The Hiker’s Handbook: Research

In just about every hiking guide I’ve written, I’ve used the phrase “nothing in life guarantees success as much as good planning.” I can attest, as I’ve had more than my fair share of fails arising from poor planning. There’s the time I arrived at Yosemite in the middle of a snowstorm with nothing to wear but pajama bottoms and a t-shirt. And then there’s the time where I had a friend of mine drive all over Borrego Valley to find where I left my food for a backpacking trip when it was in my friend’s backseat the entire time. 

I’ve learned the hard way so that, hopefully, you don’t have to. Because of how important preparation and planning are, this section will be the most extensive in this series, and for good reason. The vast majority of mishaps that occur on the trail are the direct result of poor planning. Furthermore, good planning and preparation ensures that whatever adventure you take will be a success. The ability to plan and prepare leaves you with a sense that you’re ready for just about anything the trail can throw at you.

And it all begins with. . . . 

Research

Why do I begin with research? Well, it’s an essential skill that you can use to obtain information on just about everything related to a hike you want to take. Researching also includes being able to tell reliable information from unreliable information. Unreliable information can create unforeseen issues with your planning – and by extension, your hike.

One of the first things I learned about researching is how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources. When it comes to hiking, there’s a hierarchy of reliable sources that you can follow, starting from official sources and ending with social media. The second most important thing I learned about researching is that it often takes time and effort to get the best information. A lot of people fail in research because they are impatient or accustomed to convenience. The quality of the information you use for your planning is often directly proportionate to the amount of effort you put into obtaining it. 

Official agency websites 

(Example: Yosemite National Park’s official website)

Although official agency websites aren’t always easy to use, any information that you find comes straight from the managing agency itself, and it therefore carries a certain authenticity and authority. That information will have been thoroughly vetted and reviewed to ensure that everything is as accurate as possible and therefore worthy of the label “official.” Some websites, especially the National Park websites, contain a ton of information on road conditions, trail conditions, history, natural history, rules, regulations, campgrounds, hours of operation, and an array of miscellaneous details that often come in useful in planning and learning. Furthermore, agency websites are frequently updated to ensure that changes in conditions are accounted for. 

Navigating some of these websites can require a lot of persistence and may lead to frustration, which is their primary flaw. However, these websites are also easy to find. Simply type in the name of the place you wish to visit (make it as specific as possible), and one of the first websites that comes up will likely be the official website. You can usually tell by the .gov extension, as most land management agencies are operated by some branch of the federal, state, regional, or municipal government.

Park Officials 

(Example: Rangers, Administrators, Public Relations Liasons, etc)

Many times, park officials know as much as or more than what’s presented on the websites. They can also provide information much more immediately than a website that you have to navigate extensively. They can offer suggestions on where to hike, and they are almost always happy to direct.

The flaw with park officials is that many of them are specialized in what they do, and not everyone knows the answers to all questions, even if the answers they do have are good. Sometimes, you may get bounced around from person to person until you’re able to find the information that you want. Every once in a blue moon, a park official may actually be ill-informed on trail conditions, but that’s usually because not every park official gets the chance to witness conditions first hand. 

Finding a park official isn’t always easy. To find one, you need to know what agency they work for. Then, you need to find where that agency might have a ranger station, visitor center, or administrative office. Google can help you find phone numbers and addresses, and from that point you just have to wait for a person to be ready to answer your questions.

Print Publications

Examples: Afoot and Afield San Diego County, Day Hiking Los Angeles

One of the rules of thumb for publishing a book is that you cannot put anything in it that you didn’t already verify. Unverified information in a book can tarnish reputations for the author, publisher, and even the subject it covers. Therefore, a tremendous amount of work goes into writing, researching, and publishing a book. Authors research primary and secondary sources, conduct field operations to gather information, and distill it all into a (hopefully) readable text that conveys the essential information.

But it doesn’t stop there. Once the author writes a manuscript, a copyeditor and a fact-checker will scour the book for errors. The errors get corrected, and then the book goes through multiple revisions to make sure that everything is as accurate as possible before it’s committed to print. 

The downside of books is that they need constant updates since things are always changing in the outdoors. One famous example is the 4th edition of Afoot and Afield San Diego County. That volume came out in April of 2007. Six months later, the Poomacha and Witch Fires burned a massive section of the county, changing trail conditions across hundreds of miles of trail. 

Some people also find reading books time consuming and inconvenient. I can empathize with that, and I understand why the internet and apps are so appealing. However, convenience brings with it some issues of its own, which I’ll get into very shortly.

