Apparently an AllTrails user posted a “hike” that described the herd path to Mendon Peak as “a moderately trafficked out and back trail” and the description and route were being utilized by people who did not know it was really a moderately trafficked herd path a.k.a former bushwhack turned into trail by the weight of pop-culture peaking bagging (and do compare “path” and “trail” in the dictionary when you have a moment). "Shame on whoever runs that site," the commentary began, “They are leading unprepared people into the wilderness with false information.”
And then the usual pile-on about AllTrails began: “I would never, ever use AllTrails”, “garbage,” “wrong,” “I am glad you are spreading the word about AllTrails,” and (from the obligatory purist’s point of view) “Following someone else’s digital breadcrumbs goes against the spirit of the NEHH list regardless of how accurate your app might be.”
Just about anytime someone brings up AllTrails in hiking social media discourse, the semi-commercial (both free and $30/year Pro options) app/website gets more than its fair share of hate.
To be fair to the haters, as a source of accurate hiking information, AllTrails (existing in both website and smartphone app form) has its flaws. AllTrails hiking information is crowdsourced: hikers report their hikes to AllTrails along with GPS tracks produced by the AllTrails app, and AllTrails then publishes them—with minimal review and no pro vetting. The introduction of each hike starts with a stock language format blurb intro into which variables (some of them multiple choice) are filled in by the person doing the posting. For instance:
"Mount Agamenticus via Ring Trail is a 1.7 mile heavily trafficked loop trail located near Cape Neddick, Maine that features beautiful wild flowers and is rated moderate. The trail offers a number of activity options and is best used from April until October. . . "
Next there’s a GPS generated map (with an underlying stock OSM data layer, also a crowdsource product), a personalized hike description (which often gets overlooked), a weather forecast bar, then a crowdsource review section where others can rate and comment on the hike and their experiences with it. The net result is very akin to what you get with other crowdsource information streams (Wikipedia!): from very accurate and detailed data written by reliable hikers, right through mediocre intel from well-intentioned dilletantes (usually offering too much or too little information), down to occasional gnarly misinformation on the shitstick end of the bell curve. The running commentary and feedback offer the same spectrum of quality and utility.
Bad AllTrails intel includes bushwhacks and herd paths passed off as actual designated trails; trails on private property being advertised as public trails; the misnaming of trails, summits, and other geographic features; and lousy hike descriptions. The really bad stuff tends to not stick around forever—eventually it gets too many negative reviews or complaints and is pulled out, and even if it isn’t you can usually suss it out by reading the reviews. AllTrails also has formal processes for removing inappropriate or misleading trail intel.
That said, a lot of crap does make its way through, and it sticks around long enough to piss off the “serious hikers” out there.
The concerns aren’t without legitimacy: people will get lost or hurt, private property will be invaded (angering the landowners and ruining what might have been longstanding sanctioned local use), formerly quiet destinations will suddenly become more crowded. On the other hand, there’s a lot of griping and sniping that seems full of its own latent dysfunctionality: big-brotherism (you’ll get hurt if you don’t hike the way I hike), authoritative prerogative (these, not those, are the only correct sources of hiking information), hiking elitism (you either hike it this way or you’re not a legitimate hiker), and xenophobia/ nimbyism (I don’t want people ‘from away’ hiking on ‘my’ turf). Mostly, though, the criticism seems to originate in a misunderstanding of what AllTrails is. If you can handle throwing out the bathwater without dumping the baby, the app does have a certain unique utility.
What is the utility of AllTrails?
Using AllTrails is a bit of an adventure, for sure: it’s like venturing into a strange place without a map or reliable guide and having to ask the locals or weirdo riffraff explorers how to get from point A to point B. Some of them know what they’re talking about, and some don’t. Some can draw you a really good map on a napkin, and some will hand you a crap map that looks like a cartographer drafted it up. The more obscure the destination, the less numerous and helpful these people are going to be and the more uncertain your experience will be. You have to gather that intel and then use your own wits to make good decisions about where to go, how to go, and whose intel to trust. . .if you have no wits perhaps you’ll discover some through it.
Think about that and let it sink in a moment: You have to gather that intel and then use your own wits to make good decisions about where to go, how to go, and whose intel to trust. The criticisms of using uncertain data of your choice to support your individual sense of adventure feel a little hollow, even controlling, when thought of in that light. Not being able to tell the difference between good and poor trail intel may say more about your own lack of hiking experience or your intolerance for uncertainty than it says about the value of the information itself.
