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Originally published Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Smart-phone apps add to outdoor adventures

Dan Nelson reviews apps that help in bird-watching, identifying animal tracks (and droppings), wildflower identification, stargazing and finding hikes.

Special to The Seattle Times

Free app helps you tour national parks

Now you can tour 50 of America's national parks, including Mount Rainier and Olympic, with the aid of a new National Park Field Guides app available free of charge from the National Parks Conservation Association.

The app spotlights park wildlife and ecosystems, and includes bird portraits, call recordings, and information about endangered and poisonous species. Also included is current news about featured parks, access and reservation information, and directions to park visitor centers.

For a free download of the new app for iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch devices, go to http://bit.ly/NPCApp.

— Seattle Times staff

At times, technology enhances the wilderness experience. Today's smartphones, for instance, allow me to carry in my pack a wide range of nature guides so I can quickly identify birds, beasts, wildflowers and stars — with minimal weight.

Readers seem to agree, with many e-mailing suggestions of apps for me to try, or asking for my recommendations of best apps for their outdoor adventures. Here are a few of the apps that I turn to at times while playing outside. Note: These apps were all tested on my 2-year old iPhone 3G.

iBird Explorer (Western)

There are a number of good bird-watching guides, including a nice one from Sibley's. But iBird offers some great features not found on other packages. First off, iBird's Western edition includes more birds (828) than Sibley's full North American version (811), but at a fraction of the cost. The iBird Explorer Western app also features a comprehensive search feature, letting you find birds by primary and secondary colors, as well as body size, wing shape, tail shape, flight pattern and more. You also get drawings of each bird species, photographs, range maps and even audible calls/songs. This is a great birders' app, which is available for both iPhone and Android devices. $9.99; see www.ibird.com.

Audubon Wildflowers

Audubon offers most of their nature guides as e-book/apps today but the one that really shines above the competitors is Audubon Wildflowers — A Field Guide to North American Wildflowers. The database includes more than 1,800 plant species, covering all of North America. The app features an efficient search engine, a broad database of color photographs, and detailed descriptions of each plant species. A wonderful trail tool for hikers. Available for iPhone and Android. $9.99; see www.audubonguides.com.

Scats and Tracks

Hikers know that encountering wildlife generally enhances wilderness travel. Sometimes, though, your only encounter will be with the trails left by passing critters. Being able to understand the signs left behind helps you enjoy the virtual encounter. FalconGuides' most useful digital guide is the Scats & Tracks: North America app. With this iPhone app, you can identify the tracks and droppings left by 150 different animal species. There's even a "ruler" page so you can accurately measure track lengths. $6.99; see www.falcon.com/scatapps.

Star Walk

Backpacking offers a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the night sky without the distraction of city lights. But as I lay in camp, gazing at the heavens, I've frequently wondered what stars and galaxies I was watching. No longer. With Star Walk, I have a star map in hand. Star Walk uses current location (using the iPhone's GPS chip) and date/time to show you exactly what's in the sky above you. Best astronomy app I've found. $2.99; www.vitotechnology.com.

M-Hikes

When you want to get out on a trail at a moment's notice, turn to M-Hikes, from The Mountaineers Books. Using your phone's GPS, this app will point you to a trail near you. You can specify how close you want the trailhead: 0.5 miles, 5, 15 or up to 50 miles from your current location. This inaugural app from The Mountaineers offers routes from the Washington "Day Hiking" series, so it's purely a Western Washington app at this juncture. But if you're visiting friends in Port Angeles (or Olympia, or Tacoma) and you want to know where to go for an afternoon hike, this tool will tell you. $5.99; www.mountaineersbooks.org.

Freelancer Dan A. Nelson of Puyallup is a regular contributor to Backpacker magazine, and an author of outdoor guides with The Mountaineers Books. For the purpose of review, gear manufacturers lend products, which are returned after a typical use of four to six weeks. There is no payment from manufacturers and they have no control over the content of reviews. Contact Nelson with gear-related questions at gearguy@adventuresnw.net.

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