To Guthook or Not to Guthook

I’ve always used Daniel Chazin’s Data Book. My friend chose this guidebook when we started the AT in 2012. When I returned to finish my hike this year, I didn’t think twice and ordered the 2018 Appalachian Trail Data Book.

This time, I’m organizing drop boxes. As I began to consider logistics and timing of my town visits I realized I wanted more information on towns while I hiked. So, I bought AWOL’s guide and tore out town pages to include in my drop boxes. For the first six weeks of my hike I was content. I had my Data Book, which was always strapped at the top of my pack for easy access. I kept a log of my hike by marking camp spots and dates. When I was close to town, I pulled out AWOL’s pages and called hotels for reservations and planned my zero days.

The Newest AT Guide: Guthook

A lot has changed on the trail since my first thru-hike attempt six years ago. Guthook is one of them. Guthook is an app that provides a GPS-capable map and trail guide for your phone. In addition to the AT you can purchase maps for trails all over the U.S. and some international trails.

The app allows you to see the trail in various ways: map, elevation profile, or list. All three of these views have a GPS capability that allows you to see exactly where you are on the trail. The app calculates this location in relation to points both ahead and behind you. A friend of mine introduced me to Guthook weeks before I left for my hike. At the time I thought it was probably a battery drain on a phone and a bit excessive of a guide for my hike.

It wasn’t long before I began occasionally asking other hikers with the app if we had passed a campsite, or if they had additional water sources listed. It was when I went home for a few days that I started thinking about Guthook. I was planning my Virginia to Pennsylvania drop box schedule and noticed some sections in Virginia that had fewer water sources than previous sections. The thought popped into my head that Guthook would make it easier to plan water during this section, and the idea stuck. A couple days later I purchased the app.

My Personal Experience with the App

I got back on the trail at Pearisburg, Va. Guthook is great so far. I’m able to find campsites up on the ridge, how many tent sites are at each, and any comments from previous hikers. Planning for water is easier during the 13-mile section with no water sources between Rice Field Shelter and Pine Swamp Branch.

Day two back on the trail is cloudy and everyone is talking about rain. I find myself looking primarily at the elevation map on Guthook. I anticipate every climb, hoping that I will get to the next shelter and miss the rain. The rain never comes. I link up with friends and we hike on together in the sunshine.

At this point I am checking Guthook frequently.  I used to know my pace almost down to the minute. In previous weeks I would have known within a 15-minute window when I would arrive at the shelter. Now I can barely remain present. During the last two miles mountain laurel bushes veil any view of the shelter and I compulsively check the app.

Day four of my Guthook addiction includes Dragon’s Tooth and Tinker Cliffs. The elevation doesn’t look too bad and no one has warned me about the hiking ahead. It’s an incredibly hot day and I end up running out of water two miles from a hostel. Nothing prepared me for the descent from Dragon’s Tooth. Not even Guthook. The trail is rocky and technical beyond anything I have experienced so far on the trail.

It was the end of a 16-mile day, and my mental state was crumbling. I dreaded every climb. When I’m not looking at my phone I see the the Guthook screen in my mind: kelly green profile against a royal blue sky. I wonder where I was on the climb. Usually, I check not long after I had the thought.

Mental Reassessment

The day ended with me cursing the trail all the way down to the road, and I was in tears for most of that descent. I knew that getting back on the trail after a break at home would be difficult for a lot of reasons, but I seriously reassessed my outlook at the end of that day.

I realized that staring at the elevation profile before each climb only discouraged me and underscored my tired legs and sore feet. My mental stamina had slowly worn down after days of anticipating climbs or steep descents. I had missed views, and even quite literally missed a campsite because I was looking for it on my phone. I turned around and there it was, a small clearing on a ridge. I had failed to see it because my eyes were glued to the 0.1 mile-mark-to-campsite and the bobbing blue sphere marking my current location.