There is also a special-flower kind of turf hypocrisy that plays out in knee-jerk social media criticisms of AllTrails. In comparing relative samples of advice and information supplied by members of Facebook hiking groups vs. crowdsource hikes posted on AllTrails, I don’t see a significant difference in good intel vs. bad intel (I prepped for this by reviewing a sampling of 30 high-response-volume Facebook posts and 30 random hikes posted on AllTrails, to arrive at nominal statistical legitimacy). So, if Facebook hiking forums are themselves crowdsource mosh pits (I dare you to disagree on that point—no disrespect to the hard-working moderators) why is it OK to be a member and participant there whilst shaming the consumption of AllTrails?
Perhaps the commercial nature of AllTrails offends against the backdrop of its unvettedness? But AllTrails does donate 1 percent of its profits specifically to trail charities while (last time I checked) Facebook just enriches Mark Zuckerburg (does Zuck donate to trail charities? I have no idea).
If it is not the commercialism of AllTrails that is odiferous, then is it that one can exude more control and authoritativeness in the context of a social media hiking forum among one’s known peers—vs. the authority-levelling peanut’s gallery of an AllTrails hike comment board?
If it is not commercialism or the unavailability of ego-steroids, just what is it that is so hateful about AllTrails?
If you wanted to find out where to hike or how to hike, you either asked someone, read about it in a book you bought or borrowed, joined a formal hiking group (like the AMC, GMC, or ADK), or learned the hard way (guilty—my first White Mountains hike was Huntington Ravine, in a denim jacket emblazoned with a Jethro Tull album cover). You were fortunate if you were accidentally exposed to hiking—fitness consciousness was only just becoming a thing, and “getting back to nature” was still the province of hippies. If you were really serious and geeky about it (as was I), you spent hours pouring over topographic maps imagining what peaks were good places to hike and which ones would be duds.
The thing is, we are really doing those same things these days, we’re just doing them a lot faster, often sharing in real-time and parsing data in much larger quantities. People still solicit advice from other hikers (now on social media and apps like AllTrails). People still give good advice and bad advice. People still read curated information, and curated information is still distributed and consumed in large quantities (AMC guides are distributed by Amazon and sell well pretty well there). People still participate in group hikes (witness the proliferation of Meetup). People still learn the hard way (by picking the lowest hanging source of information, lacing up a pair of shoes, and making a go of it). All of these methods are legitimate sources of learning how to hike, and, to some extent, unless we’re either extremely risk-adverse or extremely counter-dependent, we’ll use all of them at some point (even if we don’t admit it or are unaware we’re doing it).
The kicker is that there are a heck of a lot more of us doing it. It’s crowded and hard to find a parking spot—and that rubbing of elbows constantly chafes on a subconscious level. If the number of fools in any given population is consistent across time (and why wouldn’t it be) that means that there are more fools on the trails now vs. 30 years ago but not more in proportion to the whole (you can test this theory by going back and looking at hiking accident reports from previous decades—trust me, we don’t have the market cornered on idiocy here in the 21st century). And it shows—fools do tend to make bigger headlines. They tend to trigger “serious hikers” more than ticks, blisters, or crotch-chaffing. Fools tend to leave bigger messes, and those messes are more obvious and impactful in the linear world of trails. Fools are more likely to need rescue. Fools take up space in parking lots, space on trails, space in campsites. They invade your space, waste your time, ruin your hiking zen, blast music while they hike, ask asinine questions, take selfies doing stupid things, and give you a big thumbs up while they “crush it.” And yet the sun shines on them equally, and the public open space is dedicated no less to them than to the trail-wise among us.
My supporting of hiking clubs and hiking groups, my pursuit of hiking lists and the creation of more lists, my peakbagging, my FKT, my adventure tourism, my nature loving, my tales of bears, my posting of hiking pictures with big thumbs up, my “crushing it”, my pole canopies, my support for the hiking gear industry (a lot of gear I can honestly hike without and not die), my support for making that gear into a fashion statement (and transforming the filthy exertion of hiking into a cool kid’s activity). My looking and sounding cool, wise, and authoritative on hiking forums and among other hikers. If hiking weren't a thing, AllTrails would wither on the vine.
AllTrails exists because hiking is a popular thing, and hiking is a popular thing in part because I exist and call myself a hiker. The failings of AllTrails don't exist in a vacuum and aren't the real source of the hiking angst that wells up from my Freudian hiker-id-shadow when I bump into crappy hiking intel and behavior. I am. You are. We all are.
