Over the past three years of working on Guthook’s Guides iPhone apps, I’ve had to teach myself everything coding from the first “Hello, World” app up to what you see today. It hasn’t been a smooth process, as any of you who have been using the apps all along can attest to, but if you’ve been using them since the beginning I think you’ll also agree that the apps have come a hell of a long way. The latest versions of the apps, released in March of this year, were really the first that I felt completely satisfied with, and here’s why.

Testing on every iDevice I can find.

Testing on every iDevice I can find.

There are many ways to measure apps in general. How stable is the app? How fast is it? Is the content worthwhile? Is there broad appeal? Is it easy to use? How much can be done within the app? The first two of those questions are technical in nature, and the others are more subjective based on the users. All of them combine into an important recipe, since the app could have high marks for all of those questions except one, and that one could destroy everything.

Stability and Speed
The part of the equation that can be measured most objectively is the part that I can deal with in a solid way. Every time one of my apps crashes, or every time an elevation profile takes more than a second to appear, I can’t stop thinking of how I can fix the problem. I lose more sleep than is reasonable over every glitch.

I use analytics tools to keep track of the number of times my apps are opened every day, how many crashes occur every day, and how much time is spent using the apps. Last year, there was one set of numbers that drove me crazy– approximately 300 app opens and 25 crashes per day, or 1 crash per 12 app opens. That’s a pretty high ratio. Totally unacceptable. By the beginning of this month, after constant bug-hunting, I whittled it down to 4 crashes and 400 app opens per day, bringing the ratio down to 1:100. By the end of the month, I expect the latest round of updates to reduce that by 75% more.

Looking at the loading times for the elevation profiles and maps shows a similar trend. The original elevation profiles that I introduced early in 2013 could take up to 15 seconds to load on my iPhone 4 for the Southern California PCT. By now, that same exact data set is loading on average in 0.8 seconds. This is good progress. Maybe in the future I’ll have that down to milliseconds.

Ease of Use and Strong Features
The original PCT apps were pretty basic– map, waypoints, and that’s it. Since then I’ve added trail registers, bulletin boards, elevation profiles, Facebook/Twitter sharing, storage management, in-app purchases, and auto-updating trail data. I’ll continue to add more features, but new features are only worth adding if people use them. Getting people to use new features is a lot harder than you’d expect.

The collective experience of thousands of app developers says that the vast majority of people won’t use features if they take more than a minute to understand. The same goes if a feature can’t be found. I’ve seen several trail guide apps that are so cluttered with buttons and menus and flashy features that I get confused and frustrated trying to figure out what the developers intended. Take the PocketRanger series of apps, which are guides to each state’s State Park system. I tried to use the Maine app to see what info was available for my local state park, and gave up after getting lost in a maze of menus, poorly marked buttons, and cluttered screens.

Every time I add a feature to my apps, I spend as much time making the feature work as finding a way for it to fit in with the rest of the app. The goal is to keep screens uncluttered, and the app simple enough to be easy to use. It would be an awful waste of time for me to create a new feature that nobody used, after all.

Worthwhile Content and Broad Appeal
As far as I can tell, most people buy my apps for the content, not the features. They use the features, of course, but the trail is foremost in their mind before purchasing. That’s why I started with the PCT and AT, which are two of the most popular long-distance hiking trails in the US. My partners at High Sierra Attitude and I are now working on broadening the appeal of the apps by enlisting local experts to make guides for more trails.

We’ve already started this with South Downs Way and the Continental Divide Trail, where we’ve partnered with people who already write guidebooks for those trails. We’re working on other partnerships like that, including one with the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, and a few others all over the country. I figure that having locals and experts create the content for apps while I focus on the technical programming side of things will make for the best possible guides.

I’ll keep working on all of this, and I hope you all are enjoying the efforts!

In case you missed the announcement a few weeks ago, or just want to see what the new generation of my iPhone apps looks like, here’s a little demo I recorded for the New England Hiker app for iPhone. The initial download is free, as are the guides for Monadnock State Park, the Willey Range, and Pillsbury State Park, so check it out and get out hiking!

