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Writing the Wind River High Route Guide: Three Takeaways by Andrew Skurka

The upper North Fork of Bull Lake Creek, a Wind River High Route highlight. Blaurock Pass, one of the biggest on the route, is the center-right low spot on the next ridge.
The upper North Fork of Bull Lake Creek, a Wind River High Route highlight. Blaurock Pass, one of the biggest on the route, is the center-right low spot on the next ridge.

What do your favorite guides and guidebooks have in common? Let me guess. They are relevant to where, when, and how you backpack. They are comprehensive, yet succinct, and not so detailed that they spoil your sense of adventure. And their forms and formats are extraordinarily user-friendly.

In developing my guide for the Wind River High Route, which I released earlier this year, I tried to check all of these boxes. What were my most important takeaways?

1. Know your Audience

When creating anything — a book, presentation, or even an email — this is sound advice. In this specific case, surprise, not everyone backpacks like me or knows what I do, nor wants to. I always knew this, but I didn’t thoroughly understand the full range of preferences, abilities, and knowledge within the backpacking community until I began guiding trips.Now, when I present information I do so with former clients in mind.

How can I make this useful for Albert, Cindy, Kolby, Krishna, Lisa, Nitro Joe, Vic and nearly four-hundred others?

With the Wind River High Route Guide, I wished to make the route accessible to those who have little familiarity with the range and who may not have the necessary time, fitness, skills, and ambition for an end-to-end thru-hike. In the Guide I included extensive planning information, and route descriptions, data sheets, and topographic maps for the 97-mile Primary Route and eight Section Hikes ranging from 37 to 67 miles. Information for ten lower-elevation alternate routes is also provided, for those with firm dates who can’t hold out for an extended forecast of perfect weather.

Leading a group through the upper East Fork, the granite walls of which are as spectacular as nearby Cirque of Towers, but not as well known.
Leading a group through the upper East Fork, the granite walls of which are as spectacular as nearby Cirque of Towers, but not as well-known.

2. Annotate the Maps

Route descriptions are not particularly useful, especially lengthy ones. For example, a guidebook may read, “The first 200 vertical feet below the pass are very steep,” or, “When you reach the three-way junction on the lake’s north side, turn north towards Jackass Pass.” In both cases, a topographic map can more efficiently convey such information, plus much more.

To make matters worse, route descriptions are frequently mixed with tidbits of history and natural science, and sometimes personal anecdotes from the author. I enjoy this extra color, but it can be frustrating to sift through it for an immediately relevant detail, like whether to turn left or right.

My solution was to extensively annotate the topographic maps, using CalTopo, a powerful online mapping platform. With just the topographic maps, an experienced backpacker could probably complete the entire route. Most, however, will appreciate having a complementary text with general information about each section and in-depth explanations for tricky parts.

 Extensively annotated topographic maps are more user-friendly than a wordy route description. Most segments can be completed using only the maps.
Extensively annotated topographic maps are more user-friendly than a wordy route description. Most segments can be completed using only the maps.

3. Self-publish as a Digital Download

I have considered approaching publishers like Falcon Guides, Mountaineers Press, and National Geographic to discuss their interest in publishing the Guide. But, at least for now, I’m not interested. Instead, it can be downloaded directly from my website.

This was not a monetary decision. Overall, that’s a wash: yes, royalties are less when a publisher is involved; but the publisher also takes over editing, layout, production, marketing, and sales.

Instead, I think that a self-published digital product on a platform like KDP offers a better user experience. It offers far more functionality than can a paper book or e-book:

  • Updates can be made and shared easily.
  • Materials can be viewed on any electronic device, or printed out, depending on user preferences and the application, e.g. prep or field.
  • If hard copies get ruined from extensive field use, they can be replaced without having to buy a new guide.
  • The topographic maps can be printed on 11 x 17 sheets in full-color and in high-resolution.
  • The included .gpx file can be uploaded to a handheld GPS unit or a smartphone with a GPS app like Gaia or BackCountry Navigator.

A final perk of self-publishing is that I retain control of its format. When I compare Steve Allen’s definitive Canyoneering 3 versus Guthook’s apps, I can’t help but feel that the former is a dinosaur, created for an era that is nearly past. Even if Allen wanted to adapt his guide, his publisher could decline if they lack the expertise or financial incentives. In the rapidly changing publishing world, only one truth seems to remain: Content is king.

Sample resources from the Wind River High Route Guide

  • Topographic map of the Dinwoody Glacier area
  • Guidebook — Part 2: As go you, pages 1
  • Datasheet — Primary Route, page 1

Feedback or Comments?

Here’s where I could use your help. What could I do to make the content in my Wind River High Route or similar trips more useful and easier to use? I’m curious about what additional pieces of information or content you’d find useful.

About Andrew Skurka

Andrew Skurka is a Colorado-based adventurer, guide, speaker, and writer. He is the author of The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide and a National Geographic “Adventurer of the Year.” More information,


  1. The biggest thing I see missing before purchasing is a better idea of how difficult these things are. Who is this route aimed at? Who (if they are stubborn/motivated enough) can do it?

    Being a flatlander who’s more comfortable doing 15’s than 30’s, is this route even feasible for me? 70 miles on trail in the Sierra can’t compare to this sort of route.

    I plan to purchase the guide no matter what, as I am going to the Wind’s in 2017, and I over-saturate myself with information, however, from the outside, this appears to be for the elite, niche of the niche adventure hikers, rather than the lightweight backpacker who wants to do, but hasn’t done much, off trail exploring.

    • Kid – what makes you say that? Could you be a little bit more specific in how you came to that conclusion? What would make it more palatable for your skill level and experience?

