Archived Outdoors

Long live the hard copy trail guide

out hammondGoogle the name of almost any trailhead in Western North Carolina, and you’re likely to come up with pages of links to a plethora of online mentions and trail descriptions aimed at helping readers do just the hike you’re looking for.

So, with all that information out there for free, why plunk down hard-earned money on a printed trail guide? 

Ask those in the biz, and you’ll hear plenty of reasons. 

“My sense is that people remain committed to getting their information about the outdoors from print,” said Chris Wilcox, owner of City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. “We’ve sold e-books too for many, many years, and it has always struck me that they’re finicky and the technology is not reliable.”

When you’re navigating the backcountry, the last thing you want is for the resource you’re depending on to guide you safely home to suddenly fail. 

Service in the mountains is iffy, and even the apps that let users download map PDFs to their phones — negating the need for service — can have their drawbacks. Those maps take up a lot of memory, and battery drain is an ever-present possibility. 

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“I have never been asked to provide technical support for a print book,” Wilcox said. 

Maybe the technology will get there someday, but for now it’s likely a long ways from becoming something that’s “going to replace a good ole reliable trail guide,” Wilcox said. 

On the other hand, acknowledged Swain County trail guide author Jim Parham, there’s the abundance of free online resources that backcountry users can easily print out. But those have their limitations, too. 

“That can be good information or bad information,” Parham said. “People have to learn to navigate their way through it.” 

A higher degree of trust goes with a bonafide trail guide written by a bonafide trail guide author. Parham, for instance, doesn’t write word one of his trail descriptions before he’s been to the location several times, enough to really get a feel for the place, the variables it’s subject to and the difficulty of the terrain. 

“It’s a lot of work to go and get 60 or 100 trails of information on the internet,” Parham said. “It would take somebody weeks, and whether that’s valid information or not is another thing.” 

For now, Wilcox said, it appears that ink-and-paper trail guides are here to stay. All the time, new ones are being written, old ones are being updated and large, national-scale trail guide companies like Falcon continue to invest in guides for WNC. 

“Their spreadsheets apparently tell them it’s a good investment,” Wilcox said. 

— By Holly Kays, staff writer

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