Despite the Abundance of Trail Apps, Guidebooks are Holding Their Own

Backpacking Routes (Nov 8, 2021) by Hugh Owen

Smartphone trail apps have become ubiquitous on hiking trails, providing real-time information about water sources, fire closures, hostels and shuttles to them.

Their explosive growth raises a question: Are printed guidebooks on the way out?

Not so fast, says Matthew J. Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association.

“We have found that the guidebook is a popular resource for those planning a thru-hike. It’s more of a research, planning and inspiration tool in advance of boots hitting the ground. But only a small percentage lug the heavy resource on the trail.”

At the Appalachian Mountain Club in the Northeast, which sells a wide array of hiking and travel guidebooks, sales remain strong.

“We are not seeing any decrease in demand for printed products, and many safety specialists continue to encourage people to use hard-copy materials in the backcountry,” says Abigail Cole, AMC’s senior production manager in the club’s books department.

But the AMC isn’t brushing off the digital age.

“Most of our guidebooks (day hikes and paddling guides) are available as e-books,” Abigail says. “Starting in 2022, we plan to produce e-books of our trail guides as well, but these digital versions will not include maps—we’ll be establishing a system where buyers of the e-book will receive a coupon code off the purchase of the hard-copy maps. This is both for safety concerns—liability of devices failing in the backcountry—and technical reasons—e-books limit the file size of images, and our large paper maps just don’t work in that format.”

Printed guidebooks and maps have their downside. They can be heavy and bulky in the backcountry, and updates require buying the book or maps again. Guidebooks such as the AMC’s White Mountain Guide (the bible of New Hampshire backcountry hiking) is in its 30th edition and costs $24.95.

Where a trail app like FarOut (formerly Guthook Guides) shines is its ability to provide real-time information, the kind of information that in the past hikers picked up from other hikers. Hikers can comment on an app whether a water source is dry, leave a review of a hostel in a trail town, and give advice on where to camp.

“The app has all the updated information that’s missing from the printed guidebook—recent reroutes, detours around fire closures, water sources, resupply locations, and so much more,” Matthew says. “Around 15% of thru-hikers carry the printed topo map set—mostly those who don’t want to rely on a smartphone for navigation. The maps are full color, double-sided, and have all the details important to thru-hikers. Since there are 130 of them for the 800-mile trail, most folks mail sections ahead to resupply locations.”

Becky Booroojian, an Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker, uses guidebooks and phone apps, although she she relies more on the apps.

She carries a Kindle and downloads trail guidebooks, books on flora and fauna, and trail memoirs to name a few.

“In terms of planning, I guess I would say I use the apps but truthfully I also plan very little these days beyond getting the appropriate permits and figuring out transportation to my starting point—both pieces of information I usually find on the Internet,” Becky says. “The guidebooks in my Kindle are pretty much a backup plan in case my phone dies in some way. The apps are just far more user-friendly when trying to check info while on the move.”

Rebecca “Socked-In” Sperry, who hikes throughout the White Mountains of New Hampshire, takes a different approach. She carries a paper map, but also takes a picture of it on her phone to refer to while hiking. She also takes photos of guidebook pages for trails that might not be well-marked.

“I believe that using a paper map and reading my surroundings instead of relying on an app for navigation has helped me to become much better at navigating in the wilderness,” Rebecca says. “I can usually read the signs of where a trail is and isn’t pretty well because I don’t allow myself to look down at an app with a line to verify where I’m going. On that note, I do have a GPS watch (a Garmin Felix 6) that shows me where the trails are located 90% of the time when I’m hiking and I can use this as a fail-safe to make sure that I’m on trail if I am not 100% sure where I’m going.”

“However, I see all technology as unreliable and don’t ever go out into the woods assuming that I will have access to it.”

So where does this leave long-distance trail organizations like the Arizona Trail Association? Is it considering a digital trail guide?

“Not at this time,” Matthew says, “but we plan to publish an updated guide after we finish a few major reroutes we are currently working on.”

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