App News

Partial Data for the middle states. That will change.

Partial Data for the middle states. That will change.

This summer is going to be a busy one, starting in just a few weeks. At the top of my priority list for the year has been to finish mapping the Appalachian Trail from Damascus, VA to Delaware Water Gap, PA. That’s about 900 miles of trail, which is currently included in the AT Hiker app in a less complete form than the rest of the trail sections.

The reason those sections aren’t mapped as completely as others is because I never expected the apps to be as well-received as they have been, so when I initially released the apps last summer, I had only mapped the first 450 miles of the AT at that point. By the end of the summer, I’d added about 850 miles of trail from Delaware Water Gap to Katahdin, but those middle states had to be rushed out with old trail data gathered from Forest Service and USGS data.

From May 13 through the end of June, I’ll be hiking the AT as fast as I can to update the trail data for those middle states, and then I’ll try to get that data into the apps as quickly as possible. But it’s going to be tight. I’ll also be working for NOLS through all of July and much of August, which means I won’t be able to spend much time working on the computer after the AT hike.

For those of you who are using the Virginia and Pennsylvania sections of the apps now, I can’t promise that the updates will arrive in the apps before September, but I’ll try to be as efficient as possible with my data collection so that I can transfer it over to the apps quickly. Last year, transferring 350 miles of trail data from GPS and trail notes into the app took about two weeks. This time it will be 900 miles, and I’ll have three or four days. Luckily, I’ve made some progress in efficiency since last year, so maybe I’ll be a little speedier. I’ll let you know how it goes.

CDT_Splash2048x1496

I’ve been saying for a while that there’s no way we’ll ever make a Continental Divide Trail app, but it’s time to eat my words. It’s here, and it’s great.

The main reason I always figured we wouldn’t make a CDT app is because of the immense amount of effort required to map the trail, compared to the low number of hikers who hike the trail, and therefore purchase the apps. So far, the huge effort for mapping the AT and PCT has only begun to pay off after a few years, and those two trails account for the vast majority of long-distance hikers in the US.

But it turns out the CDT was already mapped out– we just needed to find the right people to work with. So I’m proud to announce that Guthook Hikes LLC and High Sierra Attitude LLC are now partnering with Bear Creek Survey LLC to produce the Continental Divide Trail Hiker app. Bear Creek has been publishing a beautiful set of maps for the CDT since around 2011, so we’re extremely happy to be working with such a wonderful company.

As of today, the New Mexico and Colorado are available for purchase, with Wyoming and Montana/Idaho nearly ready to be released before the end of next month. Check them out in the App Store and the Play Store!

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!

In May, I’ll join fellow Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Joe Jacaruso for a speedy hike of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. I had planned on hiking the 600 miles of the state in order to bring the mid-states data set in my AT Hiker app up to par with the northern and southern states, but when I learned that Joe was also planning to hike through Virginia, we decided to join forces.

My last trip to Virginia-- A younger, hairier me on McAfee Knob.

My last trip to Virginia– A younger, hairier me on McAfee Knob.

Joe has thirty days to hike, which means an average of twenty miles per day from the get go. I’ve never quite accomplished that pace in an early-season hike, even on the flatter grades of the Pacific Crest. But we might as well add some more insanity to the plan. Since I like to add side trails into my app data sets, I’ve found approximately 100 extra miles of side trails for us to hike as well, bringing the average up to 24 miles per day for thirty days.

To add to the discomfort, we’ll be starting with a visit to the Trail Days Festival in Damascus. I’m no fan of big crowds, and Trail Days is the epitome of big crowds in the hiking world. It’s going to be an interesting start to the trip.

But I wouldn’t do any of this if I wasn’t really excited about it. The challenge of hiking as hard as I can for a month or more (I’ll actually continue through Pennsylvania if all goes according to plan) and dealing with the huge crowds on the trail may be uncomfortable and in some ways unpleasant, but those are the kinds of challenges that make life interesting. Not to mention the gorgeous Virginia mountains. I think it’s going to be an exciting hike.