AllTrails and National Geographic Team Up to Get Hikers Oriented

2/10/12Follow @wroush

The United States is essentially an unpopulated wilderness. If you scattered the citizenry evenly across the country, we’d each have a luxurious eight acres to ourselves. But here’s the weird thing: In a country where the outdoors is so vast, people rarely go there. Even folks who think of themselves as outdoorsy types don’t leave the house much—only 24 percent of outdoor enthusiasts say they get outside two or more times per week, according to a 2010 study by the Outdoor Industry Association.

Why don’t more people hit the trails? The surprising reason, according to many studies, is that they don’t know where to go. And the Internet isn’t much help. Key information about hiking and cycling destinations—the locations of trailheads and the length and difficulty of each route, for example—is either fragmented across thousands of websites run by federal, state, or municipal agencies, or stuck behind paywalls. If you’re looking for a restaurant near a trailhead, Yelp will show you lots of options. But as for the trail itself, good luck.

That’s the gap a San Francisco startup called AllTrails is trying to fill. A 2010 graduate of the AngelPad startup accelerator program, the company offers an exhaustive online database of trails and trail reviews from hikers, as well as GPS-enabled iPhone and Android apps that help users plan, document, and share their outdoor adventures. More than 200,000 people have joined AllTrails so far, and its iPhone app persistently ranks among the iTune’s App Store’s top 100 free travel apps.

The AllTrails team

The company, which is backed by 2020 Ventures, Camp Ventures, and 500 Startups, also sends out a handy e-mail every Thursday with suggestions for weekend hiking or biking trips, customized to each user’s location and past preferences. I’ve followed up on AllTrails’ suggestions several times, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. My favorite AllTrails find: Berry Falls Loop, a 10.4-mile trail along a meandering creekbed adjacent to Big Basin State Park near Santa Cruz, CA.

All of this information is free. But next month, AllTrails plans to introduce a premium, subscription-based version of its service that will give users exclusive access to GPS route information for each trail, as well as topographical and illustrated maps from National Geographic. I visited AllTrails a couple of weeks ago to get the scoop on the new premium services from Russell Cook, the company’s founder.

The alliance with National Geographic, announced in January, is probably the biggest thing to happen to the six-employee startup since it got admitted to AngelPad, Cook says. It’s not just a content-sharing arrangement: the entire AllTrails site is now co-branded with National Geographic, and AllTrails is about to take over management of TOPO.com, a service of National Geographic that sells PDF versions of topographical maps. “If you had asked me back during AngelPad who we wanted to work with, there would be no one else even close to number one,” says Cook. “No one is better known for their spirit of adventure or their quality of information.”

I’ll say more on that partnership in a minute. But why did Cook think there was a need for a new outdoor-recreation site in the first place?

Well, if you’re like me and you spent a lot of time searching online for trail information, you’ve probably run into a site called Trails.com. A product of the first dot-com boom, Trails.com has built up one of the Web’s largest collections of online trail guides. (The site got sucked into the Demand Media empire in 2006 when Demand bought its parent company, Hillclimb Media.) The site’s pages score highly in Google’s search results, and if you’re looking for a good trail to hike in a given region, Trails.com will usually have plenty of options. The problem is that if you want to see the trail on a decent map—i.e. one with enough resolution to be readable and printable—you have to sign up for a $49.95 yearly subscription.

In other words, Trails.com has left a lot of room for competitors to sneak in with cheaper and more accessible trail information. Still, Cook says he respects the older business. “Ten years ago, when they launched the company, there was all this great book content on the outdoors, and they did a fantastic job signing partnerships with a lot of book publishers and offering a pretty affordable subscription,” he says. “If you bought a couple of map books it would equal the $50 per year they’re charging. The difficulty we saw with their model was that it doesn’t lend itself to making the information available in mobile apps. And it makes it difficult to build any type of community.”

A quick look at the economic data on outdoor recreation convinced Cook there were ways to make money that didn’t necessarily involve costly subscriptions. “In the U.S. alone, people spend $243 billion a year on outdoor trips, plus an additional $46 billion on gear,” he says. “So we knew the fundamentals were there. There are a lot of advertisers and businesses around these outdoor destinations that are looking for a way to reach this audience.”

The AllTrails iPhone app lets users track their paths and snap photos along the way, which are attached to the appropriate locations on the map.

