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  • Aria Zoner

A New Era in Long-Distance Trails

With new technology comes new possibilities, and with new abilities - new dangers. What are the new dangers in this new era of long-distance trails and how can you keep yourself safe from them? Find out here as I unpack 8 Author Insights into the New Era. I also share my 3 step process for increasing the chances of success on any long-distance trail, regardless of what era it was created in.

It’s been nearly 9 years to the day since I first began designing my own long-distance hiking route, long before I had a Facebook or Instagram account. Now-a-days it seems like everyone has a new trail idea. But for me, publishing and pitching my trails to become National Scenic Trails is not about getting social media likes and follows, it’s about sharing what has brought me so much joy and happiness. It’s also about giving back to future generations of hikers, so that they will have something new and exciting to explore. But above all, it’s about speaking my truth and vision and putting the idea out there.


A New Era in Long-Distance Trails


When Episode #37 of The Trail Show Podcast was released, there were only a handful of long-distance trail guides, published by dedicated organizations. Classic trails like the triple crown trails, Colorado, and Arizona Trail had paper guidebooks for hikers to use during the journey. Around this time however, newer trails were beginning to be published by lone wolfs, trails that could be followed essentially guidebook free; using GPS devices, Google Earth, and data written in PDFs.

With this newfound ability to design trail guides, from the desktop, came a new set of concerns for the users of these trails who attempt them. Here's what I'd look out for if I were just starting out, and still do today as a trail explorer.



Creating trails...

You may be surprised to learn that both the Hot Springs & Siskiyou Peaks Trail were created without the use of GPS or Google Earth. In fact, I didn’t even hear about Google Earth until after I had already designed them.

My trails may be the last long-distance trails to be created in the old era style, as they were designed exclusively using the traditional method: Boots on the ground, with compass and paper maps in hand.

In the new era, you no longer need a compass or paper maps, just a device with batteries and a memory card.


IN THE OLD ERA: The danger was losing or ruining your maps and data.

IN THE NEW ERA: The danger is running out of battery life or not having enough data.



A new outlook on trails...

Please realize that while my routes, or any route for that matter, may be possible for its author to complete, it may not be possible for you to complete. On the same token, just because a trail hasn't been completed (as a thru-hike) by its author or anyone else, doesn't mean that you can't be the first person to come along and do it, or be the first to do it in some new kind of way. Example: Trauma & Pepper's winter thru-hike of the PCT.

Authoring a trail is really, issuing a challenge.



Sizing up trails...

How can you get a sense of a trail and whether or not it's a good fit for you?

By getting a sense of the trail’s creator.


A. Did they play it safe, authoring their guide from the easy chair based on an idea and online beta?


B. Were they out there, authoring the guide from the perspective of their own experiences on the trail?

This can equate to a trail being relatively safe or risky.

If a trail or route's creator has completed it themselves (or others have), then the risk is going to be lower for you, and higher for the author who potentially had to brave the unknown. However, if a trail’s creator has routed something for the sake of making it look good on paper, or if there’s not a track record of others who have already done it, then it’s going to be riskier for you, as you'll be the one facing the unknown.

Today we're at the crossroads of:

I’ve done something and I’m publishing about it.


I’ve got an idea about doing something and I’m publishing about it.

When it comes to navigating the new era in long-distance trails, intuition is your best guide.



Publishing trails...

Is hiking the trail a prerequisite to publishing it?

I would like to think so, but author H. G. Wells, who wrote War of the Worlds, didn’t wait for a real-life alien invasion to happen before publishing his idea, did he? And it was a smash hit!

While anyone can post or yell into their phone “Hey, there’s a new trail out there!” whether or not there really is, is an entirely different matter.

This is important to understand because in this new era of long-distance trails and trail creators, it’s no longer about the trail being the spitting image of the PCT: groomed, graded, and guarded heavily by generous trail angels. It’s about the trail having a unique character, different kinds of tread, and varying degrees of risk.

Trails in the new era are designed to deliver everything from a wide-ranging experience to a very specific, themed adventure.



The character of a trail...

Whenever I’m considering hiking a trail, I always look at its character.

First, I'll rate the trail like a ski area would a ski run. Is it a green run? Or a black diamond? Personally, I like a trail that has a mix of both.

I also ask: Is this a civilized trail with lots of road access, resupply options, and other people hiking it? Or is it a wild, unmaintained, and uninhabited trail that will take me off the beaten path? Again, when it comes to traveling long distances, I like a trail that has a bit of both.

The longer and wilder a trail is, the more skill, endurance, and time it will take to complete.



Approaching trails in the New Era...

The success or failure of a journey on a long-distance trail has less to do with the condition of the trail and amount of beta you have on it, and more to do with your own trail skills, level of fitness, and sensitivities.

Therefore, when I plan for a hike, it’s not by:

  • Reading trail journals

  • Watching videos

  • Rewriting the Guidebook

In other words, building up expectations that can be shattered, leaving me feeling lost.

It’s by:

  • Working out

  • Optimizing my nutrition

  • Developing trail skills

In other words, building up strengths and abilities that will help me face whatever happens while I'm on the trail, thus increasing the likelihood of success on any trail.



Choosing a trail...

With so many trails to choose from now-a-days, where does one start? I think there are two ways to go about this:

Option 1: Follow the herd

Begin by following a well-traveled trail like the PCT, or one that has an official guidebook that has been published by a traditional publisher. If all goes well, take the next step by testing the waters with an off-the-beaten-path adventure written by a boots-on-the-ground author, like Mitch & Mike or yours truly. Once you’re comfortable with your survival and human-powered traveling skills, attempt to do one of the new digitally published routes, like the ones that Brett Tucker’s been putting out in the wake of his own adventures.

With your navigation and trail skills dialed from time spent on these other more developed trails, you’ll be ready to go out and explore on your own; but more importantly, you’ll now have an eye for getting across a challenging or at times risky landscape, instead of just being out there winging it. Having this land-reading skill could be the difference between life and death should you ever lose your guidebook/maps or the ability to access your digital device.

Option 2: Blaze your own trail

Go hiking. Go camping. Explore! See what happens. Are you a natural at this? If so, go for it, follow someone else’s trail. Or, if you have an original idea, step up and try creating your own route regardless of how many thru-hikes you’ve done. In fact, I had created and completed (in real life) hundreds of what I called Ultimate Itineraries; which were nothing more than 3 to 7-day backpacking trips that if taken far enough, could each be seen as their own mini-thru-hike. In doing this practice for so many years, by the time I hit the PCT for my first thru-hike, it was just another day in the park.



Trails in the New Era...

In the new era of long-distance trails, it’s no longer about the trail being 2,000 miles in length for it to be valid. It can be anywhere from 1 mile to 10,000 or more.

When sizing up a trail for my own hiking vacations, I don’t just look at the characteristics of the trail, I also look at how long it will take me to complete it. Sometimes I just want an adventure that can be done in a weekend, but at other times (ok all the time!) I want something that requires me to be out there for the whole summer.

Thankfully, in the new era we have trails for every occasion, and now, for almost every kind of character and disposition too – from retirement trails, to mid-life crises trails, to ones where you learn how to crawl for the first time.

In Summary:

The way I see it, the GETs and HSTs of today are like the JMTs and CDTs of tomorrow. And the new ideas that are just beginning to form in people’s heads now based off of these adventures, will be like their grandchildren.

What's your take on the new era in long-distance trails?

Comment below and thanks for sharing…



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