It was monsoon season in the Sierra. I woke up earlier than normal, hoping to reach Glen Pass—a barren divot located nearly 12,000’ above sea level—before the day’s inevitable storms began. Blue skies quickly gave way to clouds, then drizzle; so much for luck. I topped out at 9am, just as the storm sprang alive directly overhead. As I hurriedly saved my GPS track and snapped a few photos, I felt my skin prickle, then leapt at a one-two punch thunder crack and lightning flash, which tagged the high point to my left. And then I ran.
The storm lashed the surrounding peaks as I clattered down the slick granite switchbacks, stopping for breath only when I fell (which happened more than I care to admit) and once I reached decent tree cover. I’d descended past the worst of the storm, but my relief was short-lived—in my haste, I’d forgotten to reset my GPS unit before heading downhill, a major annoyance since I was in the midst of fieldwork for a Pacific Crest Trail guidebook and needed to record extremely accurate GPS tracks to create elevation profiles and maps. I’d have to hike the section again—or trace the damn track by hand on the computer once I got home. Defeated, I scarfed some cheese as a consolation prize and just kept walking.
Welcome to the glamorous world of guidebook authoring, which is one part hiking, two parts research, three parts writing, and ten parts yelling at your computer when it spits out completely different numbers every single time you upload a GPS track. There might also be some crying involved, and perhaps a dash of bloodshed, but I can’t say for sure. (Yes, I can.)
Okay, and there’s occasional fun to be had. But don’t just take my word on it—you can also take the word of the nine other writers I surveyed, who’ve collectively penned twenty-three books between them. Here’s a peek into the super sexy lifestyle of guidebook authors.
“IT MUST BE NICE GETTING PAID TO HIKE!”
Each time this phrase is uttered aloud, a guidebook author earns five whole cents in royalties. (So please, keep saying this.) I once joked to a friend that this is the perfect line of work if you’re hoping to make tens and tens of dollars, and this checks out; when asked if he made a living as a guidebook author, Semi-Rad’s Brendan Leonard responded, “Holy fuck no—my guidebook makes me literally hundreds of dollars per year.” Which is honestly better than I’m doing, so kudos to you, buddy.
“As any author will tell you (aside from, like, John Grisham), you do it for the love of writing and the love of the topic, but certainly not for the love of money,” says Heather Balogh Rochfort, author of Women Who Hike and Backpacking 101. Rochfort illustrates the rare exception of guidebook authors whose sole income is writing-related (if not specifically book-related). So, how do folks keep the lights on, then?
Well, Liz Thomas runs the gear-lovers’ paradise Treeline Review, Scott Turner is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Jennifer Pharr Davis is a public speaker and owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company, Philip Kramer typically slings a camera instead of words (and serves as a landlord and restaurateur to boot), Modern Hiker’s Casey Schreiner serves as scribe for TV and live media events, Jenna Blough works part-time for a commercial photographer, and Eli Boschetto—well, in his words: “I’m fortunate that my very supportive wife has a good, well-paying job.” (Okay, he’s also a freelance editor.)
NEITHER SNOW NOR RAIN NOR HEAT…KEEP US OFF TRAIL
“It makes it really hard to report on everything accurately (and get compelling photos) if you’re soaked, cold, and everything is slowly getting buried in lots of snow,” says Kramer, author of Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Northern California. It also makes it hard to report if you forget proper gear—Turner once drove seven hours to Yosemite National Park, arriving during a snowstorm only to realize he’d forgotten to pack any clothes other than the pajama bottoms and T-shirt he was wearing. Whoops.
Heat can be just as difficult to navigate. Schreiner completed fieldwork for Day Hiking Los Angeles during SoCal’s sweltering summer months, and carried upwards of ten pounds of water on each outing across a landscape squeezed dry from multi-year drought. Think that’s bad? During his recon for Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Oregon, Boschetto sat atop Devils Peak in Oregon’s Sky Lakes Wilderness as five different wildfires surrounded him with a veritable ring of—well, you know. He managed to evade the flames, but had to continue slogging toward his deadline while contending with subsequent trail closures.
And sometimes the conditions are less weather-related than they are terrain-related. While on a scouting trip with her sister for Moon Death Valley National Park, Blough spent a memorable forty-eight hours—including her birthday—managing a series of small disasters. There were closed campgrounds, a canyon entrance obscured by flooding, and a hundred miles of rocky washboard dirt road that obliterated her 1997 Toyota 4Runner. “Everything that could rattle off the vehicle did,” she says. “The air conditioning vents had disappeared into the front console, the fog lights were swinging by their wiring from the front bumper, and the trunk gate had jammed, making it impossible to open. The bouncing also broke all of our plastic drinking water, soaking the back carpet and resulting in a funky mildew smell.”
