MIRRORBLAZE: The impact of technology on the Trail

by david axel kurtz


The AT is changing. Base weights plummet. Neros get bigger and bigger. Nobos are starting earlier, yoyos are finishing later. Flip-floppers are the new normal. Trail towns are rotting. Drones are coming. The line between supported and unsupported is going to disappear. And maybe I should take a moment to explain what any of that means, so that you can understand what the future holds for hikers and for the trail.

The Appalachian Trail has always​ ​​had its own little lexicon.​ ​​​​Like the trail it changes. Like the trail, it usually gets longer.

​​A thru-hiker is one going from the top of the trail to the bottom. One may hike from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine or the reverse. The former were first called northbounders. ​But hikers will never miss an opportunity to shed a syllable or two – one part a love of insular lingo, one part just a hatred of syllables – and t​his was immediately shortened to ​​nobo. Southbounders are hiking ​​sobo, or are on a ​​sobo, or are ​a ​sobo – you get the idea.

​Nobo and sobo are just the two main types of thru-hike. Some people start at Harpers Ferry – just shy of the midpoint of the trail – and head north to K, only to jump back to Harpers and hike sobo to Springer. This is a ​​flip-flop, and those who hike it, ​​flip-floppers. Whereas some people hike the entire trail, nobo or sobo, and then turn on their heels and hike it right back again. This fine double hike is called a yo-yo; the people who hike it are called ​​insane, clinically; but in the parlence of the trail, ​​yoyos.

On the long cold nights (and, worse, the long hot days), hikers are inclined to talk of all manner of things. Daydreaming about the trail is known to occur. It does take a certain creative spark to see the trail, not as it is, but as it could be. This spark is fairly well prevalent among the hikers, who tend to be young, intelligent, motivated (obviously), good planners (necessarily), and also have this disturbing tendency to be engineers or consultants.

In 2017, a certain hiker (IT WAS ME) suggested a froyo as a variation upon the yoyo – a hike where one would go northbound during the warm hiking months; wait in Maine until the weather became cold; then hike the trail southbound in the winter. This would allow them to experience two distinctly different hikes.

In 2018 the same hiker suggested the​​​ ​cyco​,​ wherein one would hike the length of the trail, and then bike back along the roads which follow it – mountain bikes not being allowed on the trail itself, for much the same reason that thru-hikers aren’t allowed on the interstate.

But these are variations of direction. At their core they assume: same trail, same hikers. With so many hikers – and the ethos of HYOH​, Hike Your Own Hike​ ​- there have also arisen variations of the trail hiked, and the literal act of hiking.

A thru-hiker is one who hikes the entire trail​​. But it’s not uncommon for one to miss a few miles here or there – a wrong turn, maybe, or maybe you get off the trail to the left of a town and then get on the trail to the right of it, walking two aching miles of pavement but missing a mile of soft earth in the process. These people are no less thru-hikers. This is why the Appalachian Mountain Club refers, not to thru-hikers, but to “two thousand milers” – people who have hiked over 2,000 miles, while the full length of the trail proper is actually around 2,200.

This hiker is considering trying to thru-hike this year. He might very well skip Pennsylvania from Duncannon to Delaware Water Gap, having already hiked it, and found it to be *awful*. This would put his thru-hike at a mere 2050 miles. He would still call himself a thru-hiker. As would his feet – and they’d thank him for skipping those awful Keystone State rocks.

A detour which you hike is called a blue blaze – again it can refer to the hike, the hiker, or be used as a verb. This is because such trails are marked with literal blue blazes, in contrast to the white blazes that mark the AT proper. A detour which you don’t hike is called a yellow blaze – a joke referring to the fact that it usually involves a car, which follows the yellow markings in the road – and also incapsulates a judgment of cowardice here and there.

Some people might skip a mountain or two due to inclement weather – sometimes a week goes by without a day where one could safely ascend Mount Washington. A common blue blaze goes around the highly toxic superfund site at the Palmerton Gap, and it must be noted that this “winter trail” actually adds about a mile of distance without losing any altitude achieved. Some people skip small sections that they’ve previously hiked. Many repeat thru-hikers skip Rocksylvania (or wish they had). Some people might jump ahead 20 miles to catch up with a hiker whose trail name is Really Great Butt. None of this is begrudged. But it shows that the definition of “the trail” is fluid​ from hiker to​ ​hiker.

This definition also changes for every hiker from year to year. The trail changes. It moves – a little here, a little there. It always starts and ends in the same place, but most everything in the middle is up for grabs – to the point that less than 2% of the current trail is as it was when it was created.