Yesterday morning I headed up the Nancy Pond Trail for some late season snowshoeing. It was a great day for hiking, but the snow conditions were deteriorating fast. I think this may be my last snowshoeing trip for the season.

Stream crossings were gushing with snowmelt, and pretty treacherous.

Stream crossings were gushing with snowmelt, and pretty treacherous.

I started late, hitting the trail around 9 AM, and I could tell this was going to be a warm day. Right from the trailhead, I was in a tee-shirt without hat or gloves. I had to wear snowshoes, though, since the packed trail wasn’t solid enough to support my weight barebooting. As I continued up the trail, some of the shaded sections were rock-solid, so I hurried to get as much ground behind me as I could before things melted more.

Nancy Cascades, melting out after a long winter.

Nancy Cascades, melting out after a long winter.

The climb just above Nancy Cascades was a little dicey, since the trail hadn’t been broken out yet, and the slope was more ice than snow. At some points, walking back and forth on switchbacks was more treacherous than cutting straight up on the icy grades, so I dug in and climbed on all fours. When I got to the flats above the steepest climb, the sun was beating down hard, but I’d finished the hard part before the snow softened. Mission mostly accomplished.

Stairs Mountain and Crawford Dome from just above Nancy Cascades.

Stairs Mountain and Crawford Dome from just above Nancy Cascades.

Next, I started across Nancy and Norcross Ponds. I’ve been up here four times now, but only during the time of year when the ponds are frozen and I can walk over them. The views up to Mounts Nancy and Anderson on either side of the ponds are just beautiful. The view from the outlet of Norcross Pond, though, is one of the finest in the White Mountains. The fact that it’s not from any sort of peak or rocky ledge is another plus. It’s probably the most unique viewpoint in the region, looking out into the Pemigewasset Valley as far as the Bonds and Twins ranges.

Walking across Nancy Pond.

Walking across Nancy Pond.

I had arrived at Norcross Pond pretty early, so I decided to spice things up by bushwhacking to the ledges on Mount Anderson, which were less than a mile from the shores of the pond. Since I could see the ledges from both Nancy and Norcross Ponds, if I could make it to the ledges, I would probably have an unparalleled view of the ponds and Mount Nancy. Unfortunately, after a little less than an hour of getting tangled in spruce traps and densely packed evergreens, I realized I had better things to do, and turned back. The mountains won this time, but I’ll be back another day!

Walking across Norcross Pond. I tried to bushwhack to those ledges on Mt Anderson, but the trees won.

Walking across Norcross Pond. I tried to bushwhack to those ledges on Mt Anderson, but the trees won.

The trip down was a slog, as the spring heat had softened the snow all the way to the bottom of the hike. I postholed every few steps, even with my snowshoes, and the steep slopes above Nancy Cascades became treacherous slides. I ended up on my butt for much of the descent, and then falling on my face several times once on the gentler grades. I was finished hiking by 2 PM, worn out from trudging through the heavy, wet slush. I can’t imagine how much worse the snow would be if I’d been there later in the day.

The outlet of Norcross Pond has one of the best views of the Bonds/Twins Range and most of the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

The outlet of Norcross Pond has one of the best views of the Bonds/Twins Range and most of the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

Other trails that are more packed out from heavy traffic might still be accessible for a few more days, but with the heat wave already melting out much of the White Mountains region, I think this might be it for me until the snow is entirely gone. For the rest of this month, it may be time to set my sights further south where the ground is almost dry.

I recently supported a crowd-funding campaign by Carrot Quinn, a fellow Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador who was raising funds for a second Pacific Crest Trail through-hike. This is the second time I’ve ever supported a crowd-funding campaign (the first was to support the Continental Divide Trail Coalition), and probably the only time I will ever contribute cold, hard cash to a through-hike attempt. Why, why, and why?

If you give a hiker a hamburger...

If you give a hiker a hamburger…

Why I Don’t Do Crowd-Funding
The simplest answer is I’m not a gambling man. I can’t afford to spend money now on things I may never see. Aside from health and auto insurance, and membership to trail-maintenance organizations that maintain my favorite trails, I can’t justify spending money on anything that doesn’t give me instant gratification. Maybe that will change someday, but if it does, I would still only give my money where I know I’m not throwing it away.