      • Just reading the article and the descriptions from the website, and knowing who Andrew is immediately makes me think this is a very challenging route. I’ve no doubt the detail is there within the guide, and would probably help me pick a suitable section to hike, however rough estimates of the difficulty of the routes and/or the length of the sections hikes would be beneficial for me from the outside looking in.

    • KidA –

      Good comment.

      A **thru-hike** of the Wind River High Route is an expert-level undertaking. A few stats:

      * Two-thirds off-trail
      * 620 vertical feet of change per mile on average
      * Nine alpine passes and 3 summits (2 x 13’ers and 1 x 12’er)
      * No convenient resupply opportunities
      * Budget 7-10 days depending on your fitness, experience, and weather

      How many backpackers are experts? Not many. So I have also identified eight Section Hikes ranging from 37 to 67 miles. I rate these as Moderate to Expert. Details, Ultimately, I think these Section Hikes will be more popular than the Primary Route: they are shorter (in distance and duration), more accessible (from a skills perspective), and have easier logistics (all loops, versus a point-to-point).

      There are no beginner-level Section Hikes. As soon as you go off-trail, even for just 15 percent of the route, it’s instantly a level up.


  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Andrew :-)

  3. It has been years since I hiked into the Cirque of the Towers; this article rekindled my interest to revisit the Wind Rivers – so thanks! My question concerns the maps which you (Andrew Skurka) indicate are in PDF format for printing. Are they also geospatial PDFs so you could navigate with them directly in the field using Avenza’s PDF Maps application? If they are not, please consider it.

    • Yes, they are geospatial PDF’s. I created the maps using CalTopo (great platform, BTW), and this functionality was added about 18 months ago, The download includes the original PDF files, so you should be able to upload those to Avenza.

      • That is great! Thank you for creating geospatial PDFs. In Minnesota, several of the main state departments produce maps (like state park maps with hiking trails) in PDF format for public use but practically none in the more useful geospatial PDF format. Like your annotated maps they contain a lot more information than say Acuterra in BackCountry Navigator so there would good benefit to hikers / skiers if they were geospatial PDFs. Standard PDF maps can be georeferenced but it is time-consuming and introduces some error. So I try to encourage export of geospatial PDFs at map production time whenever I get a chance!

        Thanks for the tip to CalTopo. I was not aware of this resource and look forward to sifting through the blog.

  4. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the Winds. I was so impressed with them when I went through in the mid ’70s that I bought every one of Finis Mitchell’s postcards and his book and pored over it, planning a bunch of hikes I never got to make. My wife, daughter, and I looked him up and spent some time visiting with him and his wife in Rock Springs in the mid ’80s.

    The last time I was in the Wind River Range was in November, 1988. I was flying a Piper Cherokee through there and the Laramie Range, trying to avoid a major snowstorm while attempting to “get out of Dodge”. It was the first and only time in my life I was sick of mountains and I was never so glad to see prairie when I finally broke on out the east side.

  5. For those of us who want only relatively easy off-trail (there’s plenty of it in the Winds!) combined with on-trail, I’ve found Nancy Pallister’s “Beyond Trails” book the best. You can put together short or long hikes combining pieces of several of her itineraries. I put together several, trying to avoid talus (which I’m not good at, and which I also wanted to avoid because of my late dog). Unfortunately, due to health reasons, I didn’t get to and probably will never get to do them.

    Grandpa, I envy you your visit with Finis Mitchell!

    • It was such a treat. They were extremely kind and hospitable and I was enthralled by his stories and knowledge of the Wind River Range.Thirty years later, I don’t recall the details of the visit, although I remember the inside of his house and his porch. I wish the cobwebs would clear a bit so I could bring back more.

      • I think a reason I don’t remember much of the visit with Finis Mitchell other than details of his house and how kind they both were is that I might have been a bit starstruck.

  6. Wholeheartedly agree with point #2. Last week I tried to use guidebook in a remote section of Canyonlands NP and it ended up causing confusion rather than providing clarity. The narrative described details that I never saw; conversely, it omitted what I thought were some of the more noteworthy features of the trail we were on. I’m still a big fan of the Falcon Guides, but I’ve come to realize that they’re much more useful to me before my hike than during it. From now on, I will use them primarily to decide what trails to take before I ever leave my kitchen. The narratives are largely useless to me in the field, because they contain such statements as, “After you traverse a short distance through a narrow gorge, scramble up a small but steep slope where you’ll find an interesting rock formation.” Well, what do “short,” “narrow,” “small,” “steep” and “interesting” mean to you? Likely not what they mean to me. I prefer the objective information of a topo map, annotated appropriately, to the largely subjective narratives in the traditional guides.

    • The desert is particularly cryptic (lots of mini features) so I’m not surprised at your experience.

      I’ve been thinking about why the standard approach to guidebooks is verbose texts and crappy maps. Two theories:

      1. Cost. It drives the price way up if full-color maps are included with a guidebook. And a lot of this would be wasted expense because most people do only a few of the described trips in a particular guide. With a digital product, the extra printing cost is the responsibility of the customer. But at least you can only print out what you need.

      2. Mapping software copyright issues. With CalTopo, you own the maps you create. With other software programs like NG TOPO!, they were less open about it. And a custom mapping solution would be really expensive.

      • I also think it’s because guidebook authors assumed you would get a local map an not rely on their abstract one for navigation purposes. The maps in their books are inspirational at best, to give you an overview of a trip so you can choose between the different trips they list. That kind of bookish paradigm and delivery system is now outdated.

      • I think traditional guidebooks are intended for a different audience … casual hikers or beginners who aren’t familiar with topographical maps. For them, narrative is likely much easier to understand than a bunch of lines and symbols that are akin to hieroglyphics for the uninitiated. Annotated topo maps probably have a much narrower appeal than a Falcon Guide.

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