Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Last Printed Edition of the Outings Guide?

The Ogden Sierra Club Outings Guide is now being printed. If anyone out there is waiting to buy a copy, we should have them in a week or two.

The changes since the last (2004) edition are numerous but minor. I’ve squeezed in descriptions of three new trails, tweaked the descriptions of many others, and updated several of the maps. The length is unchanged (112 pages), as are the illustrations and most of the page layout.

Shown here is one of the delightful chapter-opening cartoons, which were drawn before my time (1980s or perhaps earlier) by someone I’ve never met (Richard Hogue). It’s an honor to work on a project that so many others have lovingly contributed to over the decades.

Since the Guide went to press, one person has already requested an electronic version of it. This leads me to ponder its future, and the future of books more generally, as the world rushes into the internet age.

Technology has already had a big impact on the production and appearance of the Outings Guide. The first three editions were produced with typewriter, scissors, and tape. Some of the maps were hand-drawn, while others were copied (with permission) from newspaper clippings. A copy shop then reproduced the pages using an analog photocopier.

When I took over as editor in 1998, the production process went digital. I typeset the text (using TeX, the same software I use to write physics books and class handouts), scanned the line drawings, and produced new shaded-relief maps based on digital elevation data. I recall delivering that edition to the copy shop on a Zip disk, from which they uploaded it to their digital copier. In the 2004 edition we switched to FTP and offset printing.

To the end user, however, the format of the Guide is still unchanged: a pocket-sized soft-cover black-and-white booklet, printed on dead trees.

An electronic final version would be environmentally preferable, and would make my life easier in several ways. No more agonizing over the locations of page breaks, or over how much information to try to squeeze onto a tiny black-and-white map. No more running around town making deliveries. No more having to wait until the inventory is depleted before making updates.

On the other hand, the initial creation of a usable electronic version would be a major challenge, in terms of both programming and design. Sure, it’s easy to brainstorm about full-color zoomable maps with links to and from a searchable database of trail descriptions and photos. But I’ve done enough programming and web design to know that producing such a software package wouldn’t be easy.

To their credit, Weber Pathways has put an electronic version of their trail map on the web. As you roll the cursor over an alphabetical list of trail names, the trails are highlighted on the map. You can click on a trail name to see a text description of the trail, and you can restrict the list to trails of a chosen difficulty level if desired. With a bit of patience I can even view this map on my iPhone, if I’m in a location that has service.

But the Weber Pathways electronic map isn’t perfect. The map is extremely small and can’t be zoomed. Nor can you identify a trail by pointing at it on the map. You can’t access the map while exploring the more remote parts of the county. And notably, the electronic version of the map is now out of date, compared to the latest printed edition. 

Are there better examples of electronic trail maps? If so, I’d love to see them. But I’m doubtful, because solving one problem would probably create others. A fancier web site could be prohibitively expensive to create and maintain. A stand-alone mobile app could have a slicker user interface, but would be unavailable to anyone who doesn’t have the right gadget.

The long-term maintenance issue is especially troubling. Already, the production process for our Outings Guide has become so technical that I would have a lot of trouble finding another volunteer to take it over. Switching to an electronic Guide would ratchet up the geek level a couple more notches, and might require hiring a professional programmer. And while it’s easy in principle to update an electronic document, in practice it can become a burden and even an expensive necessity, as hardware and software quickly evolve.

Then there’s the question of money. Selling Outings Guides has been our group’s main source of income over the years. But nobody is willing to pay to access a web site, and at least for now, the market for a mobile app of this type isn’t large enough to cover the cost of hiring someone to produce it. (Weber Pathways operates on a much different business model, raising money from charitable contributions and mostly staying out of politics. We need organizations like that, but they can’t do everything.)

The good news is that we’re printing enough paper copies of the Outings Guide to last another four or five years. By then technology will have progressed, and perhaps the right way to do an electronic Guide will be obvious.

I’ll promise one thing now, though: As long as I’m the editor, the Guide will continue to include Richard’s cartoons.


  1. As a user [not producer] of the Ogden Group Sierra Club Tailguide, I come at it exclusively from the POV of usefulness to the Garden Variety Walker/Hiker [i.e., me.]

    The printed guide (a) lives in my car unless it (b) rides in my shirt pocket or rucksack pocket when I'm out walking on something other than the paved Ogden trails. [In other words, it goes around here where my Peterson "Field Guide to Western Birds" goes. Which I consider high praise. ]

    Hard to see how an on-line version would be as useful --- particularly when I'm on a trail I've never done before, and come to some confusing junction with cross trails coming in. Out comes the trail guide. Knowing the information I need is back home available on line wouldn't be very useful. And it allows for changing plans, alternative routes chosen mid-walk.

    So, from this trail walker's POV, a print version is far more useful than an on-line version would be. Far more.

  2. Curm: Thanks for your comment. Obviously the Guide shouldn't go electronic unless this will benefit the users--and I should have discussed these benefits in more detail. As I see it, the potential benefits are:

    * Reaching thousands of new users who, for whatever reason, have never bought a paper copy;

    * Providing updates much more frequently, at no cost to the user;

    * No space limitations, and much more flexibility in the way the information is organized and linked;

    * No need to carry an extra item in your pack, if you can pull up the Guide on your cell phone (or iPod or whatever gadget people will be carrying in the future).

    As I've already pointed out, I don't think there's currently a practical way to realize all these benefits. But as technology improves, I hope this will change.

    Of course, there will always be a few old curmudgeons who stubbornly refuse to go electronic. But when the electronic version comes out, those folks will be able to pick up used copies of the obsolete dead-tree edition really cheap.

    Meanwhile, you really oughta check out iBird.

  3. Dan:

    Well, I'm kind of a low-tech hiker. Always have been. [I carry a canteen, not an expensive high tech "hydration system" and so on.]

    And part of the appeal, for me, when I'm doing something other than just walking along the river pathway, is the sense of isolation... of being out there alone. Not in touch at the press of a button with The World. Carrying a phone, much less an IPhone with aps I think would take some of the edge off for me. So would carrying a gps device. Map and compass work just fine if you know how to use them. And I do. The more I do, the more I enjoy it all. [Others, clearly, think differently, poor souls.]

    Besides, my Peterson and my Sierra Club Trail Guide were so cleverly constructed, they've never run low on batteries. Not once. And I don't recall ever opening either and discovering that I've got no signal. Now that's good design!

  4. Printed guide to put in backpack. Along with Twinkies and gum. I am a book and guide person.

    However, electronic version would be nice to study, once home.

  5. Curm:

    First of all, a cell phone app wouldn't necessarily require any connection to the outside world. Check out iBird!

    Does your opposition to batteries carry over to flashlights as well? Do you carry candles for camping, or do you fear that they too will burn out?

    Of course, a true purist would never carry a guidebook of any sort, or a map or compass. Most of us draw the line somewhere, when it comes to "sense of isolation".

  6. Dan:

    I gave up on the candles. Had a hell of a time lighting them with flint and steel.


Not registered? Just choose "Name/URL" and enter any name you like; you can ignore the URL field.