Why is it changed? Usually it is simply as a response to erosion – to allow the earth to heal here, the trail is moved there for a time. Sometimes it is as a result of changes to the landscape – a boulder falls, a dam collapses, the trees are too damn high. Sometimes the trail is changed to make it easier. And most commonly, when the trail is changed for some other purpose, the new route will be the easiest of the possible routes available. As a result, it is generally considered that the Trail is easier than it was at the outset, and that it gets a little easier every year.

​And that’s just what is hiked; the hikers too are changing. This mainly expresses itself as improvements to a hiker’s gear – their kit – the contents of their pack. Improvements in gear are still happening at a staggering pace, and have had​ a truly mind-boggling impact on the hike. A hiking pack in the 1940s might weigh ​70 or 80 pounds. In the 1980s, ​it probably weighed ​half of that; in the 2000s, half again; until a certain hiker in 2017 enjoyed a base weight of under seven pounds. ​The same hiker proposes that this halving of weight be referred to as Less’s Law. (I’ll hike myself out.) ​

It is worth noting that a base weight of seven pounds does not actually leave much room for decreases. A halving of minimum weight (at same level of functionality) would leave a hiker only 3 pounds lighter than they are now. That’s nothing. That’s about the weight of an extra day’s food, or an extra bottle of water, or a full bladder for Christ’s sake. A 3lb reduction, even if it represents 50% of one’s base weight, will hardly be noticeable. Less’s Law has been identified and immediately it is irrelevant.

(Axel’s Corollary to Less’s Law: when the decrease in base weight is less than the weight of an extra bottle of water, it is irrelevant; when one’s total base weight is less than the weight of a bottle of water, one’s base weight is irrelevant entire).

​It must be noted that, while Weight has always been the devil on a hiker’s shoulders, its sidekick Volume has also been a burden. In general, modern gear is smaller than older gear – there’s a great picture on the top of r/ultralight of a 110L backpack (this hiker has no trouble using a 57L even for winter hiking). Over the coming years, as weight decreases smash headfirst into diminishing returns, volume decreases will undoubtedly continue – but they’ve never been the priority, and we’re already kicking their ass as well.

​I’d file these under “improvements in form.” There have been, and will continue to be, improvements in the function of gear. This includes e.g. faster and more effective water filters​;​​ more breathable fabrics​;​ comfortable shoes​; more gear is now inherently waterproof; more gear, even ultralight gear, is becoming terribly durable;​ ​lead times in manufacture are decreasing; prices are coming down; and batteries are lasting longer, which, thumbsup.jpg.

​The effects ot these improvements to gear have been profound. Outside of the uncertainty and the danger of the early hikes; they were slow. Carrying a huge pack really slows you down. The earliest hikers would often hike 10 miles in a day. Now, in a bit of shape and with proper gear, hiking 20 in a day is not at all uncommon; people, regular people, will marathon (26 miles) or even push into 30s​ -​ every single day​. That would have been impossible two generations ago, and both rare and much harder even in the last generation. In short: these improvements to gear have not made people hike less hard; it has simply increased the amount of hiking one gets done when one pushes oneself. People aren’t hiking easier; they are hiking faster. But it means they are finishing the trail in 4 months (or less), rather than 6 months or more – and that certainly changes the experience.

At the intersection of function and form, a hiker might consider a gedankenexperiment: would they rather hike with a 50 pound pack and a cell phone, or a 5 pound pack and phone-free? The meta-answer is: they would be two very different hikes – both of them different from an AT hike as originally envisaged, and both different from an AT hike as is often undertaken now.

​​It is also generally considered that the amenities along the trail improve every year. There are towns. There are gas stations and convenience stores. Thanks to the internet they are all easily identified. In the 1950s I rather assume that one would have to depart the trail; hike into town; ask around; find a little store; wait for it to open; and purchase whatever canned goods or dry goods were available. Now one can buy dehydrated hiker’s meals at most every little store along the trail – to say nothing of the preposterously calorically dense snack foods that fill every gas station in America, and which one should really only consume if one has just hiked 1100 miles and has another 1100 to go.

It is worth considering that the general wisdom, here, is wrong – that the heyday of AT amenities might actually be behind us. As one hikes, one encounters no shortage of closed businesses. Some of the Trail Towns – towns near the trail, even towns where the trail runs right down the sidewalks of Maine Street – are fallen on very hard times. Some of them don’t have a lot of businesses left open. Some of them are really a little scary. Hostels like the Bear’s Den are probably less dangerous than sleeping in an actual bear’s den. I never encountered a shelter that was less comfortable than The Doyle.

