The A.T. Guide Design Philosophy & Features
by David 'Awol' Miller
During my thru-hike in 2003, I formed ideas about what I’d like to see in a guidebook. A few years after my hike, Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce announced that he would cease publication of “Thru-Hikers’ Handbook.” I saw that as an opportunity to create a guidebook implementing the concepts that I had envisioned. I had acquired some publishing know-how and established trail contacts by publishing and marketing “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail.”
The road to publication was not as simple as that sounds. Wingfoot changed his mind about ending the publication of his book and instead sold it to someone else, fragmenting rather than opening the market. The beginning was rocky, due mainly to the fact that my optimism overshadowed the enormity of the task.
Envisioning a guidebook is far easier than actually making one. Ideas that seemed simple turned out to be more technical than I anticipated (elevation profiles), or more time-consuming (data collection). Some of my hopes were not feasible. I wanted waterproof paper, but had to compromise to fit the cost to most hikers’ budgets.
Some concepts were improved upon over the years of development. Elevation profiles are much more detailed now than I had hoped. Many concepts evolved for the better and were augmented by other ideas. “The A.T. Guide” (ATG) became the leading guidebook because established guidebooks had failed to innovate, so “The A.T. Guide” is committed to looking for improved ways to present trail information.
There is no end to the amount of information that would be nice to have at-hand during a hike. Additional information about flora, fauna and history would be great. Rules and regulations for various trail jurisdictions are overwhelming. Foreigners coming to hike the A.T. have expressed interest in metric distances. On the other hand, hikers don’t want to carry a heavy book.
This dichotomy is handled in two ways. First, by triage. We have a commitment to avoiding book bloat by sticking to the most important data. Second, by finding creative ways to get more information into less space. This is more fun, and The A.T. Guide abounds with tricks to reduce book size. The margins are smaller than you will see in any other book. There are no blank pages and information is even printed on the inside of the front and back covers. We are stingy with our prose, we omit and abbreviate words. “One tenth of a mile behind the shelter” becomes “0.1 behind shelter.” We edit down verbose entries from trail providers.
Elevation profiles overlay trail data, so you get them for “free” space-wise. Symbols and other methods of notation are used extensively because they are smaller than words. For example, full moons are noted as circled days on the calendar, rather than having a separate list. We always look for opportunities to make use of white space, such as blank portions of town maps.
Section hikers only need a portion of the book on a hike, and thru-hikers sometimes only carry a section at a time. “The A.T. Guide” is available loose-leaf, to facilitate weight reduction by carrying only the pages that you need.
The most notable innovation of “The AT Guide” is the introduction of elevation profiles. Other guidebooks did not have them on my 2003 thru-hike and when planning my days I often correlated my guidebook information with elevation profiles on maps, so I would have some idea of the day’s elevation change challenges. The current presentation in “The AT Guide” is even more helpful because all data points are aligned with the elevation profile, providing an ongoing and more detailed notion of ascents and descents as hiker’s progress along the trail.
“The AT Guide’s” use of symbols and notations were already mentioned for their space-saving attributes. They also register much more quickly than words. You will spot a “fork and knife” symbol on a map much more rapidly than you could read through business names to locate a restaurant. “The AT Guide” is also designed to keep all relevant information close together. The elevation profiles are right on top of the list of landmarks and mileages (trail data). If one of the landmarks is access to a trail town, then information about places to eat, stay or resupply in that town is usually in the book only a page or two away.
During my thru-hike, the available guidebooks had a little less than 30 maps of trail towns, and they had roughly the same number five years later when I started a guidebook. “The AT Guide” put great emphasis on town and area maps—a picture is worth a thousand words–and within five years had nearly 100 such maps.
“The A.T. Guide” introduced a number of helpful features. Triple shelter mileages, showing the distances from each shelter to the next three closest shelters in each direction. This helps in planning when the next shelter or two is less than a day’s hike away. Coordinates of road crossings are provided, which can be used to navigate to trailheads by car to start section hikes or meet hikers. They’ve been used multiple times by hikers directing emergency services. Notes about flora are scattered throughout the book. Areas of bear activity are noted, and there a cautions at trail intersections where hikers have reported taking a wrong turn.
“The A.T. Guide” is available in PDF form, but this is much more than just a digital copy. Interactive features make “The AT Guide” PDF much more like an app, at a fraction of the price. When used on a smart phone, tapping on any phone number in the PDF will initiate a call. Tapping on email addresses and websites initiate emails or take to the website. Tapping on coordinates open mapping apps centered at that location. Page number references are active links that jump to the referenced page in the PDF, along with other features that allow quick navigation of the PDF itself. The PDF is color-coded.