But that wasn’t even the worst of it. “Packing up the next day, my sister was stretching the gear net over the roof rack when it slipped and hit her right above the eye,” says Blough. “We spent the last hours of our sister trip at an urgent care in Pahrump, Nevada.”
YOUR LIFE BELONGS TO YOUR BOOK
“Almost immediately after I signed my book contract, my wife and I found out she was pregnant,” says Kramer. “Becoming a father and authoring my first book was sort of like having two babies at once.”
Guidebook writing can become an all-consuming task. Not only do you have to hike, climb, or paddle whatever you’re writing about, but you also have to complete research, gather GPS data, prepare map scrap for cartographers (this was my personal hell), take or acquire photographs, collect model releases, navigate land managers, track ever-shifting map boundaries, and deal with the occasional government shut down.
Your personal relationships suffer, your free time withers to nonexistent, and you stretch the limits of sleep deprivation in order to make it all work. While in Hawaii with her family, including her then-infant daughter, Rochfort had finally wrangled an interview with a source who lived on the east coast. “In the end, she could only talk when our daughter was sleeping, but I didn’t have anywhere quiet to go since we were renting a tiny studio,” she says. “I finally shut myself inside the bathtub in the bathroom and did the interview in there.”
WAIT—THERE’S GOOD STUFF, TOO!
For all of the times we’ve spent questioning our choices in life, we guidebook authors know we’re a lucky bunch. Turner viewed a missile test from the solitude of an incredibly remote peak one memorable evening. Leonard got to spend a summer climbing with his buddy and Classic Front Range Trad Climbs co-author Lee Smith (who also got to duck away from his jet mechanic duties for a bit and utilize his journalism degree). While on the PCT, I met a woman who has since become one of my best friends; after temporarily losing her during an extended bathroom break one day, we reunited just in time to watch a deer give birth in the aptly named Deer Meadow.
It’s the stuff dirt-crusted, sweat-soaked memories are made of. “I visited a typically dry-ish waterfall a few days after a big storm and the river fords were downright scary. I was really starting to doubt whether this was a good idea. I was hungry, tired, and not really wanting to do this hike or even write guidebooks anymore,” says Thomas. “But after I turned the corner and saw the waterfall, it was so impressive I almost sat down and cried. The blue sky, mountains and clouds in the background, and the roaring water are something I’ll never forget (and knowing that dry waterfall, probably never see again).”
BUT ULTIMATELY, EVERYTHING WE DO, WE DO IT FOR YOU
Nearly every guidebook author ropes friends into the fun side of their dirty work (i.e. getting outside), but by writing these books, we’re also able to infinitely extend that reach. Turner, an avid user of previous editions of Afoot and Afield: San Diego, hoped to keep the book alive for future users after its original author, Jerry Schad, passed away. Schreiner helps combat stereotypes about outdoor accessibility in Los Angeles while speaking to an urban audience that has been largely ignored. Pharr Davis began writing guidebooks as a way to expand her scope as an author; now she not only spends time guiding people on trails in North Carolina, but through her writing, she’s also able to inspire people of all ages around the world to lace up their boots.
And Rochfort need only look at her daughter to know the effort is worth it. “One day, perhaps after I’m long gone, she’ll sit down and have a snippet of her mama’s life work,” she says. “Maybe that will give her a glimpse into Mom that she never understood, but I love knowing that she will have a part of me and my passion until the end of her days.”
As for me, I only have to think back a few months to remember why I suffered through the more torturous bits of guidebook writing. One night in San Diego, I was setting up for a Pacific Crest Trail presentation when a woman approached, clutching a copy of my book that was bent, ripped, written upon, and coated in dirt—clearly well-loved. After introducing her friends, each of them holding their own trail worn copies, she then asked to give me a hug. “I feel like you’re hiking with us every time we’re out there, helping us along the trail,” she said. “Thank you.”
That stuff I said earlier about screwy GPS tracks, nonexistent social life, and yelling at the computer? All of it melted away in that moment, replaced with a small knot at the base of my throat. I thanked her back, blinked away a few tears, and went in for the hug.
all photos by Shawnté Salabert