Trails for everyone, forever
Washington Trails Association has a long history of turning out technology to help hikers and advocate for public land stewardship on shoestring budgets. The newest feature on wta.org — a personalized hike suggestion system — is designed to do the same. By Loren Drummond
With the June 2021 release of a personalized hike suggestion feature on wta.org, discovering trails you enjoy just got a lot easier. In 1966, finding any good, up-to-date trail information was much trickier.
It can be hard to imagine just how hard would-be hikers had to dig to find basic trail information, much less any details about trail conditions or other threats to trails.
The late guidebook author, hiker and mountaineer Louise Marshall founded WTA as Signpost, a grassroots newsletter where trail lovers in the Northwest could share their backcountry adventures and trail conditions. She turned out the first two-and-a half page issue on a spirit duplicator, a fussy but inexpensive printing technology.
Thanks to Louise’s leadership, those early magazines created in a little red barn evolved into Washington Trails Association, a wide community of hikers speaking out for trails and wildlands.
Stepping into the yawning gaps of need has been a driving force for all of Washington Trail Association’s work. We’ve grown slowly over the years, expanding our programs to fill the needs of our community and public lands: from our largest-in-the-nation trail maintenance program to founding one of the first gear libraries and outdoor leadership programs in the country.
That same spirit underpins our approach to technology.
As a nonprofit organization, everything we do — including how we leverage technology — is in service of our mission to help hikers and the lands we love. Our website, social media channels, our mobile app, our newsletters — we’ve created and curated them to reduce barriers for all hikers who want to explore trails and to ethically share information in a way that better stewards those places.
Decades before trail information became a multi-million dollar industry, WTA volunteer and Microsoft employee Bill Sunderland volunteered his time to help launch wta.org, and bring local trail information and trip reports online in 1995. Since then, hikers and land managers have used trip reports to help each other get out and also take better care of our public lands.
It’s not hard to find (or pay for) trail information these days. With the national recreation economy booming, and interest in hiking on the rise, there is plenty of money to be made in developing apps and maps for hikers eager to explore. What is harder to find is good trail information, the kind of reliable recommendations and tips you get from a close friend who wants you to enjoy yourself, takes care of trails and has rangers around the state on speed-dial.
What if you don’t have a hiker-friend on speed dial or didn’t grow up in Washington or in a hiking family? We wondered: How could we help hikers learn about all that Washington has to offer? How could we help hikers learn to go beyond the generic top-ten lists passed around on social media, and create their own personal hiking wish lists? Short of talking with every hiker in Washington, could we build a tool that helps individual hikers begin to discover and research how much depth our trail system has to offer?
In 2012, WTA launched My Backpack to help hikers keep track of hikes they wanted to do and hikes they’ve done. After your first few hikes (or even after your first 20 hikes), it can be overwhelming to choose from the thousands of options in Washington. And hiking tastes and needs change as hikers start planning hikes for friends and family.
Five years ago, Jade Tabony, a data scientist, was spending a lot of time trying to find different hikes that she could use as training hikes for mountaineering, so she “wasn't just doing Mount Si and Mailbox over and over again.” As the capstone project for a data science workshop, she built a prototype hike recommender to do that work for her. Little did she know, just a few miles away, WTA staff and a small group of technology-minded volunteers and researchers were gathered around a table trying to figure out how to create something similar. That group hoped to create a tool that educated hikers and encouraged a deeper understanding of Washington’s full trail system, and that helped people while lessening the impacts of the growing demands on the trail system.
It took another hiker, data scientist and trails advocate, Aaron Lichtner, to connect his friend Jade with WTA staff during a Hiker Rally Day in Olympia. Those early conversations launched the effort that resulted in the latest feature for hikers who have a My Backpack account on wta.org: a system that suggests hikes they might like.
The simplicity of the suggestion feature belies the work and thought that has gone into it, from Jade’s very first model all the way up to the careful considerations our staff has put into making suggestions that will be good for all kinds of hikers and trails.
“We worked with the developers to establish systems to ensure our recommendations will be as responsible as possible, both in terms of meeting hikers needs and protecting trails,” said Anna Roth, WTA’s hiking content manager, whose deep knowledge of Washington’s trail system made her a critical member of the team. “Almost everyone on the team hikes and understood why we took so much time and care to get it right."
Unlike a company who might have dozens of software developers working full time, WTA has a small technology budget and no full time developers on staff. We’re careful to invest every donated dollar of that budget into software development work that furthers our mission. And just like those early print runs of Signpost, the first trip reports to go online and our volunteer-developed mobile app, Trailblazer, we relied on the spirit of stewardship to help fill in the gaps for our digital strategy.
Everyone experiences trails differently, and the new tool captures that nuance. It uses hikers’ trip reports and the hiking lists saved in their My Backpack to make suggestions that are the kind of information you might find if you chatted with a knowledgeable friend. That leads to better hiking experiences, and ultimately, better outcomes for trails, too.
Can technology be good for trails and public lands?
It’s a complicated question and everyone has an opinion. Here’s ours: in the last few decades, Washington Trails Association has approached digital technology in the same way we greeted the arrival of better water filtration systems, lighter materials or even the age-old Pulaski. If used in service of the mission, with respect for the people who share their data, photos and stories with us, information and technology are simply tools.
On social media and in trip reports, we work hard to create spaces that feel more welcoming than most of us have come to expect from shared spaces on the internet. From photo choice to the trail descriptions in our hiking guide, we know we have a responsibility to portray more diverse representations of our hiking community, to model good stewardship, and to encourage hikers to speak up for trail funding or to protect a unique landscape.
We know we have the power to shame people for bad behavior or ignorance (something we’re not into) or inspire people to learn and steward lands (something we’re all about). We may not always succeed, but the mission drives the intent, and we always strive to do better.
During the pandemic, we quickly adapted those technologies to meet the moment. We shared alerts and trip reports on our Hiking Guide and Trailblazer mobile app. We helped hikers know what was open and educated website visitors about the best known practices about hiking during the pandemic. We put in extra hours getting maps and hiker education materials in the hands of folks exploring trails for the first time.
Those extra human hours matter when it comes to developing technology that works in service of public lands and the hiking community. The people — real hikers who spend their days in Washington’s backcountry — behind the technology are what sets our trail information apart. We infuse our hiking guide and the systems behind it (from search displays to featured content) with an intention to help hikers move more lightly on the land.
So, when we set out to tackle a new project or make changes in the Hiking Guide or My Backpack, we’re always looking to center our mission. When we agreed to partner with University of Washington researchers and United State Forest Service land managers to incorporate our archives of anonymized trip report data into their modeling, we knew that the outcome of that work could have real, positive impacts on creating a more sustainable trail system for decades to come. The result: when a hiker files a trip report on WTA, they are helping hikers and land managers working to protect public lands.
WTA has never had millions (or even hundreds of thousands) of dollars to work with when it comes to building technology. We’ve got smart staff and volunteers, hikers who know and care deeply about public lands. We’ve got a mile-long list of technology projects and ways we know we can do better. So we make choices. We heap gratitude on our incredible technology volunteers. We appreciate our members who support this mission-driven approach to inspiring people and protecting trails. And we try to make every dollar count towards fixing something worthwhile.
And that something is making trails for everyone, forever.
Feedback welcome! Once you've had a chance to use the tool (or any of our tools) please share your feedback with us. As a nonprofit working with limited resources, your ideas and input are incredibly helpful when we make our decisions on what to update or develop.