When hiking, less is always better. So when there's an option to take along one device that can take photos, make phone calls and navigate...

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When hiking, less is always better.

So when there’s an option to take along one device that can take photos, make phone calls and navigate trails, it’s a no brainer — bring a camera phone equipped with GPS, or global positioning system.

Through a partnership between Nextel Communications and Sunnyvale, Calif.,-based Trimble Outdoors, the technology is here. A GPS-equipped Nextel phone and accompanying Trimble software allow you to plan and execute a trip whether it is in the city or in the forest.

The system is impressive and does things I wouldn’t imagine possible on a phone today, but a word of caution: It sounds a little too good to be true because it is. The software has a steep learning curve and requires a lot of patience to get it working as smoothly as promised. For the technologically inactive, it would be the equivalent of tackling Mount Baker before Mount Si. On the other hand, if you are a science and nature buff, it works well.

For those willing to try, the folks at Trimble’s tech support are friendly guides to help you feel comfortable with the software. They encourage weekend phone calls from the trail and, as an amazing testament to their dedication, the toll-free number once transferred to a technician’s cellphone, where he juggled questions regarding the difficulties of downloading maps to the phone with ordering a bowl of clam chowder.

Trimble and Nextel worked best the day I chose to hike Squak Mountain, an area in Issaquah with old logging roads and plenty of brush to soak you on a rainy day.

What you’ll need

Phone You’ll need a Nextel Java- and GPS-enabled phone — the i325, i58sr, i710, i730, i733, i736, i830 or i860.

Trimble Outdoors You’ll need a subscription to Trimble Outdoors. Pricing depends on how much data passes between the phone and the computer. The Gold version, which includes 100 kilobits of data, costs $4.99 a month. The Platimum version, with 500 kilobits, is $9.99 a month. An average trip uses 50 kilobits.

Adventure Planner Optional Adventure Planner software maps out the trips. The software is sold separately for $49.95.

Online community Access to TrimbleOutdoors.com is included with the Adventure Planner and allows you to swap hikes and other activities with other users.

More information: TrimbleOutdoors.com

Source: Nextel Communications, Trimble Outdoors

I first planned the journey using the Trimble software loaded in my laptop at the office, choosing a map of Squak Mountain.

This required a number of steps, including one that allowed me to decide whether to share the route with Trimble’s online community.(Because no one had entered a map for Squak on the Trimble Web site, it was up to me to download one myself).

I had three choices: an aerial photograph, a topographical map or a street map. I zoomed in from the U.S. all the way into to Issaquah, and sent the map to my phone.

Instantly, I was able to pick up my phone and load the street map I had chosen. Once I followed every step required on the PC, it was a breeze finding a clearly defined street, topo or aerial map on the phone. I did find that the bigger the map, the longer it took to download.

With the PC work completed, I charged the phone overnight, and drove out to the trailhead the next morning.

This time, I knew what to do, having tried this once or twice before. The first lesson I had learned from previous trips was that sometimes it is difficult for the phone to connect to the GPS signal. So I extended the phone’s antenna, flipped it open and laid it keyboard-side-down on the hood of the car. I gave it ample time to connect while I laced up my boots and got the dog out of the car.

Sure enough, the GPS initialized. With previous attempts, I had relied too heavily on my ability to figure things out as I went. Knowing more up front and practicing in the city allowed me to focus less on the phone and more on the hike. This time, I was ready to tackle both Trimble and the trail.

On the hike, I watched my progress as I made my way through the woods with a route being drawn on the phone screen as if it were on a white board. I clicked through various pages of the application to see different views — a compass, a map and camera.

In an advanced move, I instructed the software to continue tracking my progress even when the phone was shut. I put it in the front pocket of my Gore-Tex jacket to protect it from the rain. Under that barrier, the phone continued to follow each step. When I retrieved it, the latitude and longitude coordinates and the speed at which I was hiking appeared on the outside screen.

I flipped open the Motorola i860 phone, snapped photos and marked way points to designate a location on the map that I wanted to remember later. All of the way points and photos could be labeled or named, but my dog would easily lose patience with me so I quickly shifted to naming them 1, 2 and 3.

I made a point to photograph all the signs I passed so I could remember the exact route I took. I even caught a picture of my dog shaking off the rain from his soaked fur. The phone was so handy that I realized I would have never captured that action shot or bothered to take the other photos if I relied on a camera buried deep in my pack.

As I came close to completing my loop, I could see on the phone that I was nearing the original fork in the trail. But as soon as I got close, the route drawn on the phone’s screen suddenly veered off in the opposite direction from the trailhead, where I thought I was heading.

Worried that I was confused and indeed going in the wrong direction, I turned back. Minutes later, the program corrected itself and I turned around once again.

The only explanation I could figure was that it momentarily lost the GPS connection and didn’t know where I was. I took the hiccup in stride since it was the only problem I had encountered all day.

When I reached the car, I sent the information back to the computer over the airwaves.

The program was intelligent and noticed that I had uploaded half of the hike earlier. I did so just in case some data ended up being lost. Instead of reloading everything, it asked me if I wanted to upload only the remaining data. I said yes and shut the program down.

The following Monday, the hike was waiting for me in my Trimble application back at my laptop. A trip report detailed the coordinates of each way point and photo and said how many miles we hiked.

Only 1.885 miles?

Surely, that was a glitch. It seemed like much, much more!

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com