Why I Supported Carrot
Carrot has proven herself capable of not only hiking the PCT, but also of writing beautifully. The crowd-funding campaign was essentially a pre-order for her already-written-but-yet-to-be-published book, so really, I just pre-ordered her book. She has already produced possibly the best blog ever written about hiking the entire PCT, which proves to me that she has the discipline and chops to keep on writing.

You may remember a slew of disastrous Kickstarter campaigns over the past few years by people planning giant expeditions with little or no prior experience. Lack of experience, and over-ambitious plans are usually easy to spot. There is no shortage of similar campaigns to fund Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail through-hikes in order to film documentaries and write travel memoirs. Take one look at the past experience in either hiking or film-making/writing that most of these people display, and you’ll come up blank 99% of the time.

Why I Probably Won’t Support Other Crowd-Funded Through-Hikes
The answer to this one is simple numbers. Few people try to crowd-fund their hikes, and the percentage of those who really deserve to have someone else pay for their adventure is miniscule. And who deserves to have others pay for their hike? People who have proven they can produce something worth paying for, usually by producing it, or another similar product, before the hike even starts. A good book, for instance. Or many good books. Take Chris Townsend’s Cairngorms In Winter project a few years back. Chris was already very well-known through his writing and travels, so his backers for the Kickstarter campaign knew what they were getting into. Lo and behold, the project succeeded, and produced a professional, finished product. People were paying for the film, not for Chris and Terry to just hang out in Scotland for a few months, and they knew it was a project worth supporting because both had done plenty of other work to show their abilities in the past.

My advice to people who want money for a through-hike is to work hard, save your pennies before the hike, and be thrifty on the trail. Build a reputation before you ask strangers for money, and have a unique reason to ask for funding.

Last year, I ranted about food being left on the trail for through-hikers. Now, I’d like to open up a discussion about a different kind of Trail Magic– hiker feeds.

Hikers loading up on burgers and snacks.

The 2013 Bigelow Hiker Feed

If you’re on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and North Carolina in March or April, there’s a good chance at any road crossing that you’ll run into a group with grills, pavilion tents, tables, chairs, and enough food to feed an army. Many of these groups stake out the same location on the trail year after year, making a car-camping vacation out of it.

I took part in one such feed in northern Maine last year, and I must admit it was a great time. You get to share the joy of strangers helping strangers, live vicariously through the hikers who stop by, and do a good deed. It opens up opportunities to help out others in more tangible ways, too, like when I gave a hiker a ride twenty miles back to where he’d forgotten his tent that morning. Best of all, when the event was over, we cleaned up and left with no trace of our passing– no trash, no cooler left on the roadside, just high spirits of all who passed.

But there are some problems with these hiker feeds.

My primary concern is FREQUENCY. In 2010, on one 80-mile section of the AT in Georgia and North Carolina, I passed no fewer than 7 hiker feeds. It seemed like every road I crossed was home to a full buffet. And it was great– at first. Then I started to think about only three years earlier, when I’d gone through the entire AT and only encountered one such feed. That one feed seemed like such a special occasion, something magical. The seven in 2010 just seemed like forced parties.

What does it mean to through-hike a long-distance trail? To many people, this is the biggest accomplishment in their lives, the most adventurous of adventures. But how much of an adventure is it when one can rely on a constant supply of free food, taking a huge part of the planning and preparation out of the hike? At what point does a through-hike go from unsupported to supported?

One of the most important impacts my 2007 through-hike had on my life was a reaffirmation in the goodness of humanity. People seemed nicer and more helpful during the hike. A lot of that was because of the proverbial random acts of kindness practiced by complete strangers. More hiker feeds means more random acts of kindness, right? The problem, though, is that the acts of kindness are not the least bit random. A random stranger sharing a bucket of fried chicken with you without planning is a rare and special experience. Seven institutionalized buffets between Springer and Bly Gap are not.

There are other issues that raise my concern about hiker feeds, like the motivation for putting them on, or the clean-up afterwards, but I’ll leave it at that for now. I’m not totally against hiker feeds quite like I am against unattended coolers– there are undeniable upsides to this kind of trail magic, when done right. But I’d love to hear from some of you about your experiences and what you think.