We all know that the buddy system is best. Sometimes, though, that’s just not an option. Maybe you just want to paddle alone to clear the cobwebs, or to keep from strangling someone. Maybe you are focusing on training goals. Or maybe your preferred paddle pal is not available and you want to go anyway. In those cases, it’s always good to let someone know where you are, even if you’re just heading out for a quick paddle on your local waterway.
In this day and age of mobile technology, it’s never been easier to increase your safety quotient when paddling, hiking or biking solo. The crème-de-la-crème of these services is SPOT, which uses satellite technology to track your location and allows your friends and family to follow your progress. But, that requires a special device and subscription and for the average Joe and Jane Paddler, that can get pricey.
If you’re looking to keep costs down, look no father than that cellphone that’s likely already in a LifeProof or Otterbox case in your boardie pocket when you paddle. A handful of apps can help you stay safer on the water without breaking the bank. Here’s a look at four that can turn your cellphone into a emergency response tool that goes beyond just having the means to call someone. They’ll do (most) of the work for you so you can concentrate on the water. All four will operate on both IOS and Android enabled phones. All of them have free basic service that is more than adequate for general purposes.
A Few Caveats
Using your cellphone as a personal locator has some important limitations, like battery life. Be sure your phone is fully charged before you head out. Turn off other apps running in the background to avoid drain on the battery during your paddle. It’s also dependent on good, strong cell signals. Even at that, using the phone as your locator beacon may be best reserved for shorter paddles near home when you are not planning on being out too long and where cell service is strong. So, if you’re going to the Amazon, or down the Nantahala or you’re gonna be out for days, maybe the SPOT service is a better option.
Of course, you have to have your phone with you, so if you don’t trust the waterproof cases, put it in a dry bag. Duh. Three of the apps are only going to be as good as the information you plug into it. Be as detailed as you can about your paddle plan, what you are wearing, what your board looks like, where you left your car, etc.
Also, think wisely about who your emergency contacts are. They need to know they are on your contact list- no surprises to cause freakouts! They need to know how the apps work, and know how to use the location based services on their own mobile device to find you. And of course, they should be reliably calm, cool and collected in the event of an emergency. Just saying.
So, let’s look at the apps.
This one is not necessarily targeted to the outdoor enthusiast, but it has a great user interface, is easy to set up and has some nice features that make it useful beyond paddle planning. Initially created for parents wanting to keep track of their kids (who can probably program workarounds, seriously!) it allows you to create customized “circles” of contacts – whether it’s family, paddling friends, you name it.
I actually use this to keep track of my elderly parents who live 2,000 miles away.
With their permission, of course!! Your Paddle Plan Peeps can receive messages or notifications when you put in and take out and they can follow you on a map and see exactly where you are without having to leave the application. For $5 a month you can also subscribe to an “Onstar” kind of service where you can get panic button instant help if necessary.
One big con: it requires your contacts also have the Life360 app downloaded on their phone. It requires you to set up a Life360 account, which is free.
Definitely designed for outdoor pursuits, iNeverSolo is similar to Life360 in that you can add contacts right from your phone to a notification list and send messages to those folks when you head out. You can create and save location-specific plans – very handy if you routinely paddle at the same places. The app, which is not as visually slick as Life360, allows you to describe your plans in detail, set a start and stop time and it gives you the option of selecting as many contacts as you’d like to receive notifications. When you activate a plan, an email and/or text will go out to your designees, letting them know you are on the way and providing a link to the details of your plan, if you chose to attach one. When you finish your paddle, just check in and the plan is deactivated. When your plan is about to “expire” it will notify you as such and give you the option of changing the expiration time or checking in: that way you don’t forget to end the plan, which is easy to do if you’re excited about the session you just had or are so hungry all you can think about is getting a burger on the way home. Everything is cool, as long as you take action. In the event things are NOT okay, and there’s a really good reason you are not shutting the plan off, then your contacts will receive an email/text suggesting they check on you. The email also provides good advice for getting in touch with authorities and others designated contacts to make sure you’re okay.
Con: it does not provide any kind of location based service…so your contacts can’t use it on a map and find you.
Emergency notification only.
Also, when specifying what activity you are doing, there’s no icon for SUP, only kayaking, canoeing or boating. That’s a minor detail, though, and you can be explicit in your plan description as to what you are doing.
This is a new app from the good folks at the American Canoe Association. It goes beyond float plan filing and offers safety and gear checklists for kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding. It provides real time river level information, allows you to report an accident and includes links to rescue how-to videos and other helpful info. As for the float plan part of the app, you can save float plans in a template that can be adjusted as needed, like the iNeverSolo app. However, every time you create a new one, you have to manually enter your contact names, numbers, and email addresses, as well as your own. That is kind of annoying and is a deterrent to using the app. Especially when Life360 and iNeverSolo will import that info for you automatically. Hopefully that functionality will be added in subsequent versions of Paddle Ready. That said, the float plan template is more complete that the other two apps, which is helpful in making sure you don’t forget to include key information.
Con: just doesn’t seem completely fleshed out yet and isn’t all that it could be.
In comparison to the other three apps, this one is the least aesthetically pleasing. It has a very basic user interface and takes a little time figuring out. It’s not that it’s difficult, it’s just that it is not as graphically-oriented and you need to know what it looks like when it’s on. Think DOS v. Windows. FollowMee is basically the poor man’s SPOT, or Garmin Live Track. You do have to sign up and create a free account. Then you download the barebones app on your phone. When you activate the app, it starts tracking you. On the FollowMee website, you can generate a URL which you can send to whomever you like so they can watch you online as you traveling down the river, across the lake or down your favorite mountain bike trail, whatever. And that’s it. No emergency notification, no float plan filing. You can go back and see your travel history on the map, which is kind of cool. The advantage to this is no one but you has to have an account; all your friends need to do is click on the URL.
Con: the location updates only about every 10 minutes. That’s fine for an all day adventure, but not so good for the one-hour jaunts. I recently used FollowMee on my first trip down the Neuse River below the Falls Lake Dam in Raleigh. Since I was also on my inflatable for the first time on moving water, I wanted Wendy, who was meeting me at the take out, to know my every move. It was only a four-mile paddle and Wendy reported that only being able to get updates on my progress every 10 minutes was annoying. However, that interval is what keeps the app from NOT draining your battery. So, great for long distances. Other Helpful Apps
The Find Friends app that’s available for the iPhone could also be handy but it requires you send a request to all your contacts and they have to take action and respond.
It’s also a good idea to have a weather app that includes real-time radar and can be set to alert you audibly in the event of severe weather warning. A survival and or first aid app is handy to have as well, in case you need a field refresher. Having a flashlight app on the phone is a must. And if you are anywhere coastal, consider getting a good marine chart app as well.