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Interview: A Campfire Chat with Guthook

Ryan Linn on the Appalachian Trail
Ryan Linn on the Appalachian Trail

I haven’t seen you in a few months, what do you look like these days? Beard, no beard, dreadlocks, puff-ball or short hair?

My disguise is ever-changing, so I hesitate to give it away… But for now I’m just beginning to regrow the scruff. I cut everything short at the beginning of March to anticipate the warm weather. I’m starting to let the beard come back due to laziness. And so I can fit in with the hiker crowd!

Guthooks Applachian Trail Guide

How are Guthook’s Hiking Guides for iPhone and Android doing? What kind of feedback are you getting from hikers using them?

They’re mighty fun, but kind of stressful, too. It’ll be a while before I work out the last of the bugs (that’s the really stressful part– there’s always something to tweak or fix), and a long time before I’m making enough money to justify the time I’ve spent on them.

But the most important part is that they’re fun to work on and people seem to enjoy them. Pacific Crest Trail hikers have been pretty excited about them since they came out last year. And the feedback from Appalachian Trail hikers has been excellent too. The part I love the most is hearing from people who use and enjoy them. That really motivates me to work harder.

Hiking in the Camden Hills
Hiking in the Camden Hills

You’ve hiked a lot of trails: the AT, the PCT, the Long Trail, the Cohos Trail, the New England Trail. Where does your spirit of adventure come from?

Jeez, that’s a good question. I grew up in a tiny, rural town in central Maine, so my imagination went wild right from the beginning out of necessity to stave off boredom. Then I got into fantasy and science fiction early on, starting with VHS tapes of Star Wars, and moving on to role playing games and card games. I didn’t get into hiking until I was 17, but even at my most city-bound, there was always a lot of interest in wild places and exploring.

When I really started escaping to the mountains, it was because I fit in a lot better out there than I did at college or in the urban world. A semester at NOLS pretty much solidified it for me. I realized I’d been trying to change myself to fit into the community at my school. The wilderness has always been a reliable home for me, so I learned to listen to that calling.

Have you thought about hiking the CDT and getting your Triple Crown?

Oh heck yeah! At one point I was planning on hiking the CDT, but I decided the time wasn’t right for me just yet. There were a lot of reasons for that, including the apps business, personal life, professional life, and more. I know I’ll do the CDT eventually. I’m waiting until I feel like I really need that journey. At the time that I hiked the AT, I really needed it. Same with the PCT. Same with the Long Trail. The need will arise again sooner or later.

As someone who’s hiked in the east coast and the west coast of the US, what would you say are the biggest differences between the two?

I get that question all too often… and I had a strong reaction against it while I was on the PCT. Just comparing long-distance backpacking, I think the biggest difference is how people perceive the hike, both when they’re on it and when viewing it from afar. There’s this impression that you’ll never see anyone on the PCT and that it will be more wild, while the AT will have bumper to bumper traffic without any real wilderness. I didn’t find either of those things to be true. In both cases, the trail was as social and as wild as you wanted it to be.

As for more fundamental differences, it does seem like the more open views in much of the west (there are heavily forested areas like the east, but once you get up high, you get wide views practically everywhere) change the goals of hikers. In New England, mountaintops are the usual goal of a hike, but when you get the same view from down low as up high, the extra climb might not be worth the effort. That was the hardest adjustment I had to make on the PCT– if I remember right, the PCT didn’t go over a single peak.

Friends on the PCT
Friends on the PCT

People say that off-trail hiking is a lot easier out west that on the east coast. Is there any truth to that?

In my experience, that is a hundred percent true. Mostly because of the navigation aspect. If you can see a long way, you can just walk toward giant landmarks and know that you’re heading in the right direction. On my last NOLS course in the Rockies I think I avoided using a compass for thirty days straight, though we were off trail about 90% of the time. Even in low elevations below tree line, topographical features were so large that we could pick really great handrails. And, of course, the undergrowth is a lot less dense out there.