Full disclosure: As a person who collects maps and hiking guide books as if they’re religious relicts, and is an admitted hiking geek and walking encyclopedia on hiking in the northeast United States and parts of Canada, I routinely use AllTrails as another source of hiking intelligence. Sometimes that intel is useful, sometimes it isn’t, but I’m glad to have it as a resource and will continue to unashamedly make high use of it, just as I make high use of the curated data. One doesn’t throw away a trove of data because one piece of it is proven inaccurate—that would be just as illogical as trusting all data unquestioningly.
Its west face gouged into a precipice by the continental ice sheet lumbering through the Valley of Vermont, White Rocks Mountain, just south of the City of Rutland and the Killington Ski Area, is one of the finest cliff faces along the Long Trail. I'd visited the view ledge (elevation 2,100ft; 0.2mi down a spur trail) during a multi-day Long Trail hike in the 1990s, but only this year got around to visiting the storied Ice Beds which lie at the foot of the massive talus slope (one of the largest barren talus slopes in New England) at the mountain's foot.
The talus and cliffs are made of white quartzite, formerly beach sand millions of years ago, lithified by continental collisions. The rock is very smooth and resistant to weathering, making it difficult for plants to take root. The white color of the rocks reflect light, keeping the cavities below the enormous boulders cool year round and slowing the melting of ice and snow that accumulates in the winter. The result is natural air conditioning, making the ice Beds a great destination on a hot summer day.
Gallery: Ladybug on lichen on quartzite; view from the top; Elizabeth emerging from boulders; cat's claw found in owl pellet; taking a rest partway up; scrambling over boulders.
There is no trail connection between the Ice Beds Trail and the cliff top vista; it's out-and-back on two separate trails (same trailhead, off VT 140/ Sugar Hill Road, at the White Rocks National Recreation Area parking lot) on account of the cliffs. Both routes are great hikes on their own: The Keewaydin Trail, Long Trail, and Overlook Spur must be taken to get to the cliffs (3.2mi OAB), passing a waterfall along the way, and the Ice Beds Trail climbs a barren knob with fantastic views of the ledges and talus slopes before dropping to the bottom of the boulder field (1.5mi OAB).
We weren't intending to, but once we started exploring the boulders one thing lead to another and soon we were half way up the talus and decided to continue bushwhacking the rest of the way. Most of the talus boulders were quite huge and impossible to move even two-thirds of the way up the slope but there were occasional loose rocks that would shift under our feet, so care was required. The upper part of the climb involved scrambling up a knife-edge arete and steeply climbing up the treed side of it to avoid the cliffs. One could easily end up in a not-so-good place without solid navigation instincts and a good understanding of rock slides and topography. Once at the top, we picked up the Overlook Spur and followed the trails back to the parking lot, stopping at the waterfall to dip our feet along the way.
Don't try this at home, kids.
Water is (almost) everything
Dehydration on a hot day can result in debilitating heat exhaustion or life-threatening heat stroke. If you don’t have a cast-iron gut like me (I frequently drink untreated mountain stream water), either bring plenty of water with you and/or bring a means of purifying wild water. Unfortunately, “plenty” is relative to your individual physiology and physical conditioning, the environmental conditions you’re hiking in (shade/full sun, temperature, wind, humidity), your level of activity, what you consumed prior to and during hiking, and the distance and elevation gain you are hiking.
It’s not just water, it’s electrolytes:
When you exert yourself, especially on humid days, you sweat out important nutrients (especially sodium and potassium) that balance the chemistry of your body. If that chemistry is out of balance, you can “bonk”, i.e. lose energy rapidly, become nauseous, experience painful muscle cramps, or collapse. Electrolyte imbalance can exacerbate conditions that lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. To compensate for electrolyte loss, practice nutritional eating habits (especially in advance of your hike) and bring balanced food with you and/or bring electrolyte supplements. Natural foods that are good for electrolyte balancing include dairy products (including cheese, yogurt, and powdered milk), coconut water, pomegranate juice, watermelon, avocado, spinach, and bananas.
Manufactured electrolyte supplements come in a variety of forms including pre-mixed drinks (like Gatorade), tablets to mix with water, “goo” or gel form supplements, and certain brands of energy bars. In the summer I always carry emergency electrolyte tablets in my 1st aide kit and I usually eat a couple bananas as part of my pre-hike breakfast. Some people pre-treat their to-go water with electrolytes. You can even freeze a liter of juice and or electrolyte water mixes the night before and enjoy a cool drink along the trail. If you are carrying a sleeping bag with you, you can wrap a pint or quart of ice cream in the bag, which will insulate it from melting for hours even on really hot days, and enjoy a cold and electrolyte-rich ice cream lunch.
