Parks Canada brings GPS to great outdoors

Parks Canada plans to use Global Positioning Systems to provide hikers with location-specific text, images, sounds, video and quizzes, starting this summer.

For many of us, a trip into one of Canada's national parks is a chance to leave civilization and technology behind.

Parks Canada plans to use a program called Explora and handheld computers with Global Positioning System capabilities to deliver location-specific content to hikers. ((Courtesy of Parks Canada))

But if Parks Canada has its way that will change starting this summer. Technology, in fact, may soon be your guide.

Using a program called Explora and handheld computers with Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities, Parks Canada plans to deliver location-specific content to hikers. As visitors hike with Explora, they are able to see their location on a map and interact with location-related text, images, sounds, video and quizzes.

In a boardroom in Hull, Que., Tamara Tarasoff of Parks Canada's new media program offers a simulation of a person walking around Signal Hill, in St. John's. The hiker is represented as a small yellow circle moving onscreen on the GPS device.

Suddenly, a bugle sounds and the device brings up a picture of a plant with the question, "Where did this come from?" and three multiple-choice answers.

Tarasoff reveals the correct answer: the plant was introduced to Signal Hill by soldiers in their mattress stuffing.

Parks Canada handed these GPS devices out to visitors as a pilot project at two sites — Signal Hill and Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia.

Tarasoff remembers one of the first groups to try it out.

"We thought perhaps it would be a group of younger people or teenagers or that kind of thing, but it was a group of seniors from Saskatchewan. They started to walk with the device along the trail and, as soon as the first audio prompt sounded, they giggled and they laughed and they thought it was the greatest thing," she said.

Devices prove popular

In follow-up surveys, more than 85 per cent of visitors liked the devices, and said they learned something new, even if they had been going to the park for years.

This summer the Explora program will be expanded to more sites.

Tarasoff's team is also developing two new apps for mobile devices.

One is on cooking, which will highlight historic recipes that were used in places such as Lower Fort Garry or the Fortress of Louisbourg.

Tarasoff says that app will have a more practical side too: the best techniques for making coffee at a campsite and the best bannock recipes.

The second app will focus on the basics of how to camp.

"So how to launch a canoe or how to pitch a tent or find that perfect spot for your tent, that kind of thing," Tarasoff said.

New Canadians targeted

For those of us who learned how to pitch a tent before we could drive a car to the campsite, why develop an app for it?

"We've got a lot of new Canadians. Canada continues to renew itself. We have a lot of urban Canadians," explained Andrew Campbell, director general of external relations and visitors for Parks Canada. "So we've gone out and asked those groups, 'What are some of the barriers? What are some of the limitations?' "

Starting this summer, Parks Canada will teach basic camping and cooking skills person-to-person. But Campbell says it's also important to use the technology found right in people's homes.

"How can we give people that taste before they come, and how can we help them facilitate the visit in a way that really gives them the sort of experience they're looking for?"

Parks Canada celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. What started out as one park in Banff, Alta., has spread to a network of protected spaces from coast to coast to coast.

And Campbell says if new technology will help more Canadians appreciate this, all the better.

"Ninety per cent of people who come and actually visit our places believe they should be there in perpetuity. So for us it's a very important piece as Canadians to give people that visit-feel, even if they can't make the visit [in person]," he said.

And with technology evolving at a rapid pace, who knows what will be there to greet you in another 100 years?