It occasionally worries me that I seem to spend as much time planning an outdoors trip as I do actually carrying out the adventure. After all, it’s not like my mostly modest trips present the kind of logistical challenges inherent with something like scaling Mount Everest.
I think sometimes I relish the planning process because I’ve figured out that sketching a backpacking route on a map while sitting at the dining room table is a lot easier than actually sweating through those miles. (Plus it hardly ever rains in my dining room.)
But, I have to admit, the real reason may be that I love a gear item that is an integral part of figuring out my trips: a guidebook. I swear by it even if it appears I’m bucking the trend.
You know about guidebooks, right? They’re those pieces of paper glued together and bound in a cover that give you all the intimate details about your destination. You can buy them at Barnes & Noble.
Wait … you haven’t heard of Barnes & Noble either?
OK, maybe I’m exaggerating, at least a bit. In Minnesota, plenty of hikers still use the “Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail,” and the new “Guide to the North Country Scenic Trail” recently sold out its first printing. But I encounter more and more outdoorspeople who look at me strangely when I tell them I find printed guidebooks to be an essential part of my trip planning and execution. They might use one of Guthook’s smartphone trail guides, or something similar, but a printed book? Not likely.
Jo Swanson, the volunteer coordinator for the Superior Hiking Trail Association, is a fellow guidebook user. Her observation: “Maybe I’m at a cultural/generational divide, but those younger than me — I’m 31 — seem to be fine relying on technology, and those older are often pretty firmly rooted in paper.”
Without being too specific, I am just a few years older than Swanson, and I do have shelves in my house crammed with paper guidebooks, of all kinds, in all shapes and sizes. Some are how-to volumes, which may not technically be guidebooks in that they don’t show me how to get from Point A to Point B, but they have helped teach me the skills to do so. Others are devoted to places I’ll probably never actually visit, yet they can take me there without ever requiring I leave the house.
For those places I do visit, I find a guidebook is invaluable.
For example, even after numerous backpacking trips to Isle Royale in Lake Superior, I wouldn’t think of mapping out a route there without consulting my well-worn copy of Jim DeFresne’s guidebook, “Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails and Water Routes.” It tells me what to expect with every footstep, to me a critical planning tool when trying to take into account my own skill level and preferences, as well as the varying skill levels of those who will be hiking with me.
So why wouldn’t someone not avail themselves of such a resource?
The answer does concern technology, but maybe not in the way Swanson referenced. I don’t think the use of guidebooks has declined because of global positioning system units or mapping apps (both of which I use on every one of my trips). Instead, I believe it’s largely the result of crowdsourcing — that thoroughly modern method of asking advice from strangers on the internet.
First with online forums and message boards, and now with social media (especially Facebook), legions of outdoorspeople have become what guidebooks used to be.
Obviously, there are some advantages to getting information on a destination in real time: “Can I get some feedback regarding the mosquitoes?” a post in a hiking trail Facebook group recently asked. Good question. But the queries are more apt to be like this one: “I’m looking for hiking options of five miles or less, moderate terrain is just fine, interested in water, scenery, plant life, wildlife.”
That is a question any good guidebook can answer. But for many people it’s simply more convenient to log in to Facebook than to buy a guidebook and study it.
Beyond convenience, though, what many people who post in social media groups want is what they find missing at times from guidebooks — someone to tell them what is best, whether it is a campsite, trail section or waterway.
They ask, I suspect, because they don’t want to risk wasting valuable time on a mediocre experience. But 10 people will give them 10 different answers, each with their own unique definition of what the best is. That’s why good guidebooks refrain from qualitative discussions. They require us to actually get out there to decide for ourselves what we think the standard is — which is different for everyone. That is what outdoors exploring is all about.
Grain of salt
Finally, while the quality of the knowledge available via crowdsourcing is often impressive (and we should be thankful so many people are willing to share it), that’s not always the case. For example, an individual in one Facebook group recently described how he saw six wolves during a just-completed trip to Isle Royale; the issue is it’s common knowledge there are only two or three wolves left on the entire island. I don’t know what’s behind the discrepancy, but it makes me wonder if I should be making critical decisions on my trip based on what that person might tell me. The rub, of course, is that it’s not always possible to tell who’s in the know and who might just think they are.
Granted, guidebooks are not infallible either, but I’m willing to trust that a book’s publisher gave some consideration to the author’s credentials before allowing him or her to put pen to paper. And I can be reasonably sure that the writer has adequate experience exploring the location of which they’ve written.
In the end, though, the great thing about the outdoor experience is that we all hike our own hike. However you get information to help you enjoy the outdoors, do it in the way that suits you best. Maybe I’m just trying to fend off the new world order. Whatever the case may be, I’m happy for the time being clinging to my old trusty tomes.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.