Hats with broad brims offer the best head protection but even a baseball cap will offer some sun protection.
During your hike you can cool yourself by dipping your hat, bandana, shirt, or small pack towel in a creek and letting the water run over you, or plunge right in and take a dip—your clothing will likely dry off quickly on a hot day, but you could also take along a spare pair of shorts and a small pack towel.
When resting, take your boots and socks off and let your feet cool (this will help reduce friction blistering, which is exacerbated by hot boots). For this reason, trail runners are often a better option than thick hiking boots on hot days.
Lastly, remember sunglasses because. . .
The devil is in the sun. If your route involves moderate to significant sun exposure (i.e. not just hiking heavily forested trails), bring sunscreen with a high SPF level (50+). If you do get sunburn, you’ll want to protect your skin from further damage; in such cases it’s wise to have brought a lightweight long sleeve shirt with you or an ultralight windbreaker. This can be helpful when your burnt skin—now less able to thermoregulate your body temperature—results in you getting a chill rapidly when temperatures drop later in the day (it’s even possible to become hypothermic by way of sunburn). Be aware that sunburn can contribute to heat exhaustion and heat stroke (as well as increasing your risk of developing skin cancer) by direct heating and by reducing your skin’s ability to thermoregulate.
Understand the symptoms of dehydration and act to remedy it immediately. Quench your thirst when you feel thirsty. Eat when you feel hungry. Stop and rest (preferably in the shade or in a breezy area) when you feel tired. Don’t wait until you’re exhausted. Examine your urine when you pee: dark yellow urine is a sign of dehydration; whitish urine is a sign of good hydration. Intentionally slowing your pace and resting more frequently can help reduce overheating and dehydration, too.
Understand the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke (follow the link for the full run-down). In a nutshell, heat exhaustion begins to develop when you’re moderately dehydrated, with or without an electrolyte imbalance. It is characterized by moist skin (often described as clammy or cool, but not always so if someone has been exerting themselves), exhaustion, and can include dizziness, muscle cramping ("heat cramps") and nausea. Heat exhaustion is treatable by getting yourself in the shade and/or cooling yourself in a brook, drinking and eating to replenish lost water and nutrients, and resting. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke—a life threatening and harder to treat condition. Heat stroke is characterized by extreme exhaustion or collapse, hot, dry skin with elevated body temperature, and impaired mental status—those suffering from heat stroke may not be aware of their danger. Unless treated it leads to loss of consciousness, organ failure, and death. People with heat exhaustion will usually need help—get them out of the heat, cool them off with water or wetted clothing, and if they are conscious and can tolerate it, feed them fluids and food—then help them find the shortest way out of the woods. This may require rescue services. Recovery times can be long and permanent organ damage is possible.
If you are doing all of the things you need to do to remain cool(er) and hydrated but you still feel unusually fatigued, consider shortening your hike or turning back.
DESTINATION AND TIMING
In addition to preparing with appropriate gear and self-care, you can also make your hot weather hike more enjoyable by tweaking your itinerary and the timing of your hike.
Time of day, season, and weather:
Hot spring days can often be harder to bear than hot summer days because of the lack of leaves on deciduous trees and the fact that your skin and body aren't yet accustomed to full-on heat after all that winter hiking—don’t underestimate the difficulty of hot spring weather hiking.
On hot days either in spring or summer, it makes sense to start hiking earlier in order to get some miles under your belt before the sun heats up the air. Alternately, you can start hiking later in the morning and enjoy the early evening cool-off along your descent—but keep in mind that (if weather conditions are otherwise constant) early morning temperatures are typically going to be cooler than early evening temperatures. Take advantage of rain forecasts: predictions of light rain on really hot days can be excellent conditions to hike in as long as you don’t mind getting a little wet, but keep in mind that warm rain at low elevations can turn into cold, hypothermia-inducing rain at higher elevations. During the hot summer days of my 1994 Appalachian Trail through-hike I often hiked in the rain in a T-shirt without a rain jacket; this practice not only cooled me off fast it also kept my rain jacket dry for use later in the day and helped wash some of the sweaty crud out of my shirt.
