I’m currently publishing a FREE guidebook for Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 footers in New Hampshire in serialized form on SectionHiker.com. Why would someone “give away” the contents of a Guidebook for free instead of publishing one with a real publisher and getting paid for it? I thought I’d explain the reasons why I’m doing it, because it’s probably not obvious.
Here are the trip plans I’ve published so far.
- Backpacking a Presidential Traverse Trip Plan
- Backpacking a Pemigewasset Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking a Southern Presidential Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking the Desolation Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking a Carter Moriah Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking a Mt Isolation Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking the Cannonball Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking a Thirteen Falls Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking a Tunnel Brook Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking the Howker Ridge Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking a Mad River Notch Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking a Willey Range Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking a Kilkenny Traverse Trip Plan
- Backpacking The Kate Sleeper Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking A Moriah Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking The Fire Warden's Loop Trip Plan
- Backpacking an Oakes Gulf Loop Trip Plan
Greater Reach Online
My goal in writing a guidebook about the 4000 footers is to help preserve and protect the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF). The main reason I’m publishing the guidebook online is to get more people to read it and use it. Making people pay for a printed guidebook would limit the number of people who could benefit from it. But publishing a credible, well researched backpacking guidebook online is the best way to reach the largest number of people.
Close to 900,000 acres in size, the WMNF is within driving distance of three major metro areas including Boston, New York, and Portland (Maine). It’s visited by over 6 million people per year, more than the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks, combined. In addition to supporting local economies, the WMNF provides numerous recreational opportunities including hiking, backpacking, camping, climbing, skiing, ice climbing, mountaineering, snowmobiling, mountain biking, cycling, kayaking, and fishing.
But the recent hiking, backpacking, and outdoor recreation boom has greatly increased the number of people visiting the WMNF each year. Resource overuse is a growing concern and many fragile natural areas (for instance – Franconia Ridge) are increasingly crowded, trashed, and trampled to death.
Backcountry use, away from popular tourist areas, has also increased substantially. Unfortunately, the Forest Service, for all of its strengths, has been completely overwhelmed by the influx of people. Federal budget cuts haven’t helped either.
While there are rules and regulations for backcountry camping in the WMNF, the Forest Service does an epically poor job in educating visitors about their existence or enforcing them. They don’t have the staff and their website is just AWFUL. The result has been a widespread proliferation of unsightly and illegal campsites in popular areas, concentrated around the White Mountain 4000 footers. It’s not pretty and it’s not necessary, since there is plenty of space available for low-impact dispersed camping.
My goal in publishing a guidebook is to foster greater stewardship of the WMNF by people who backpack by educating them about the local regulations, telling them about the best maps and apps to use for navigation, and encouraging them to use hardened campsites. I’ve focused on the 4000 footers because they are THE most popular destination for beginner hikers in the Whites. They’re super fun to hike too.
By all accounts, my strategy is working. My guidebook trip plans and maps are some of the most heavily read and downloaded posts on my website. I can see how many people click-through to the WMNF backcountry camping regulations and other information through my website statistics. I know how hard it is to find this information by conventional means, so I know I’m having an impact on making it more accessible.
Stewardship is a difficult concept to explain, but it’s a combination of “taking ownership” and a “desire to educate.” There is a cadre of people who hike, backpack, and maintain trails in the WMNF who I think of as stewards. They care deeply about keeping it pristine, while encouraging responsible use by newcomers. I really look up to them, and hope my guidebook will help foster the same spirit in people who are experiencing White Mountain backpacking for the first time.
But why FREE?
Why is Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers freely available to website visitors? The publishing and outdoor educational landscape has changed radically in the past 5 years. Publishing is now continuous, people desire more interaction with authors and peers, and the overhead of working with a publisher doesn’t justify the effort required.
The death of paper backpacking guidebooks….
People want up-to-date information that you simply can’t provide in a static book that’s updated every 2-3 years with the publication of new editions. Map-publishing using tools like Caltopo, GeoPDF, and GPX files make it very easy to publish and share routes. The backpacking landscape and trails also change constantly due to the effect of winter weather, avalanches, landslides, floods, fires and road closings. Those changes can’t be reflected quickly enough in a paper guidebook.
Commercial guidebooks have also been replaced by other forms of online information, ranging from online map portals to Facebook groups. People want immediate, access to information and the personalized contact that comes with conferring with peers in social media groups. Paperback guidebooks are a poor substitute for the real-time discussion and advice you can get in a Facebook group or Reddit. But publishing a free guidebook on a website (where the owner reads and responds to questions and comments) helps bridge the gap between a frequently updated authoritative guide and a coach who can advise readers in real-time.
The death of hiking and backpacking clubs….
Hiking clubs, like the local Appalachian Mountain Club, used to be the main vehicle for guided trips and educating new backpackers about low impact camping, navigation, wilderness first aid, and hiking and backpacking in general. But their influence has been replaced by the tidal wave of online content. The clubs have largely become irrelevant, because they can’t keep up with the flood of interest or lead enough trips to satisfy the demand. New backpackers and campers also get their information from the web, Facebook, and YouTube, not in classrooms, or on mentored backpacking trips…like the old days.
The death of traditional publishing….
The economics of backpacking books has changed. You simply can’t make any money by authoring a regional guidebook if you work with a traditional publisher. The publisher keeps 80-90% of the profits generated by a book. They provide virtually no editorial assistance and impose all kinds of impediments on authors in terms of illustrations and the number of pictures and maps you can include. I could go on. I had a book contract with a top-tier outdoor publisher about another topic that I cancelled recently. After working “with” them for a few months, it became readily apparent that they provided zero added-value beyond distribution, which I can do myself through my website.
So that in a nutshell is why I’m publishing a Free Guidebook for Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 footers. I’m not trying to redefine guidebook publishing or disenfranchise traditional publishers. I just love backpacking in the White Mountains and want to help preserve it for others to enjoy. This is the best way I can think of doing that.
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