Websites & Blogs

Examples: Modern Hiker, Socalhiker, Andrewskurka.com, iNaturalist

There are hundreds of websites and blogs dedicated to trail descriptions and outdoor information, and they achieve a varying degree of quality and reliability. Given that anybody can start a blog and say whatever they want, it requires a bit of work and sifting to figure out which websites to trust. Some websites have been around forever in terms of internet time (Modern Hiker, Socalhiker), and over time those websites have achieved a high degree of reliability. Furthermore, websites often have more updated information than books since web developers can make regular adjustments rather than waiting for the next publication cycle. 

Aside from the obvious issues about a lack of uniform standards for websites, another issue is that many blogs and websites are experiential, meaning that the content focuses on the experiences of the person writing it. That makes much of the information subjective, even if there’s often a mix of information gathered from official sources or direct trail observations. 

An easy way to determine whether a website is reliable is to do a bit of research on who is writing it. For example, Modern Hiker has not one, but four published guide authors, and all four of those authors have contributed to multiple print publications and know how to gather reliable information. Andrew Skurka has cultivated a fantastic reputation as an outdoorsman providing reliable information. iNaturalist receives contributions from scientists and well-informed non-scientists. Conversely, if a website has less than 50 posts on it, and all of those posts are about personal adventures, it may not be reliable as a source of information. 

Crowd-sourced applications

Examples: Alltrails, iNaturalist (to an extent)

Crowd-sourced applications are apps you can download on mobile devices that provide information on trails. They often provide maps, GPS tracking, basic information, user reviews, and location-based search functions. They are convenient, often free, easy to use, and they reveal a lot of the same trails as print hiking guides.

However, much of the information on these applications is crowd-sourced, which means there’s no way of verifying whether that information is reliable. Somebody like Jeff Hester from Socalhiker might be providing information on AllTrails, in which case you know it’s trustworthy. But at the same time, some random person who pays no attention to rules and regulations might also provide information, which would not be trustworthy. 

Furthermore, the mapping features are almost always based on OpenStreetMap, which allows people to add trail information derived from GPS data in the same way that anybody can add information to a Wikipedia page. There are people checking that information, but nobody (except perhaps a hiking guide author or a land manager) can provide entirely clear information on whether a trail is legal or illegal, safe or unsafe, or even open to the public. 

For an example of how this can cause a problem, the Hidden Divide Natural Preserve in Mt. San Jacinto National Park used to feature a trail leading to Hidden Divide Lake. However, the park closed that trail due to overuse and habitat damage problems at a very sensitive area. People still saw that trail depicted on Gaia and Alltrails, so they continued to hike it without realizing (or even ignoring) the trail closure. This led the State Parks to propose a very unpopular rule that met a ton of public resistance that would close off-trail areas within natural preserves to hiker traffic as a means of enforcing the rule. In other words, bad information can cause us to lose trails. 

Additionally, following an illegal trail can lead to injuries, getting lost, or trespassing. Crowd-sourced applications either fail to recognize these issues or take a very long time to address them. 

Social media

Examples: Facebook, Instagram

And finally, there’s social media. You can go onto any platform and ask anybody for recommendations on trails. You can also search hiking destinations by geotagging, a process by which people add GPS coordinates to their shared photos.

Chances are, you’ll get a ton of great information recommended by experienced hikers. And chances are, you’ll get a lot of questionable recommendations from people who either don’t know or don’t care about the rules. Social media inspires people to find great new places, and it also leads to overuse, trespassing, and injuries. Social media is also the easiest and most convenient way to get information, as you basically can get other people to tell you what you want to know. 

At its best, social media can connect you with knowledgeable people who can direct you to reliable sources or even teach you how to find the information yourself. At its worst, social media can perpetuate a lot of unhelpful, dangerous, or damaging practices and attitudes that underline some of the biggest problems in outdoor use. It’s a mixed bag that can point you in the right directions at times as often as it points you in the wrong direction.

With those research tips now in your head, we’ll begin to move on to figuring out what you need to bring on a hike in our next installment. Thanks for reading!

4 Replies to “The Hiker’s Handbook: Research”

  1. Some great guidance here on doing your homework before heading out! I know for my research for my peak bagging, I tend to follow a similar pattern before I set out. Since I am currently focused on a particular kind of hiking, I can turn to a more focused collection of resources (peakbagger.com). Since it is also an open data platform, it took time to find other “peak-baggers” that I felt confident in their shared data. You point that out as well in your post. I would go further and look at if that trip report was from a 20-something who runs marathons or a 50-something who is trying to get back in shape.

    Do you plan to touch on the responsibility for regular hikers who share their data (routes, photos, trip reports) to the broader community? I do share my efforts (on my blog, on peakbagger.com, and SM), but I would like to think I am doing it right and not leading future hikers wrong.

  2. I am glad you didn’t list my site as a resource. It’s always supposed to have been for inspiration, rather than a guide. And I haven’t even hiked 100 peaks in San Diego yet. 🙂 One of my favorite sources of info is https://www.parkinfo.org/. It is another data point when it comes to public vs private lands.

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