Compare that to the northeast, where we have undergrowth so thick that you can barely see a hundred feet ahead of you, and it’ll snag your feet at every step. You can spend a lot of time wandering around through the woods in the wrong direction before you realize you’re off course. Then there’s the krummholz… that’s a killer when it comes to bushwhacking.

Guthook as Santa Dread
Guthook as Santa Dread

You do a lot of hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. What kinds of trips do you like best there?

The places I go most often are in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, partly because it’s centrally located, but also because it’s a great place to wander for a few days at a time. Same with the Wild River Wilderness. Both of those areas are big basins, surrounded by big mountains and full of really deep forest. It feels so secluded, which is something you don’t always get in the Whites. Multi-day solo backpacking trips really give me that feeling of connecting with nature, so I try to find places where there are good loops and relatively few people. The Pemi and the Wild River have both of those (to some extent). I’ve been doing a lot of day-hiking since October, so I’m really looking forward to getting really deep into those Wildernesses for overnight trips this summer.

After all the miles you’ve hiked, what backpacks have you liked best and what are you using these days?

My first lightweight backpack was a Granite Gear Nimbus Ozone that I used for the Appalachian Trail, and after that each pack got progressively smaller (mostly). I used a Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus for a few years, and I loved that one– my first frameless pack. It has something like 3000 miles under its belt, and looks like it could take another ten thousand. These days, I’m using a Gossamer Gear Kumo, and really enjoying it. It’s more complicated than I generally like in a pack (simplicity is key for me), but it’s mighty comfortable, and I can load it down with some hefty loads. This is my favorite three-season pack these days, and probably will be for many years to come.

For trips where I need to carry a lot more stuff than usual, I have a ULA Circuit, which I also really enjoy. I got it for the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail, thinking I’d be carrying so much water that my Exodus wouldn’t do. The Circuit has a very cushy suspension system that fits me like a glove. Carrying eight days worth of food and a bear canister into the Sierra wasn’t even too bad. I’ve thought of using that pack for things like the White Mountains Diretissima, but that might be a little too crazy for now.

Hiking the New England Trail
Hiking the New England Trail

What hiking gear do you have that’s lasted the longest?

I’ve been using the same Mountain Equipment Co-Op Silicone Scout tarp since 2005– by far the longest lasting piece of equipment I own. The current specs say it weighs about 18 ounces, but mine is 12, including guy lines. I’ve slept through many nasty downpours in this thing, never needed seam sealing, and in a pinch I can fit two people under it. Best of all, it was about $50 US when I bought it. Not a bad deal at all!

Almost every year I tell myself I’m going to upgrade to a fancy MLD Grace Solo or a ZPacks cuben tarp, but I’ve never been able to justify spending that much money for so small a gain. A catenary cut tarp would probably pitch tighter (I really only do the A-frame anyway), but my current tarp is pretty darn light, and offers plenty of rain protection.

3 comments

  1. Hey Grandpa. We’re working on the Android app for the AT, but it’s going to take some time… I had a big head start with the iPhone ones. I’m sure you’ll see them sooner or later :)

    As for seeing me on the trail, I think I’m going to be spending a lot of time in the White Mountains and Mahoosucs in the next few years, living in the Portland area (Maine). Chances are you’ll run into me at some point!

  2. Do you ever program while backpacking? Or do the electronics stay off the trail?

    • Eek! Heck no! That would be a sign that I need to get away from the electronics in a big way. But I do often solve tricky problems in programming by going hiking and letting my mind wander. Just like tricky puzzles, they can be solved a little better when you get away from them and can ponder for days before getting your hands back on the problem.

      As far as other electronics, though, I do carry the GPS to map trails for the apps (not really for navigation), and a camera, voice recorder, and phone to get pictures and take notes. I’m more or less stuck with bringing some electronics, but even with them, it’s not too hard to feel the benefits of being away from the office for a while.

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