper factor: users log on, look for adventures (skiing, climbing, mountain biking, hiking, etc.), that others are planning in the area and tag along, or post a trip of their own and let people join in.
Fitness Quantification Comes to the Masses
Quantifying fitness is getting more universal than ever – instead of being the realm of the hardcore endurance athlete, people from all walks of outdoor life are interested in putting numerical values to their health. Garmin’s Fenix 3 HR ($600, garmin.com) is a perfect example: the all-in-one GPS watch for hikers, skiers, runners, and more, is adding a wrist-mounted heart-rate monitor that keeps a continuous log of heart rate and exertion levels. These wrist-mounted monitors are growing more common (see the TomTom Spark, Fitbit Surge, and Microsoft Band 2, among others), eschewing the cumbersome heart rate monitoring chest straps and bringing constant HR tracking to the masses.
Augmented Reality Adds Virtual Features to Real Ski Slopes
A Head’s Up Displays (HUDs) is a screen that is on constant display in your peripheral vision. In real life, they used to only be available on fighter jets and high-end cars, where speed and other info would be projected on the windshield so the driver/pilot can see vital stats without taking his eyes off the road/sky. A few years back, Zeal and Recon Instruments teamed up to create goggles with a HUD, letting snowbarders and skiers see vital statistics—like hang time and speed. This year, RideOn ($899, rideonvision.com; available March 2016) is stepping up the HUD concept by adding augmented reality, which creates virtual slalom tracks to your run, gives you goals to hit, shows you location on a map, and provides directions to the nearest restaurant, bar, or lift.
Shoes are Running Coaches
Real live personal trainers may be going the way of the buffalo; virtual coaches will program and talk you through workouts and even analyze and critique your technique, so if you’re training for a big climb and need some tough love with no strings attached, a virtual coach might be your ticket. Microsoft’s Band 2 ($250; microsoftstore.com) has a feature that that lets you either upload or program your own guided workout, which will walk you through sets and reps. For the runner, Altra Running’s IQ shoe ($199; altrarunning.com; available spring 2016) has sensors integrated into the sole that analyze a host of metrics including gait and foot strike in real time, then provide tips, feedback and form corrections through headphones as you run.
Solar Power Gets More Trail-Friendly
When solar chargers were first introduced, the weight and fragility kept them squarely in the realm of the professional photographer/videographer categories. Now that they’re becoming more mainstream, companies are spending less time convincing people that solar panels are a good idea and more time making them more trail-ready. EnerPlex’s super-flexible Kickr IV ($99; goenerplex.com) is like stiff laminated paper-- super-light and crushproof. And its new Kickr Mini ($150) is a combination solar panel and battery that folds down to the size of the average smartphone and will charge said smartphone twice.
Battery packs get smaller, add features
Most people need more than just one phone recharge as they go about their days, so battery packs are getting smaller and more powerful. For daily use, Goal Zero’s Flip 20 Recharger battery ($40; goalzero.com) is about the size of a Bic lighter and can power up your phone twice. Slightly larger is the Power Practical Pronto 5 battery pack ($80, powerpractical.com), which charges fully in just an hour (much faster than most chargers) and can charge a phone 2-3 times. More strenuous excursions may require Outdoor Technology’s Kodiak Plus 2.0 ($80; outdoortechnology.com; available spring 2016), a rubber-coated, shock-, water-, and dust-proof 10,000mAh battery that will charge an iPhone up to 4 times, has an integrated LED flashlight, and offers cord storage as well.
Billy Brown is an athlete/geek hybrid who can wax poetic about GLONASS and GPS satellite compatibility right before deadlifting 500 pounds in the weight room. He covers tech in the outdoors for publications including Wired, Backpacker, and Men's Journal, as well as on his outdoor gear website, trektechblog.com.