Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review of the AllTrails App

AllTrails is currently my favorite hiking app. It is nowhere near perfect but it has enough to recommend it that I am seriously thinking about signing up for AllTrails Pro at $49.99 per year. So far I have only been using the free version, so that is what I will cover in this post.

The App
The AllTrails app is super easy to use. OK I admit to getting a little confused the first several times that I used the app while figuring out how to start tracking my hike, but it never took more than a minute or two to figure out how to get to the tracking screen. One of my fellow hikers had exactly the same problem so now I know that it's not just me :) 

How It Works
To track your hike, go to the "Tracks" tab and click on "+" in the upper left hand corner. It will bring up a map and find your location. Click "Start tracking" when you are ready to start hiking. A blue dot shows your current location and a red line tracks where you have been on the map. A direction indicator also shows which way you are facing from the blue dot and it updates very quickly. So you can turn until you are facing the correct trail. I love this!

You can also take pictures from within the app and they show up attached to the hike on the website as well as in the app. I thought this was really cool for a while and used it a lot. But it is a lot slower to take pictures from inside of the app so I got bored of it and just went back to taking pictures outside of the app. I am suddenly wondering if I can attach pictures to the hike afterwards. I will look into this.

The maps are very good. They usually have the trails that I am hiking on the map and they often are even labeled with the trail names. But sometimes the trails just aren't on the map, or they are there but aren't named. I always bring a map with me anyway, but I love it when I can see what trail I am on in this app. This makes it really easy to find my way when the trails aren't signed very clearly or when I am figuring out which way to go at a junction.

The Statistics
You can see the distance traveled in miles, the elapsed time and your current speed at the top of the screen where your route is being tracked on the map. By clicking on "i" in the upper lefthand corner of this screen, you can get additional stats: current map coordinates, bearing (e.g. 229 deg SW), current elevation, battery level of phone, and GPS accuracy (given in feet, I have no idea how this is determined and don't really trust it since the mileage is off - see below).

Needed Improvements
This app desperately needs a way to lock the screen while you are hiking. I can't tell you how many times I have thought I was tracking a hike only to open the app during the hike and find that it was paused for the last 4 miles. Most other apps have a way to lock the screen so that this doesn't happen. Please, AllTrails, add this feature soon!

I have consistenly seen this app give shorter mileage readings than the estimated distances in the hiking books. The mileage is also consistently shorter than a fellow hiker's pedometer. So I'm fairly certain that the readings are just low. They are often off by as much as 1 mile for a 7 mile hike. That's a lot! This app is very useful even with the errors in the mileage numbers, but I'd love to be able to trust these numbers more. Sometimes the mileage is the best indicator for finding trail junctions and such - I don't trust this app for this at all.

I would also like to see some improvements in the website, but let me explain what I like about the website first and then I'll explain what I'd like to see improved.

The Best and the Worst: The Website
It is super cool to be able to track my hike with the AllTrails app, but there are a lot of apps that do this very well. What I really like about this app is that it is linked to a website where you can set up an account to review all your hikes and to get ideas from other hikers. I can go back to previously tracked hikes and add details like a title for the hike, the "story" of the hike, and even a rating for the hike. I love going back to look through my hikes and filling in the information for them later when I have more time. I am actually more likely to use this app than the others that I have downloaded to my phone just because I know that I already have ten or more hikes saved there and I like the idea of having all of my hikes saved to one place.

You can see an elevation profile of the hikes that you have tracked afterwards on the website. This is really nice! See the picture above for the elevation profile of one of my recent hikes. This is probably my favorite feature of AllTrails.

I'm also super hopeful about the online community of hikers that they are trying to create on the AllTrails website. I love the idea but so far it is just frustrating. For one thing, the hike rating system isn't set up well and so has become useless. The list of trails is very incomplete and so most people rate a different trail than the one that they actually hiked on. There just aren't enough trails listed on the site so people just select the one of the trails that they can find in that park (it is not uncommon for me to find only one trail listed in a huge park full of many different trails). And so you get people rating an 8 mile hike and giving a description of a 2 mile hike on a completely different trail. So you might as well just ignore the ratings and there is no real point in even reading other people's descriptions unless you're willing to read through many of them in hopes of finding one that is actually talking about that specific trail.

Not only does this make the ratings for that specific hike unusable, it also makes it incredibly difficult to find other hikes that you might be interested in. For example, I really love the Big Basin Waterfall hike and would like to find other hikes like this one. So I figured I would see who else has gone on this hike and investigate where else they have hiked to get ideas. But so many people have rated the Waterfalls hike instead of another hike that they actually did, that none of their other saved hikes are interesting to me at all. I tried to get something useful out of the website community for over an hour and just finally gave up.

I do think that most of what is needed for a really great hiking community is there. It just needs a very different setup for rating hikes. Because honestly, I rarely ever just take one trail on my hikes. I form a loop out of many different trails and so my hike will be different than someone else's who designed a somewhat different loop, even though we both used some of the same trails. I would love to see people have the ability to simply give their hike a name and describe it. And if I want to do that hike I can add my own description and rating as well. For all I know this is actually possible for the pro version, but it's hard to see how it could be implemented in the framework that they currently have. Hmmm...I need to decide how much more time and hope to put into this site. It does have a lot of promise!

Friday, April 27, 2012

In Search of the Best Hiking App

The Discovery
I didn't think that anything could possibly making hiking more fun. Hiking is amazing all on its own. Especially in the SF Bay Area where there seem to be limitless parks, open space preserves and nature preserves to explore. But then I discovered hiking apps on my iPhone, and now hiking is even more fun!

How can you not want to know how far you've gone, for how long, at what average speed, maximum speed and elevation change? Plus you get a traced route of your hike on a map to show your friends afterwards. Life couldn't be any better!

Starting the Search
But now how to find the best app? There are so many of them. I think that the search through all of the hiking apps is going to be a lot of fun! I have a tendency not to be very methodical about these things, despite my background as a scientist. Which is why I started this blog. I'll try to use the fact that I am promising to post my findings here as motivation to be as methodical as possible in testing out and comparing apps.

The App List:
All Trails
Gaia GPS
EveryTrail Pro
AccuTerra Unlimited

Let's Go!
I have downloaded all but the last one of these apps on my iPhone. I'm sure this list will grow as I proceed. I have a hike planned for tomorrow at the Forest of Nisene Marks. Which app should I use? I'll let you know!