GAIA GPS

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Is this a product review? I dunno, maybe. It’s a tribute, an ode, accolades, praise. And just like that, I’m a BadAss again.

BadAss: Back when my blog was specifically about running, I sought to become a BABWTR (Babywater), a BadAss Back Woods Trail Runner. The sort of dude who can run off into the wilderness without concern. The guy who always knows where he’s going as long as he has a map and compass. The dude who needs only a roll of duct tape and some fishing line to save his life. The guy who runs all day without getting winded… like Minho in the Maze Runner… except thirty-five years older… and not cool… and not good looking.

I get an “A” for effort, I boosted my mileage over ten months to complete a 50K run. Pretty Bad, but I never became a BadAss. I ran my same local park trail over and over. On a couple of occasions, I drove to some well-defined and well-marked trails systems and ran some carefully planned loops. But in general, I feared letting loose in the woods because I knew what would happen. I’d get lost.

The forested areas in central Pennsylvania are no joke. Remote is an understatement. Trail heads are on deserted paved roads, or on deserted dirt roads. Deserted is the key. Usually my car sits alone in the parking area. Cell reception is nonexistent. When I head out on a trail, I’m truly alone.

Here’s a fun fact. One afternoon I spent hours calculating and researching, and used my only ever real-life application of Pi: A ten-mile radius around a parked car yields a two hundred-thousand-acre search area. Getting lost on an afternoon run will almost certainly result in a night spent in the woods. Every time I tried to get my Babywater on, I got stressed. Susan got stressed. The run was no fun; I spent the whole outing worried. Eventually, I gave up. Back to the tired trails at the edge of my property.

A couple nights ago, lying in bed, I flashed on a conversation from last August. The father of a kid on Eli’s mountain bike team told me about a cell phone app he uses called GAIA GPS. He fires up the app every time he mountain bikes in Michaux State Forest, a large unpopulated swath of mountainous terrain in south-central Pennsylvania. The app features downloadable trail maps and GPS tracking when no cell reception is available.

Yesterday, I woke up itching to get out for a trail run, but I wanted to run something fresh. I downloaded GAIA GPS. The tool is intuitive, idiot proof really, I figured it out in about fifteen minutes. And cheap, too. For $19.99, I bought a trail map of the entire world. This is the same amount I spent on my Purple Lizard map of Michaux. It’s a nice map, rugged, weather-proof, but it only shows the most established trails and fire roads. It doesn’t include the hundreds of lesser hiking and mountain bike trails that litter Michaux. It also doesn’t feature a handy GPS dot showing me exactly where I am at any given moment.

The weather sucked. Raw. It spat rain all morning with temps in the high forties. When I knocked off work at three o’clock, it looked like the rain was done, but it remained dreary. Not the sort of day to go run a remote trail a few hours before sunset. Susan and I went through a familiar negotiation. She worried about my safety, I acted like I had everything figured out. This is how scary-lost runs always start out.

I explained GAIA to her. I downloaded a map of my neighborhood, turned off the cellular and wifi on my phone, and showed her how the map still knew exactly where I was. I planned to run a trail I hiked before. This would be something of a trial run for the app.

Right at the start of the quarantine, feeling trapped in my house, I convinced my family to go hike the Abigail Trail in Michaux. “How long is it?” This was Eli, he doesn’t really like hiking. Boring. “Hmm. Not sure. Less than three miles.” I found the trail on my Purple Lizard map. There’s a scale bar in the bottom corner of the map. With my thumb and forefinger, I measured a half mile on the scale and then compared the space between my fingers to the map. Yep, three miles—at the most.

An hour or so into the hike, we stopped to look at the map. Sophie was ready to be done. There’s a left turn onto a different trail three quarters of the way through the hike. We wanted to make sure we hadn’t missed it. The map offered no help. We had no idea where we were. Twenty minutes later, we passed a family we saw hiking the opposite direction right when we started the hike. I didn’t say it out loud, but I knew this meant we were only halfway done. We stopped three more times—after each large sweeping bend in the trail—to see if we could find our location on the map. It wasn’t clear. We were on the right trail, but we felt pretty lost.

I can rattle off an impressive list of family hikes that went poorly. Two memorable ones: The Blueberry Trail, mid-hike, ended in the middle of a logging operation. Rather than turn back, we decided to see if we could pick up the trail again when the logging ended. We couldn’t, we were officially lost. Luckily, Sophie had turned on a GPS tracker on her phone to measure our hike. We were able to bushwhack our way back onto the trail.

Next: The Billy Goat Trail, a far longer hike than we expected on an unseasonably hot June day. Ninety-five-degrees, only two bottles of water for the four of us to share. We all finished seriously dehydrated.