On the face of it, these are universal changes to the trail; they affect all hikers equally. But this brings us to the other variation, which is in the way one hikes. Most hikes are unsupported – if a hiker wants to resupply (i.e. buy Knorrs sides and jars of peanut butter), they have to depart the trail and head for a grocery store. Sometimes this is a matter of walking a few feet; sometimes it’s walking, or hitchhiking, a few miles. Some few hikers are supported; these are people who arrange for supplies to be brought to them along the trail. These hikers are, pretty much exlusively, those who are trying to set some sort of record. Although even here they are robbed of some glory, as the Trail keeps records for both supported and unsupported hikes.

​In the future, however, this is going to change – I bet my poles on it. In my life off-trail – in the cotton life, that most poetic of phrases – I no longer drive to the grocery store; I get food deliveries. These are assembled by people in the grocery store; driven to me by human drivers; brought to my apartment door by a human deliverator. Amazon – my delivery service of choice – is already in the process of replacing the human factor at each of these steps. The grocery stories are being replaced by warehouses, where, as with all other Amazon warehouses, workers are being replaced by machines (robots, if you will). The cars are beginning to drive themselves. Rolling drones – little more than dumber Roombas – are being rolled out to bring the groceries from curb to doorstep. Amazon is already testing aerial drones for the delivery of food and packages. And they’re doing all of this only because it’s cheaper to use robots than minimum-wage employees, and faster to use a sky-darkening horde of VTOL craft than it is to drive in urban traffic.

​There will be a trickle-down of this technology. At the easiest, current logistical innovations – GrubHub, Uber, Amazon Prime, Fresh Direct – make it much easier to get to and from a trailhead; to get resupply of food or gear; to get a pepperoni pizza delivered to certain shelters (I’ve done this) (it’s better than a weekend in Amsterdam). On the other hand, if one could get pizza delivered every night, one would never have to worry about resupply. This would eliminate the entire idea of an unsupported hike. It would be wonderful in many ways – but would it still be a thru-hike? Would the Trail still be the Trail?

Let us daydream for a moment. It is now 2018. There are already drones delivering mail, and (in three states) self-driving cars on the roads. In 2023 they will be becoming common; in 2028 I expect they will be ubiquitous, the rule rather than the exception. As a result, I firmly expect that – within ten years – one will be able to order a complete food resupply and have it waiting for you, in the back of a self-driving car, at any of the frequent points where the trail crosses a road. It would not surprise me if one will be able to order a drone delivery, and then not to road intersections, but upon the trail itself.

Imagine how wonderful it would be to hike a 20- or even 30-mile day, collapse by a little wooden shelter in a small clearing by a babbling brook, pull out your phone, and soon thereafter a whirring little drone will drop you down a six-pack and a 20″ with extra cheese. Perhaps you cannot imagine the wonders of this until you have been a long-distance hiker. I can assure you that it is paradise enow.

Undoutedbly it would be expensive. Most hikers cannot afford to eat a pizza every day, even if one were available. But on the other hand, the possibility of drone resupply would mean that hikers would not have to carry food – or not much of it – in their packs. That would eliminate a large amount of weight from the hiker’s back, allowing them to hike longer, faster, and in greater comfort. Hell, there were times when I would be carrying more food weight than gear weight. Drone ressuply could make that a thing of the past.

Also, it could allow one to get deliveries of real food. Not just pizza. Protein. VEGETABLES. A thru-hiker is usually at a calorie deficit, and almost always is lacking in at least one macronutrient (protein) if not others. The extent to which a thru-hiker, on an average day, is lacking in micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) or phytonutrients (fruits and veggies) borders on the comical. It must have an impact on the hiker’s overall health. It must impact their ability to hike. Drones could eliminate this problem.

The problem, here, is that it could allow the average thru-hike to go from unsupported to supported. It would remove the need to resupply, to plan resupplies, to plan – well – anything. It would remove the logistical and tactical elements from hiking. Would that be a fundamental degredation of the nature of the hike, or a fundamental improvement to it – allowing one to push oneself harder, and therefore cover more miles in a day – in a nutshell, just letting one hike better?

​It is an ontological question: what is the Trail? Is it the easiest possible path between Point A (Springer) and Point B (K)? Or is it necessarily hard? Is it a long hike aided by the best technology of Now, or the best technology of 1930? Is it necessary that it require planning, thatthere be an element of adventure? Or is hiking all day hard enough, thank you very much, now where’s my drone pizza and six side salads?

