One of my hiking companions from the Pacific Crest Trail maintains a website about the PCT and writes a through-hiker’s guidebook called Pocket PCT. As he and I hiked together through Northern California and Washington, we discussed the future of trail guidebooks quite a bit. We live in interesting times (bang! cliche!), but one effect of the digital age that many people overlook is its impact on trail guidebooks.
When I worked at the Green Mountain Club, one of my coworkers and I often joked about the wordiness of the Long Trail Guide. Here’s an excerpt of that guide, about an area where I camped for two months while working on a trail crew:
“Descend from the junction to reach Willis Ross Clearing and the junction with the Lye Brook Trail at the southeast shoreline of Stratton Pond (7.0 mi.). The foundation stones of Willis Ross Camp, which burned in 1972, are visible at the east end of the clearing. To the south of the clearing, the Lye Brook Trail follows the south shore of the pond to piped Bigelow Spring (unreliable in drought), and continues west 2.4 mi. to Bourn Pond and ultimately 9.7 mi to Manchester.” (Long Trail Guide, 2007 edition, p 71).
This is all good information, but not something I would take with me while hiking. The Green Mountain Club recognizes that not all hikers want to bring a guide that describes every turn and every nuance of the trail, so they publish a standalone map that is much simpler than the guidebook, but tells you everything you really need to know for hiking the Long Trail. They also have a small End-To-Ender’s guidebook that packs in useful information about towns as well as a mileage list for much of the trail.
The Appalachian Trail is quite similar. The official guidebooks go on at length with tons of information that might take days to read through and absorb, but the maps work well enough on their own. Several independent groups and authors have written guidebooks geared toward long-distance hikers, like The AT Guide and The Thru Hiker’s Handbook, that are basically small and space-conscious books with mileage charts and town guides packed into a tiny package. The idea is that long-distance hikers only want a certain amount of information, and nothing extraneous.
I’ve discussed the guidebook options for the PCT already, but the convention is the same, as with most guidebooks for other hiking trails. Some guidebooks are wordy and lengthy, with huge amounts of information, and some are condensed with just enough information to let you discover the area yourself. Some of the longer guidebooks have great benefits. The Cohos Trail guidebook is as much a storybook as a trail guide, well worth reading even if you never plan on hiking the trail.
The Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountains Guide
has plenty of bits about the history of the White Mountains, which I think is pretty interesting, especially since there are many relics of the region’s past as a logging center that can be found on or near the trails.
But for me, and for many other hikers, the guidebooks like the Long Trail Guide, the Cohos Trail guide, and the White Mountains Guide are something that sit at home while more compact maps accompany us to the trails.
Some guidebooks, for lack of sales, have simply gone out of print. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference’s Long Path guide
is now available for free on their website, which I think is a great idea. The Long Path Guide has no detailed maps, but does have a good trail description and mileage list. Maps for major portions of the Long Path in Harriman State Park, the Shawangunks, and the Catskills can be purchased separately if you want maps. And the NYNJTC makes some very nice maps (printed on Tyvek, which is fully waterproof and damn near indestructible when used as a map).
Another nice development is the use of smart phones as trail guides. A new company called Trail Map Magic
now sells a set of fifteen apps in the iTunes app store, each one providing the functionality of a trail guidebook in the compact package of an iPhone. The app also has the added benefit of being able to integrate with the iPhone’s GPS and tell you exactly where on the trail you are. I’ve never used it, and the reviews on the app store are mixed, but I imagine the bugs will get worked out in time.
I’ve got a nostalgic streak, so I like having the physical guidebooks around, but I don’t often bring them with me on the trail. What I take with me is generally just a map and a mileage sheet. If I’m doing a multi-week trip, I’ll take some pages from the relevant guide that describe the towns I might go into, but soon even this will be replaced by an iPhone since Google and Yelp provide a plethora of town information. When I want to read about the region I can pick up some books about the history of the White Mountains, or Coos County, or the Green Mountains of Vermont, or so on.
I’ll be keeping my eye on the digital developments in the hiking trail information world. I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.