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Guthook's Guide, A Blessing and a Curse

Oh, whew where do we even start? Well let's start with, be prepared for some very heavily biased and opinion based reviewing. We warned you upfront, there are many opinions out there, and ours is just but one of thousands of voices. Are we screaming ourselves hoarse into an echoless void of opinions....possibly. Are we still going to add our voice into this canyon of noise, well sure.

This is the App Icon for Guthooks, so much power in such a little square? Circle? Squarcicle?

After the preamble, for those who do not know what Guthooks is, here is a little backstory. Around the year of 2016, (the year we first started thru-hiking) smartphones were becoming more of a norm in the backcountry. The technology continued to surpass our wildest imaginations, and along with this technology came real-time GPS location. Hikers that had found their way along a trail system by paper maps, compass, and dead-reckoning, started to become the minority. They were still out there, but an App by the name of Guthooks, began to increase in popularity. This app would show you exactly where you were in relation to the trail system you were on whenever you wished. You could click location services, and see the exact distance to a new waypoint, such as a shelter, water source, or top of a climb in seconds. It would tell you if you were .1 miles away or 10 miles away. People's heads at break spots or along trail became more engrossed in their phones.


We already had a little bit of emphasized bias in that paragraph, huh? Well, to be more clear and concise about what Guthooks is, simply it is an app on your phone that lets you pinpoint your location and measure distance to the next waypoint in the map system. It will also tell you elevation change, whether you are going to be going steeply up hill, steeply down, or on the rare occurrence, flat. It told you where the next campsite was, where the next water was, where the next town was in mileage and detail. The detail came from previous hikers being able to leave comments on the waypoint to tell you what to expect ahead. Would the water source be a trickle or a raging stream, would the shelter be filled with creepy and crawly critters, and if you brought milk to drink on top of a climb, was it the right decision or wrong decision? We can answer that, hot milk on a hot day on a steep climb, is ALWAYS a mistake!


Do not let the milk reduce you to tears, avoid this being your future on top of a mountain. DO NOT PACK OUT MILK ON A HOT DAY!

Guthooks sounds great does it not? Well do not let us dissuade you, it is great. We even believe it is a great tool, in a limited capacity. Our first hike of the AT, we did not use Guthooks but instead the AWOL physical guidebook. It would tell you where water was, what the elevation was in front of you, where town was, everything that Guthooks does, but with one giant difference. You could not check your current location. We are extremely lucky and happy to have had this experience for our first hike. It took us into the trail more, checking our landscape and our surroundings, and just letting our feet take us to the next location, whenever that was. Instead of becoming lost in our phone, we became lost within the experience of the trail.


We have used Guthooks. We have used Guthooks quite a lot in fact. We will even continue to use Guthooks when it is available. This is not what this post is about, completely disregarding a tool that can make the experience better, but about utilizing the tool in a capacity where it provides instead of takes away. We have used Guthooks on the PCT, CDT, PNT, IAT, AZT and most recently the GDT. So, yes we have used it on many trail systems, and it has been beneficial. Yet, we have started to lean away from using it as frequently and as much as when we first discovered it. Why if it makes hiking smoother and easier? Alright sit down, here we go!


On our personal journey with this App, it began out that we absolutely loved the fact that we could check our location and see the exact distance to the next "goal" in our minds. We could read hikers comments in front of us on what to expect. Yet, these two selling points of this app began to shape our hikes. The frequency with how often we checked the app, even when knowing for a fact we were on trail, just to see how much further something was began to put us on a treadmill of pure miles. This treadmill while important to cover physically each day, is not a fun mental treadmill. It would have us questioning why our pace dropped for only a 5 minute interval, being discouraged at a huge climb that we would have to do regardless and how steep it was, and generally pulling us into a world of what ifs instead of the world of steps on trail.


Let us take this apart one benefit and consequence at a time. We will start with the location services. A HUGE benefit for any hiker. It lets you confidently navigate tricky trail junctions, check to make sure you are on the correct trail, and know how far you are to your next resupply. This in an amazing feature. Yet, what happens in the backcountry when the phone goes dead? What happens if you lose your phone? You have come to rely on a instant map in your palm, instead of knowing where you are within the wilderness. This is generally not a smart idea. Yes, we have been guilty of this as well. As we continue to push further into the backcountry on trails that are lesser known, this is a must. Nowadays you could completely hike a long distance trail with this technology without ever knowing how to read any semblance of a map. This is amazing, but also scary. Granted the skills will come to you the more time that you spend in the backcountry, and if this app is needed to get there, awesome, but remember to also develop the skills for if and when you need a back-up plan.

You may find yourself lost in Canada before you know it! Pay attention to the land around you!

The second consequence of the location services, is a mile obsessed mind. Yes, once again we are guilty of this. You know what, any consequence we say from this app, just know we have been guilty as well. If used to much this can pull you away from the history of the land you are travelling through. Without having to orient yourself to the land around you, and instead relying on a GPS on your phone, there can be times you walk through an entire wilderness area without even knowing the name. Your mind can become so obsessed with miles that it pulls you away from being in the place you are, instead reaching for that little waypoint on a map. Before you know it your trail name is Miles and you became lost in Canada. (To anyone who actually has the trail name Miles out there, that is actually a cool name, we are a little jealous....)


