“How much farther to the summit?” is a question I hear often from other hikers when I’m out on the trail. It’s a fair question to ask your fellow travelers when your legs are tired and your mind isn’t sure if it can take another uphill step.
And now, there’s an app for that.
Until recently, paper maps and guidebooks were the only source of information for hikers on distances or the location of campsites and shelters, water sources, and landmarks along the trail such as mountain summits or lakes. Nothing beats a paper map and compass — and the skills to use them, of course, when navigating in remote terrain, like Vermont’s Long Trail. But digital maps have become all the rage with hikers who use a smartphone or tablet to access information on the trail. The most convenient feature is real-time GPS tracking so hikers know just how much farther it is to the top of the mountain or their campsite.
New this summer, the Green Mountain Club’s complete map of the Long Trail is now available as a digital map that can be used on your smartphone or tablet. It can be purchased and downloaded from the GMC’s website and used within the free Avenza Maps app, which can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play, meaning it’s available for both iPhones and Androids. The map includes up-to-date information about shelter and trail locations, mileages, and suggested day hikes.
You don’t need a network connection to use this map in the backcountry, which is good news for hikers in Vermont, where cell phone service can be spotty. The map is georeferenced, allowing the GPS on your mobile device to pinpoint your location on the map as you go. Users of the digital map can see their exact coordinates at any time, record GPS tracks, mark places of interest, and plot geotagged photos on the maps, so that the image is connected to the location it was taken.
Many hikers are planning to use the digital map this summer. “We will be using it for a our short four-day trek this year in addition to the GMC paper maps we’ve always brought,” says Andrew Pollak-Bruce. He plans to keep his phone charged with a portable charger he bought on Amazon that holds enough juice for four to six phone charges.
“I don’t think [the digital maps] will be that different than the paper map experience, but I’m hoping the real benefit will be knowing where we are, relative to the elevation profiles.”
Some digital maps, like Guthook Guides, also have a social component, although the GMC’s Long Trail digital map does not have this feature. David Perez, a frequent long-distance hiker from New Jersey who hiked the Long Trail end-to-end last October, used Guthook’s digital map of the Long Trail, which he finds preferable to the GMC’s map for several reasons.
“Where Guthook really shines,” he says, “is the crowd-source trail condition reports and notes.” This feature allows anyone using the app to see and post info pertaining to water sources, shelters, resupply locations, and more. In this way, the hiking community can take care of each other with a heads up about upcoming trail conditions.
“It was a lifesaver on the trail when I thru-hiked last year,” continued Perez. “We had a dry summer and many water sources were unreliable. With the app I could see where other hikers had success obtaining water. The crowd notes also helped me avoid a shelter with a leaky roof and find a great meal in [a nearby] town.”
It’s important to note that the GMC, experienced hikers, and members of search-and-rescue teams all recommend not relying solely on digital maps for navigating in remote terrain.
So many search-and-rescue stories include, “and then my cellphone died,” explains Eric Avery, an experienced hiker based in Gansevoort, New York and a volunteer with a search-and-rescue team. He frequently hikes the high peaks in the Adirondacks and Catskills, and has completed several long-distance hikes. He does use digital maps, and plans to use the digital map produced by Guthook Guides on his own end-to-end Long Trail hike in September. “But I’m still carrying the paper map and compass, just in case,” he says.
The GMC says its digital Long Trail map combined with the Long Trail Guide and The Long Trail End-to-Ender’s Guide provide the most comprehensive resource to plan your hike on the Long Trail.
“While digital maps and their extensive features are an exciting bonus tool that help to make the backcountry more accessible,” said GMC Operations and Publications Coordinator Matt Krebs, “it is GMC’s recommendation to always carry a paper map and compass while hiking as well. Mobile devices break and batteries die, and it’s important to stay found while recreating in the backcountry.”
There are also guidelines for using mobile devices in the backcountry, since many are on the trail to escape reminders of modern society. There is an electronics-use guidance policy that is part of national Leave No Trace guidelines, and is included in the Long Trail Guidebook. Basically, the recommendation is to carry and use devices out of sight and sound of other people, and keep them turned off or left in a pocket on the silent or vibrate setting.
For day- and long-distance-hikers, the GMC has also produced digital maps for specific areas in Vermont, in addition to the digital map of the Long Trail. Visit the Green Mountain Club webstore to see the complete catalog of digital maps, also including Mount Mansfield and the Worcester Range, Camel’s Hump and the Monroe Skyline, Killington Area with Ascutney & Okemo, and Manchester Area with Stratton & Bromley. Proceeds from purchasing any digital map from GMC benefit the work of the GMC to maintain and protect Vermont’s hiking trails.