I would illustrate this point through a few examples.

-Alice is a hiker. She is carrying a backpack containing 57 pounds of gear and equipment. She is living off of peanut butter and Knorr’s pasta sides. She can only carry 3 days worth of supplies at once, so she is having to plot her resupplies carefully. She gets to go into every town. She hitchhikes a lot. She meets tons of people. She burns through two pairs of heavy over-ankle hiking boots. She makes it to Katahdin in 200 days, and is a thru-hiker.

-Bob is a hiker. He is carrying a backpack containing 10 pounds of gear and equipment. He is eating the same as Alice, but he can carry two weeks worth of food without really weighing himself down. He goes into town a bit less than Alice. He hikes a bit faster in his trail runners – burns through four pairs but that’s to be expected. He makes it to Katahdin in 160 days, and is a thru-hiker.

-Chuck is a hiker. He is carrying a pack that weighs 4 pounds soaking wet (which it never is, because it’s waterproof). He gets all his food delivered by drone. It costs him more but boy is he healthier and happier. He only stops in town when he needs a shower, and then doesn’t bother sleeping there. He makes it to Katahdin in 120 days, and is a thru-hiker.

-Drew is a hiker. She does not carry a backpack or food. Every night a drone brings her, not only dinner, but a sleeping bag and hammock. Every morning she packs it up and the drone takes it away. She never goes into town at all, never sleeps in shelters – she even sends her hiking clothing out with the drone some nights, and in the morning it comes back freshly laundered. She eats well and healthfully every single day. She makes it to Katahdin in 90 days, and is a thru-hiker.

These are four different types of hikes that, I expect, will be available to average hikers within the next decade. As it is, the early AT hikers had it much harder than Alice – they had no cell phones, nothing comparable to a modern guidebook, much less development along the trail, far fewer resupply options, and even heavier packs. Whereas Bob is now the average, Chuck is fast approaching, and Drew is really not that far away. Technology is significantly impacting the way we hike. Soon it will be to the point that it has changed what the hike is itself – if, indeed, we aren’t at that point already.

Personally, this hiker would much prefer to hike as Chuck. He thinks that hiking as Drew would be going too far – but on the other hand, he thinks he might be deluding himself. The difference between Chuck and Drew is minuscule, and hiking with a 4 pound pack just to say that one is carrying one’s gear is a pretty weak imitation of the thru-hikers of yore. Certainly the difference between Chuck and Drew is nothing compared to the difference between Alice and Bob, and that is a distance we have already traveled. And still we think ourselves thru-hikers. (Are we?)

It might even be worth considering that the next generation’s improvements to “the Trail” could focus, not on trail or pack, but on the hikers themselves. Improvements in sports medicine. Better painkillers. Safe steroids. Over-the-counter EPO. Nanotechnology. Stuff that is barely on the horizon now. But one day or another it will start to arrive, and when it does, we will look back on the days when we worried about cutting a few grams from our base weight as the Dark Ages – when feet don’t hurt, when muscles don’t ache,  when average people start doing ultras every day.

This hiker might wonder whether a distinction might be made, not between types of hikes, but between trails. For example: maybe the AT would allow drone resupply; the PCT would not, but would allow cell phones and ultralight base weights; the GDT would ban drones and mandate a minimum base weight, much as a drag race might disqualify a car that is too light. This way a hiker could still “old school” it on the AT, but would have to fight the pressure against it; whereas a hiker on the GDT would know that they were similarly situated, that those they met would be HEOH – Hiking Each Other’s Hike.

This hiker wonders whether, in the future, “slack packing” will not be taking off your pack in exchange for a lighter one, but will rather be dumping your light pack in exchange for a heavier one, so that you can experience what hiking used to be like – and appreciate, deeply, how good you now have it.

This hiker wonders whether increases in the ease of the Trail will allow more people to take up “lifestyle hiking,” whereby they incorporate long-distance hiking (or biking) into their daily lives – a dozen miles, a little siesta, an afternoon of work on a little laptop. Doesn’t sound like a bad life. Not for a semester, not for a year. Not, perhaps, for a whole lot longer than that.

The Trail is always changing. So are hikers, so are the way we hike. It is important, at the very least, to understand this – to remember what the Trail used to be, so that it can inform what we want it to be. This humble hiker likes his seven pound base weight. He would not turn up his nose at anything which got him more food on the trail. If hiking gets easier, he’ll hike faster. He’ll hike more, not less. He’ll hike longer, cover more miles, climb more mountains, see more shining seas.


~ by davekov on 6 February 2018.

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