Why Trail Guides Should Make You Question Everything

Catskill Trail Guide and Mao with Compass and GPS
Average read time 5 min

If you are like me, you plan your hikes and backpacking trips meticulously. Using trail guides and maps are central to this planning process. But one thing I’ve learned over the decades of being out in the woods is that stuff changes, and your guidebook lies.

For example, here in the Catskills, the Long Path has a beautiful addition that has taken it off the road near Woodland Valley Campground (that’s another post); it’s not in the trail guide as of this writing. Years ago, my son and I were coming down from Twin Mountain in the Catskills and anticipated a quick exit to Wase Road, but the trail was re-routed. I think we were one of the first to hike it as the ground was still soft and spongy, and the cut trees were still fresh. It turned out to be a great hike as we crossed Dibbles Quarry and got some great views, but it also added a bit more hiking. This was not in the trail guide.

Some years ago on Hunter Mountain, the John Robb lean-to burned. Not too long after that, I met a couple looking for the lean-to. They had no backup plan for a shelter, and upon finding out that the John Robb had burnt, they had to get advice on where to camp. Luckily for them, two other lean-tos are not too far away. Since that time, the lean-to has been replaced but in a different place. These are examples of how trail guides did not reflect reality.

Why use a hiking trail guide?

AMC Guide to Mount Washington and the Presidential Range
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking AMC Guide to Mount Washington and the Presidential Range is a Pocket Guide

Trail guides are one essential that is not on the “10 essentials” list. Compass, yes. Map, yes. But guide-book, no. Many trail guides today are NOT pocket guides. The AMC Guide to Mount Washington And The Presidential Range years ago was just that. It was small and made for packing.

In fact, many trail guides have become planning guides to leave at home as I have found out they will not hold up to the riggers of abuse on the trail and are too large. My solution is to copy the pages and bring them to refer to them on the trail.

Trail guides are a wealth of information. They provide general information about the region, land management, contact information, maybe some history, warnings, rules and regulations, and more. Trail guides also provide detailed information about trails. Some trail guides are straightforwardly describing the trails with simple mileage and trail features. Others are more elaborate with historical information about the trail, such as why features were named the way they are: some detail forest communities and rare plants.

Just about all trail guides will have or mention maps to use with them. Buy these maps and know how to use them. Most likely, you will be using your map more than your trail guide while in the field.

ADK Mountain Club Catskill Guide with NYNJTC trail maps
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking ADK Mountain Club Catskill Guide with NYNJTC trail maps

Either way, the trail guide should help you plan your trip. It’s not merely a tour book that’s nice to read; it’s a tool to help you plan and THINK. Ya, think. It’s not just about miles and trails, but what’s on the trails, and how might these trail’s features impact your ability to reach your destination?

Trail guides lie

Even the best and most current books are out-of-date. For example, backcountry bridges, how many times have there been washouts? This happens on bridges that seemingly would be safe from that.

Bridge in the Neversink Valley
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Bridges in the Neversink Valley washout, even though you would never think it with the low water in this picture!

Trails get rerouted, campsites get closed, shelters get damaged or burn, signs break, rules change, and much more. There is no way to update the trail guides as fast as things change. They are not dynamic. So as you read, question everything. If it mentions a major bridge, ask if it is still there? A shelter? Is it still in good working order?

Broken trail sign. Stuff happens in the back-country that's not in your guide.
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Broken trail sign. Stuff happens in the back-country that’s not in your guide.

A great example of rule changes (that still get violated) is in the Adirondack High Peaks. After years of abuse, the New York State Department of Conservation banned all fires in the Eastern High Peaks. A couple of years later, they required backpackers to use “bear resistant” containers in the same region.

Even though signs posted at trailheads and notices on the DEC website (i.e., bears) and the current trail guide mentions the changes, we still see people hanging food. When we mention the regulation, they often quote the older trail guide recommendations on hanging food.

Putting it all together

Using your trail guide is the first step in your planning process. Make sure it is the most up-to-date edition. Not the one from 1966. Read the forward and any introduction information if you have a new edition, especially if you have never been to the region. Read about your destination and make some notes on questions you may have. You can use these questions to contact land managers or visit websites to get current information.

Sample questions:

  • Are ladders on cliffs still there?
  • Are bridges still there?
  • What is the condition of a shelter?
  • How busy is a shelter?
  • How many tents can a primitive campsite hold?
  • What are current trail conditions?
  • Is the fire tower open?

You get the point. As you read jot down questions.

Backcountry Information for the High Peaks Region NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation Website
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Backcountry Information for the High Peaks Region NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation Website

Use forums and ask questions. Many good online communities are available, and you can get some good information from people who have just returned from the same place you are planning to go to.

Campfires in the high peaks Adirondack Forum
Scott | copyright Challenged Hiking Adirondack Forum Question on Campfires in the high peaks

Call local clubs, outfitters, or guide services and ask questions many will be more than willing to answer them.

Finally, I have stopped taking my trail guides into the back-country. I make paper copies of the pages I need and write any emergency information required on these copies. I find it saves the book from damage, saves weight and space in my pack, and allows me to write notes as we go.

So, the next time you read your trail guide, question everything! Happy trails.

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