Yesterday’s assault on the Abigail Trail featured none of this nonsense. I launched GAIA at the start of my run, and I checked in after a few minutes to make sure it was tracking my progress. Every fifteen minutes or so, surprised by the steepness of the trail, disoriented by my slow pace, I pulled out my phone to make sure I wasn’t lost. Every time, GAIA showed I was on the correct trail. With these periodic check-ins, I could relax and enjoy my run.

Last night, back home making dinner with Susan, I told her that my run was more fun than Christmas morning. I already see how GAIA will revolutionize my running. Tomorrow, I’m planning eight miles in the back section of Strawberry Hill. An area I’ve unhappily avoided because I got lost on my one and only try.

The Abigail Trail wound up topping out at just over 4.25 miles. This has been dubbed ‘the trail from hell’ by my kids. With GAIA, I’ll never misquote a distance as “something less than three miles.” Now with digital mapping, I’ll always know what to expect before I even start.

Public service announcement: I hope I’ve inspired someone to give GAIA GPS a try. It seems like a cheap and easy guarantee that you’ll make it back to your car safely after a hike or a run. Another way to stay safe is to pack all necessary supplies in case of an emergency. On my run yesterday, filled my pack with an extra bottle of water, some food, a wind breaker, gloves and a hat. If I spent the night in the woods, I wouldn’t be especially comfortable, but at least I’d be alive.

Self-serving announcement: Have you read BadAss? It’s a compilation of twenty-five essays about my quest to become a Back Woods Trail Runner. It’s free.

16 thoughts on “GAIA GPS

  1. When Older Daughter was about 7, we went camping in the local mountains. Younger was a baby, we left her at the tent with Dad and she & I set off on a hike. No phones, no nothing. We decided to try a trail to the right instead of turning around like we usually did at the end of the usual hike.
    The sun was setting and we were still on the trail but WHERE? We eventually found the road… 4 miles from the campground entrance.
    That was a hike neither of us will forget. I was so afraid we were gonna run into a mountain lion.

    That app sounds like a good deal.

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    • It’s a sinking feeling when you realize you might not make it back by dark. It happened to me one time when I took a co-worker’s teenage son out mountain biking. I suddenly realized that I was supposed to be the responsible adult. I should never be trusted.

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  2. Trails near me in Lancaster County are a little bit less remote. I don’t usually worry about getting lost because I know if I keep going, before too long, I will hear traffic noise. Just the same, I am going to spring for Gaia. We used to do trail running weekends, where we would drive for an hour or two to some more remote trails, then run, stay overnight and sample local cuisine, run again, and drive home. We did a trial half in Michaux – Buck Ridge Burn. I think that was actually at Strawberry Hill. I also did Ironmaster’s Challenge. Awesome place to run! Again, thanks for the good tip for the app. And I did read Badass!

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    • I’ve done Buck Ridge too. Maybe we ran the same year. That one is actually at Pine Grove Furnace. Your mini running getaways sound awesome. I envision us doing something similar for hiking when both kids are in college. I can’t wait to get out for another back woods run. Today might not be the day. Rain!

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  3. You know me in that I am not much into trail running. But with the quarantine, I have been researching and we have been hiking some of the preserves around us. Yesterday I had the family out at a new one that I saw had covered bridges and water. Same thing though, I didn’t know how far away they were from the start (and Declan was done shortly after we started). A little over a mile later we got to the bridges and it was nice. But if I had known it was that far I’m not sure we would have done it. Took a good 45 minutes to walk that mile back with grumpy pokey child.

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    • As a tool for family hikes, I think GAIA will come in handy. They all go so badly that it impacts everyone’s desire to go hiking. It would be nice to go explore some new areas without the drama of getting lost.

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    • I feel like the kids in ‘The Cat in the Hat’. The weather is terrible today and I’m itching to get outside. I’m just sitting around sort of depressed waiting for the rain to let up. Let me know how gaia works for you. I’m curious to see if it is well developed for other areas. It seems to have *every* trail around here, but possibly it’s become really popular with our mountain bike community and they’ve taught it the trails.

      Liked by 1 person

    • No honestly, I just stick a map and a compass in my pack and hope I don’t have to use them. Thinking back, I’m been aware that apps like this existed for a long time. I’m not sure why I didn’t seek this out sooner. My run this afternoon was REMOTE. It felt so nice knowing where I was. I’m worried that my wife will turn into a running widow. I just want to go out and explore.

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    • My three weeks with Gaia has opened up a bunch of new running, mountain biking and hiking routes. I used to avoid the forested areas because I was so worried about getting lost. Now I’m heading out to explore without fear. It’s truly life changing. Especially during this time when we’re trying to stay away from others.

      Liked by 1 person

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