But to reach outdoors enthusiasts, AllTrails first had to come up with a compelling offering of its own. So back in 2010, Cook and his team set out to build their own database of trail information, some of it based on the Creative Commons-licensed OpenCycleMap project, some on free (until recently) Google Maps data, and some on first-hand information collected by hikers carrying GPS tracking devices. The site now lists 45,000 trails in the U.S. and Canada. For most destinations, AllTrails offers directions to the trailhead and an estimate of the trail’s length. For some trails, there’s also data on difficulty, whether dogs are allowed, and the like. Once users have completed a trail, they’re encouraged to post their own notes, so AllTrails also has a growing collection of Yelp-style reviews.

What AllTrails doesn’t offer yet is an actual map of each trail—unless that information happens to be part of the Google or Bing map data that you can browse on the AllTrails site or access through iPhone and Android apps. That’s where the National Geographic partnership will come in handy. Subscription members of AllTrails will have access to the exhaustive collection of digital topographic maps at TOPO.com, as well as full GPS data on the route and elevation of each trail. On top of that, AllTrails is working with National Geographic to digitize its “Trails Illustrated” map series—a collection of 165 gorgeously crafted maps of popular U.S. outdoor destinations, previously available only on paper.

As a final benefit, subscribers will be offered discounts at outdoor retailers. Cook says AllTrails is in conversations with companies like REI and the Sports Basement, a sporting-goods retailer with four locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Don’t ask me how much I’ve spent at the Sports Basement—let’s just say I could have used a discount a lot earlier.)

Cook hasn’t said yet how much a premium AllTrails subscription will cost, but he says it will be worth it. “Between the premium map content, the route information that’s impossible to find on an aggregate basis anywhere else, and the retail discounts, it should be a really compelling offering.”

To help pay for the free version of AllTrails, the company is recruiting both large national brands and local businesses to advertise on the site and within the apps. Already, there’s an ad for The Clymb, a flash-sale site for premium outdoor gear, that pops up as a splash page in the iPhone app before you get to your profile page. But future ads will be less obtrusive, Cook promises. “What we don’t want to do is hit people over the head with a bunch of display advertising that pops up the minute you hit the trails,” he says. “We are trying to find more normal integration points. When you’re done hiking you may want to go grab a beer, so we may provide an easy way to click over to a new map view with local businesses layered over the map. We’re talking with some advertisers about sponsoring programs to clean up trails by providing prizes and incentives. These are all things that tie in with our overall community.”

There’s plenty of work for AllTrails to do after the premium version goes live in March. As it absorbs the old TOPO.com and all its customers, AllTrails will have to cope with a big influx of new members. The Android app needs to be upgraded—it isn’t nearly as full-featured as the iPhone version, Cook says. There are plans for an iPad app; the National Geographic maps would obviously look prettier on a larger screen. And the company wants to expand its map coverage and trail information to the U.K., Australia, and South Africa, followed by Europe and Asia. “We spend a lot of time building the initial database of trail information,” says Cook. “That’s the main limiting factor on rolling out in other countries.”

The fact is that most of the map data AllTrails offers has been available in print form for a long time. But many people “look at a map and get overwhelmed,” Cook says. The Web, and especially the recent wave of GPS-enabled, broadband-connected smartphones, can feed people trail data and other information about potential destinations in more manageable chunks. “When you provide people with the right information, they feel more empowered to go explore their back yard,” he says.

And the more time people spend exploring the great outdoors, the more willing they may be to protect it. “People who are out experiencing the outdoors are much more motivated to do the little day-to-day things” that can save the environment, Cook says. So maybe John Muir was right after all: The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.trailsource.com/ Jamie W.

    There’s really nothing new here. Since 1997, TRAILSOURCE.COM has been providing trail descriptions and printable maps for thousands of trails worldwide. Unlike the poor quality of user submission based websites, TRAILSOURCE.COM has provided only edited and reviewed content to over 40M unique visitors around the planet.

  • http://www.wta.org rob

    For hikers lucky enough to live in or near Washington State, the Washington Trails Assoc. has provided the goto source for hiking http://www.wta.org, trails, recommendations, user supplied trail status, deep guide book content via a partnership with The Mountaineers Books.

    All for FREE, while coordinating 100,000+ hours of volunteer labor to help maintain this critical resource. Users are encouraged to become supporting members.

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