Trek Tip: Using Find iPhone as a trail tracker

We both enjoy doing things in the outdoors — as if that’s a newsflash for anyone who follows this blog! — but we don’t always appreciate doing them at the same pace. While hiking new trails is a fun pastime for us both, Jessi has taken up trail running as part of her sports endeavors. Ari doesn’t run but enjoys spending time on new trails, and is often the entire support “team” when Jessi is out running or training for an upcoming event.

The trail system inside Wickham Park in Melbourne, FL
The trail system inside Wickham Park in Melbourne, Florida has plenty of areas where paths cross and the confidence marker system is nearly non-existent.

A training run on trails can be tricky, especially in new areas, and we feel better when Ari can be near Jessi’s location at any given time, even if he’s not right next to her. On a single-track trail that’s well-marked and easy to follow, this isn’t a problem. Ari hikes fast, and we know that if Jessi were to take a tumble or have other issues arise, it wouldn’t be long before Ari would come along to render assistance. But what about an area where trails are crisscrossing or there isn’t a precise system of confidence markers?

We recently had this happen when visiting family in Florida and checking out a nearby trail system. Because we were still in an area with decent cellular phone service, Ari decided to test out the built-in app on Apple devices called Find iPhone. Most people probably use this to find their phone if lost or track their kids when they are worried about them but don’t want to seem too overbearing as a parent. We decided that it might have a third use, as a trail tracker system.

A trail runner in Wickham Park, Melbourne, FL
The small orange spot in the upper right corner is Jessi as she runs off down a trail. You can see how easily someone could lose sight of you if trying to stay on your track.

Jessi was running with her phone and after she took off, Ari tracked her the old-fashioned way for a while. Watching for apparent turns or noting shoeprints that matched Jessi’s, he stayed on her trail for a bit. But it wasn’t long before the twisting trails were crossing paths with one another and he lost her.

Out came the iPhone and, within seconds, Ari had a map with dots on the screen showing the location of both of our phones. In the bottom left corner of the app, there is a directional arrow. If you tap it a couple of times, you’ll end up with your dot turning into a directional marker showing not only your location but also how you are facing. Using this system, Ari started basing his turns on the trails so that he always kept his directional marker facing the dot showing the location of Jessi’s phone. Within minutes, he managed to find Jessi as she was rounding a bend. After chatting for a minute, Jessi was off again, and Ari started tracking. This time, he was able to stay almost directly behind her, choosing paths based on where he saw Jessi’s dot headed. By the time she slowed down to take another short break, Ari had caught up.

Screenshot showing Find iPhone map
This is what the Find iPhone map looks like with your directional marker turned on. The trail system we were using wasn’t marked on the map, so Ari just used Jessi’s locator dot to keep moving in her direction as the trails allowed.

The system worked quite well and it can be a decent method of trail tracking, with a few significant caveats. The most important issue to consider is the cellular signal. You must be connected to a cellular signal to access Find iPhone, so using this system in a remote area won’t work. (You also can use a WiFi connection, but it’s not like you’ll have that on a trail somewhere.) Second, you need to monitor battery life carefully. Using the GPS to keep track of yourself and your partner, not to mention keeping the screen on more than usual, can sap your phone’s battery quickly. Ari found that using the app to get a bearing on Jessi and then turning the screen off until he needed to make a choice about which trail to follow seemed to work well.

It’s not a foolproof system and, obviously, it relies on technology so it may not work in some situations. But if conditions are right, we found that Find iPhone can also be a decent trail tracker.


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