The next big point of this app is the comments. The fact that other hikers can leave comments on water sources, campsites, and trail junctions is hugely beneficial. It has saved us many a time, especially with the knowledge of there might be a confusing junction ahead, be careful. Or the fact that the water is flowing 1 Cheerio worth an hour. Yea, sometimes hikers leave weird comments that while factual, require some mental arithmetic to figure out. What this comment meant in essence was, barely a trickle. That is also part of the fun, because you get to laugh at what was going through a fellow hikers mind, when they were there, and see which sections of trail made others just as crazy as you. A LOT of weird comments on the Great Basin water in Wyoming, I think the desert fried many a brain cell.


See what I meant, practical knowledge and a chuckle all at the same time. PICTURE FROM A WATER SOURCE IN THE BASIN.

So the comment section is filled with fun, laughs and knowledge, what could be bad about that? Honestly, nothing is "bad" about this part of the app. The bad part comes when you rely on this information and comment section when planning your day and your miles. For the most part if someone leaves a comment a day ahead of you on trail, you can pretty much guarantee the conditions will be the same, excluding torrential downpour, storms, or a stampede of cattle. Sometimes though there are comments that are a year old. DO NOT rely on these comments! Even if the comments say flowing well, extremely good water source, a lot can change in a year. You may be going through during the dry season, there may have been a washout that changed the flow of the tributary, the stampede of cattle could have came back and wrecked some havoc. Use common sense when looking ahead and prepare for the worst case scenario, especially in notoriously dry sections, because all jokes aside it can be the difference between life and death with dehydration.


That is what this all boils down to, balance. This app is extremely useful, but we have seen it abused with frequency and people relying solely on it for information. We have also noticed it take away a lot of interaction throughout the years between hikers around camp. Yes...........we have been guilty of this too. We have seen hikers at camp, get sucked into their phones and become enveloped by the app instead of enjoying the moment in which they are in. This app is a tool to be used, and like a tool should be only implemented when it is required. The use of it to check what you already know, whether that is a climb or a change in half a mile worth of distance, distracts a hiker from trail. That could also be the allure? Distraction and tricking the mind sometimes with a half mile difference has pushed us that much harder many a night into camp. Was that what was needed at the moment? We thought so, and it was a pleasant shift in the mind, but it still dictated our feelings instead of the other way around.


It is a love/hate relationship. During this past hiking season of 2020, almost all the trails we did, excluding the GDT (well include this anyway, because 99% of the time was route finding) were done without Guthooks. This is what really opened our eyes to this distinction. We found ourselves missing the first few days being able to check how many more feet elevation we had to go or how much further until the next waypoint. That is what scared us the most. Even having the mental realization beforehand of how much Guthook has crept into the daily hiking mind and being cognizant to not abuse it, still feeling that withdraw. Yet, after those first few days of detox from Guthooks we found a freedom we had been missing. Knowing the day was going to unfold with whatever it had in store for us was liberating. We read TOPO (topographical lines) lines on the map to estimate our elevation gain/loss, used the world around us to estimate what the next water source would hold (flooding levels on the GDT, so yea always water without a question...) and finished our day when we were done, not when an icon on a map told us we reached the end.

A relic, an antique, that piece of paper should be in a museum! What even is it??? All those squiggly lines make me dizzy.... This is a MAP from the before times found at an archeological dig up in the Washington Mountains. I wish we could understand the language from this lost civilization...imagine the stories they could tell!

We would go on to do the Natchez Trace Trail, Vancouver Island Trail, and Sea-to-Sky Trail all without Guthooks this year. It could not have been more freeing. We found that we were embraced by the trail more. We could tell you the name of the mountain that was 5 miles to our left, we could tell you the name of the river that cut across our path, we could tell you the name of the wilderness in which we found ourselves. Not to say that Guthooks takes away these senses completely, but without it, we were fully immersed in the experience. We had time to talk to each other and wonder about the origin of the name of each valley, the formation of the land from the movement of Earth millions and millions of years ago to make such giant mountains, and feel ourselves as part of the wild, not just a visitor. Miles dropped by the wayside in our minds, no longer were we guilty if not reaching a specific icon. We simply hiked until we couldn't hike anymore that day. Or we simply hiked until a beautiful spot, not double guessing ourselves if the next spot was even better, but finding joy and relief in being happy with where we were, not where we could be. We began to get a sense for the land, a feeling that was as much visual from the land itself as internal. A sense of direction that would tell us even if there was no visual trail, that in fact the "trail" went this way. Yes, mistakes and wrong turns were made because of this, but we had no icon to reach, so we simply laughed and occasionally our bodies grumbled at us for subjecting them to more miles, but overall we just enjoyed the experience. We enjoyed being untethered and free.


The takeaway from our opinion on Guthooks, should you use it or not? Definitely, use it if you wish, it is an amazing resource. Just recognize it for what it is in fact, a basic resource and tool. Do not purely rely on this to navigate, while 99% of the time that could be okay, the 1% of the time it fails or malfunctions could lead to some trouble. Also, utilize it as a tool. Do not get sucked into the constant checking and double checking with all that power right at your fingertips. Become part of the trail not part of your phone. As for the comments, leave some fun comments to let the hiker behind you know the trials and tribulations you went through to get to a specific waypoint. Let them know you fought a grizzly with one-hand tied behind your back for that dirt M&M found on the ground, let them know that the Cheerios are flowing at-least 100 a minute, let them know in fact milk was a TERRIBLE choice on a climb. But, also be aware to rely on your sense of the current weather and current climate around you, and make the judgment call on all the information available to your senses, not just the comment in the app. Pick your head up, look around, familiarize yourself with the upcoming section by name not by miles and icons, and enjoy your hike it's beautiful out there!


Sincerely,

ElevenSkys