Exactly 583.28 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, along the Pacific Crest Trail, you will come upon Golden Oak Spring. Just shy of a mile later, the trail crosses a power line near a wind farm. A half-mile farther, a man named Lon Cooper, a retired information-technology professional with an enormous amount of energy, stood thinking that the spot would make a nice place to camp.
He noted his location and added “campsite” after “power line near wind farm” and “Golden Oak spring” to his list of points of interest he’d found along the trail. By the time Cooper reached the end of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, he had a list of over 3,000 water sources, campsites, power lines, cross trails, towns, gates across the trail, wind farms and historical points of interest.
He turned the data he’d collected into a GPS application for navigating the trail, and offered it as a free download for a smartphone. Hikers who use the so-called Halfmile app can now know exactly where they are on the Pacific Crest Trail, or how far away from the trail they are if they have wandered off it.
This sort of hyper-detailed, micro-documenting of the trails of the West — the Arizona Trail and the Colorado Trail have similar apps, for example — is a new trend in backcountry exploration. But before downloading these guides, consider whether you really want or need to know all the precise details that these wilderness apps offer.
To many thru-hikers, Lon Cooper is a hero and his Halfmile app a godsend. “He led me by the hand. I’m not sure how people ever were able to carefully plan their hikes without his app,” said 2015 thru-hiker Mike McCune. A little handholding reduces the stress of a thru-hike, which can require intense, 20-plus-mile days. There’s the loneliness of walking for hours by yourself, and the fear that you won’t find a campsite before dark. There’s the dread of having to search for water in dry stretches that can last dozens of miles.
The Halfmile app takes away many of these stressors. With it, you know exactly how far you are from water or a place to rest for the night. And you know that when you get to that water or campsite, you will no longer be lonely: Thru-hikers tend to congregate at Halfmile waypoints. As you lie in your sleeping bag at that campsite the next morning, rendered immobile by the painful knowledge that you have to hike a third 25-mile-day in a row, you can use the Halfmile app to break your day into tiny goals. Hiking waypoint to waypoint is much less stressful than hiking 25 miles.
The Halfmile app can work like a sort of wilderness daily planner: 10 a.m. — break at mile 48.72; noon — lunch at picnic area; 6 p.m. — reach campsite in boulder field.
But while this might be useful for managing the rigor of a thru-hike, it is not necessarily something you need or want for a weekend trip into the backcountry. If you’ve trapped yourself in a schedule and are grinding head-down up a switchback to keep to it, you aren’t leaving much room for the moments of serendipity that make us fall in love with the wilderness: A campsite timed to the sunset instead of to the mile marker, even an unplanned stop to climb a tree to feel the wind during a storm. It was John Muir — a man who traversed the California Sierra Nevadas, following his whims rather than planning — who famously climbed a tree during a storm. Perhaps no human has fallen as deeply in love with wild places as he did.
It wasn’t until my husband, Roger Wolff, had 1,000 miles of thru-hiking behind him that he was comfortable enough to stop double-checking the Halfmile app on his trek in 2013. It was no coincidence that the highlights of his trip all came in the second half. There was the 24 hours he kept up with a man who was trying to set the speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail. There were the two brothers he stopped to chat with about mountain bluebirds, who turned out to be in-laws he’d never met. And then there was the Fourth of July family celebration a local he met on the trail asked him to join.
So, choose your own adventure and then choose your own navigational aids. Yesterday’s map and compass might well be enough: You need only take what you really need to keep you on the path to serendipity.