As we continue down the rabbit-hole of the technological age, guide books are largely falling out of fashion as a means for planning for the trail ahead of you. The resources for hikers planning a thru-hike have increased exponentially, just in the last few years, so guidebooks don’t offer the value that they once did. That being said, while hiking, physical copies of things like water sources, hostel contact information, and shelter amenities can be an invaluable and potentially life-saving resource when technology fails. Furthermore, some folks simply like having tangible copies, as it feels good to flip through a book rather than scroll on a phone app. In this article, I’ll give my account of using a guidebook, offer recommendations about popular options, and then explore whether a guidebook is even still a useful resource these days.
There are a number of guide books available for AT hikers, which can be used both for planning and real-time hiking information. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy even offers a couple of popular options on their website , including "Appalachian Trail Data Book" and "Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Companion". You'll see both used on trail by a few people, but one unofficial guidebook is far-and-away the most popular, AWOL's famous "The AT Guide" . Having used it as my sole trail guide for an entire thru-hike, I stand by its accuracy and usefulness. Not a day passed when I didn't have the pages I'd need neatly stashed in an accessible place for the many times I'd have to pull it out to scout what was to come. I'm in no way affiliated with AWOL. I paid full prices for 2 copies of the book (one for my father to follow along) back in 2015 and recommend it now because of my personal experience. Explore your options, but know that at least a few times during my hike, a person with the Companion (for example) would ask to "see AWOL".
When I first thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2015, apps like Guthook were a fledgling idea, so AWOL's guide was ubiquitous on trail. It was rare to find someone NOT carrying at least the pages of the section they were currently in, and for good reason. To this day, I still consider AWOL's elevation profile and town information to be superior to any app. It got me through an entire thru-hike only a few years ago and will absolutely be a viable strategy for anyone who, for whatever reason, chooses to either not use an app or to carry a physical alternative. The guide is also available in PDF form, so carrying the digital copy is an option.
While I’ve promoted the idea of guidebooks, I’ve also been clear that there are considerations to make before purchasing or committing to using a guidebook on a thru-hike. Certain advantages can never be matched by digital resources. Books don’t run out of batteries and relying on your phone for all navigation and communication could be very dangerous. That being said, there are also major downsides to carrying a guidebook.
Primarily, actually carrying the book is quite the negative. Paper, especially the weather-resistant kind used in most guide books, is heavy. You’ll likely have a phone anyways, so all apps (and PDF versions of guidebooks, including AWOLs) don’t add any weight. As a long-distance hiker, the amount of weight you are carrying should be one of your primary focuses when deciding on putting ANYTHING into your backpack. A thru-hike is not a normal backpacking trip, but a continuous grind for many miles, every day, for months. Weight, even the 8 ounces of a book, adds wear and tear on your body. To combat this, some who insist on carrying physical copies of books will only carry sections and send themselves future sections later up the trail. I started out carrying the entire book, but by the 500 mile mark, I had thrown away the first ¼, ripped out and sent home the second half, and proceeded with only the quarter of trail in front of me, continually disposing of finished pages as I went. Some will disagree, but I save sentimentality for my photos and journaling, and I suggest you do the same.
Another downside is that books don’t have the same crowd-sourcing capabilities of apps. Warnings about dry streams or recent bear activity in an area can be very useful in planning how much water to gather or how far you’ll have to hike that day, and these are things that can only be relayed in real time. In 2015, a tree fell on a shelter and rendered it unusable. Luckily it wasn’t my end-goal for the day, but if I had showed up in a rainstorm at the end of a very long day, thinking I had a dry shelter waiting for me, only to see the roof caved in by a fallen tree, I would have been in a sour mood. Additionally, information changes. Hostels close, trail gets rerouted, and knowing that a fallen tree 200 yards upstream makes for an easy stream crossing are all valuable pieces of information that can ease frustrations in what can be a stressful, exhausting experience.
Books also become outdated. Every year, a new edition must be published with updated information, and while an old copy can contain 99% of the same data, apps such as Guthooks (detailed in the Apps section) require a one-time purchase and are updated regularly at no additional charge. If you’re a section hiker who plans on tackling the trail in large sections over the course of a few years, re-buying every year’s new guidebook could become expensive. Something to consider...
I realize that this article isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of guidebooks, and while I’ve acknowledged that there are certainly reasons to purchase and carry a guidebook, advancements in technology have left guidebooks largely a vestige of a dying era. It’s easy to criticize those who choose to rely solely on technology for navigation and trail data (me, included) but the vast majority have adopted this practice for its convenience and utility, which are explained in the Apps section of this guide.
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