Even lower elevation mountains can offer cooling breezes: on summer days rising hot air in valleys can cause strong updrafts of cooling wind on exposed areas of higher ground, especially around cliff faces. In the northeast, the prevailing natural wind is often from the west or southwest on sunny days, so hiking the western side of the mountain may be windier and more cooling than hiking the eastern side. Keep the sun in mind, though: exposure above treeline may increase the risk of sunburn.
Deep, wooded stream valleys are often cooler on average than ridges or flats, and can offer the added pleasure of a dunk in a creek. As a rule, the northerly slopes of mountains are going to be cooler because they have less sun exposure, ridge tops are going to be warmer (but windier if they’re exposed), and oak or pine dominant woods are going to be warmer than maple, birch, or boreal spruce-fir forests. The relative warmth of these forest types also mirrors how soon brooks will dry out in summer. Open fields and meadows are among the hottest landscapes in the summer while areas with significant boulder fields will trap cool air and may even hold ice into the summer; these places can provide drafts of natural air conditioning (some famous examples include places like New Hampshire’s Ice Gulch, Devil’s Hopyard, and Subway in King Ravine, Vermont’s White Rocks Ice Beds and Smuggler’s Notch, and Maine’s Mahoosic Notch, among others). Planning hikes that place a good swimming hole near the end of the hike can be both pleasurable and advantageous; on really hot days plan hikes with swimming holes at several points along the route.
By choosing appropriate destinations and routes, and timing your hike with daily heating/ cooling cycles, you can often craft a hike that maximizes comfort on a hot day. For instance, starting early up a wooded ridgeline or warm side of the mountain in the morning (which would be hot in the afternoon), then traversing an open windy ridge mid-day, and finally descending along a cool mountain stream in a forested ravine in the afternoon is an excellent itinerary to beat the heat.
As far as I know, there isn’t a list of ‘Great Wonders of the Northeast’ but if there were, the annual display of alpine wildflowers in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains would be one of them. I look forward to this event each year in the way some folks look forward to fireworks displays on the Fourth of July, and I hope you too will experience this brief but fantastic spectacle.
Although common in arctic and subarctic latitudes, in New England these plants, many of them rare or endangered in the eastern United States, only grow in the elevation-induced near-arctic conditions above 4,500 feet (on average). Because the growing season is so short and the weather so extreme, the plants tend to blossom all at once and in great array, carpeting the thin, rocky soils in a brilliant palette. Although you can see some of these plants at other New England alpine areas (most notably Mt. Marcy in NY, Mt. Mansfield in VT, Katahdin in ME, Moosilauke and Franconia Ridge in NH) at 7 square miles the Presidential Range is the by far the largest alpine zone in the northeast United States and has the greatest diversity of alpine flora.
The best place to see the alpine wildflowers are along the Crawford Path from Mt. Eisenhower through Lakes of the Clouds, the Alpine Garden on the east face of Mt. Washington, the "Monticello Lawn" between Mt. Clay and the summit of Mt. Jefferson, the Edmonds Col area between Mount Jefferson and Mount Adams, and the flats around Star Lake below Mount Adams. The best time to see the display is late May through early June (peak bloom fluctuates from year to year) but some flowers tend to peak sooner and some later. The showiest early blooms include the white Diapensia, also known as the "Pincushion Plant" (Diapensia lapponica) and pink Alpine Azalea (Kalmia procumbens), both of which grow in low, ground-hugging cushion-like clusters to better hold to thin soils and withstand the desiccating subzero winters, along with somewhat stouter lavender-colored Lapland Rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum). Later, look for Labrador Tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), a small shrub with showy white blossoms and leaves with fuzzy undersides), and in late June the sunny yellow Mountain Avens (Geum peckii), pinkish-white Mountain Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) and delicately-leafed yellow Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana). Alongside these blooms, you'll also see creeping alpine willows and birches, and the famous and locally rare Bigelow Sedge, (Carex bigelowii) which passes for grass in the alpine zone.
All of these plants lead fragile and tenuous lives due to the extreme growing conditions and short seasons of the alpine zone. That being the case, when visiting the alpine zone it’s extremely important to stay on the marked trails and step only on rocks so that you won't trample the rare plants (even plants that look like ordinary grass may be endangered species in the alpine zone) so that this great spectacle will continue to amaze in the years to come. Sadly, each year I witness far too many people who are ignorant of the fragile nature of these rare plants (or who know but don't care). Trails in the alpine zone are often marked with lines of rocks on either side of the path to keep hikers from destroying the rare vegetation--please do the right thing and stay between the lines. Trust me, there is plenty of fine viewing right from the trail.