How I Choose to Use Guthook

I still use the app. I’m a huge fan. I’ve asked other hikers and they have their favorite aspects but most tend to agree that having the elevation profile handy had potential to negatively affect your hike. One hiker likes the hostel reviews and town information, while another values the water source information. I’ve decided that while I am actively hiking, I will only allow myself to look at the trail in the list format. I can see how far I’ve come, where the next water source is, and how much farther I have to go before I camp. It’s a high-tech version of my Data Book use that I truly enjoy. I’ve just had to manage my use for my hike. Each hiker has their own preference and must determine the best way to navigate the trail. My only advice is to find a guide that allows you to be on the trail, at that moment and not miss something you’ll regret.

When I was home I told friends and family that the trail is the greatest exercise in being present. I attempted to describe how in-the-moment you have to be in order to wake up and hike every day. Each step is only a step but they all add up to the almost unfathomable goal each thru-hiker holds. Descending Dragon’s Tooth, I found myself faced with moments when I did not want to be on the trail any longer. The ultimate testament to the trail experience is this: even when I recoiled at steep rock faces and yelled in frustration at yet another pile of boulders to climb over, when I hated the trail and slung expletives into the air, I still had to take another step.

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Comments 8

  • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Jun 4th

    I think you’ve got a good take on Guthook. It is incredibly useful, to be sure, but I really like the idea of using it in list mode while hiking.

    Thanks for sorting that through for me!

    ~Pony (CT’15; AT’16)

  • Dave M : Jun 6th

    I found Guthook to be very useful on my 340 mile section hike this spring. I actually preferred knowing what what ahead of me in terms of climbs. It helped me set small goals during the day. I made sure I wasn’t looking at it all day, but at the start of the day I could see what I had in store for the day. Like everything else, what works for one hiker may not work for others.

  • Fran : Jun 8th

    I feel I was blessed to be able to hike over half the AT in my 40’s to late 60’s without any technological aides. Not even a cell phone! I loved having the Data Book, and though I had maps I never obsessed over the elevations. If they came, I climbed. I set a reasonable goal each day, learned to go easy on the downs, respect the trail, and be flexible. I was out to enjoy my hiking experience, and though I was sore, tired, and often wet, I remember clearly each state I passed through. If using technology interferes with enjoyment of the experience, it’s time to make an adjustment. The quest for “miles” can also interfere with enjoyment of the experience. I am now 80 years old, and look back on the miles I hiked as an accomplishment, and an enjoyable wonder in my life.

    • Alan : Jun 18th

      Thank you for that insight. I hike the PCT next year at the age of 64 and have done allot of thinking about technology on my hike.
      You gave great insight
      For 50 years I have only ever used map and compass. Ask my kids how many time they thought we were lost……. The mail and compass were correct every time. Not that’s GPS is bitty accurate but there is something about turning that map, studying event elevation line and landmark, pointing the compass and funding your way home.
      I’m taking the phone on the PCT but…….
      my camera, the views , and the pen and paper journal will still get most of my time.

      • Alan : Jun 18th

        Sorry everyone for the poor spelling in my previous reply. Technology

  • TBR : Sep 26th

    I’ve not hiked with Guthook. I’ve always used map and compass, (the compass didn’t get used all that often on AT but on other trails, plenty). I usually had the ATC guide when on the AT, and it showed trail profiles.

    It was hard not to get obsessed with those.

    I remember a notch in New Hampshire. Elevation profile looked killer! And it was, I guess, but I just went slow and got to the top. That was when I learned to “turn off” the profiles. As Fran said above, if the trail went up, I just kept walking. Steeper climb, slower walk. I always got there.

    I understand the appeal of Guthook, but I think I’ll stay in the paper realm.

  • Christopher Klemetson : Jan 4th

    Yeah, I remember the climb down after Dragons Tooth as it was slow going. I used Guthook and downloaded Awol. I would keep my phone off till I wanted to see how much further it was to the shelter or a water source. Enjoyed your story, Inspector Gadget


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