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Boots, Backpack and a Ubiquitous App

Close your eyes and imagine a stereotypical hiker. Do the words “rugged” and “built Ford tough” come to mind? Are they wearing khaki shorts? Is a tube attached to a CamelBak hanging from their mouth?

Whatever you imagined, that hiker is probably using the app AllTrails. In fact, just about everyone is. Even people who don’t know what a CamelBak is or who have no idea what the term “out-and-back” means. In the world of AllTrails, a hiker of any skill level is still a hiker.

Many of them find the app in the same way.

“Just through Googling, how to get into hiking, AllTrails would just come up a lot,” said Jessica Wood, who co-owns French Custard, an ice cream shop in Kansas City, Mo. “It’s a free app, so we were like, ‘We’ll download it and see what happens.’ We never deleted it.”

This is, of course, by design. What began in 2010 as an idea backed by a seed accelerator — Silicon Valley speak for an incubator program — quickly became a juggernaut that gobbled up many of its competitors. Three years later, AllTrails had raised nearly $4.5 million in funding. In 2018, previous funding rounds were eclipsed when the company raised $75 million.

Like so many pandemic-proof businesses, though, the app, which has details on hundreds of thousands of hiking trails all around the world, saw its star truly rise in the wake of Covid.

“Even prepandemic, we were still seeing really high rates of growth,” said Ron Schneidermann, who took over as chief executive of AllTrails in 2019. (The company’s founder, Russell Cook, departed in 2018.) “But during 2020, we suddenly saw triple-digit growth when there were lockdowns. There was nothing else to do.”

Ms. Wood, who described herself as “a brand-new hiker who had zero experience,” used AllTrails “almost every single day” in the summer of 2022 while she and her husband Alex waited out business permitting headaches.

“It really just made it feel like we had a professional hiker telling us how to hike,” she said, referring to the frequently updated trail reviews other users leave with details about a trail’s condition or whether it’s a safe place to bring animals or children.

“I would say my toxic trait is that I am a very avid reader of the reviews,” said Eva Jee, a food writer and restaurant professional in Denver. “If I’m planning a big hike, especially if it’s one where we’re going overnight in an area that I don’t know or a trail that I haven’t hiked before, I’ll scroll down, and I’ll read the last couple of weeks of trail reports.”

Ms. Jee, 41, says she will often use these reviews to determine what shoes to wear, whether a trail is well-shaded enough to forgo a hat, and what time of year is best to see the aspen trees change color or to take in the wildflower blooms.

“You can glean so much information,” she said.

Gabby Rumney, a 28-year-old project coordinator for the National Grocers Association Foundation in Philadelphia, said she turned to the app before and after hiking all 2,193.1 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 2021. (“That 0.1 really counts,” she added.)

“It was a good introduction to understanding trails and reading maps and understanding difference in terrain,” Ms. Rumney said.

And though she prefers the app FarOut for more challenging through-hikes like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, she said AllTrails is far more accessible to a wider range of hikers.

“I think with hiking there’s often this connotation that, ‘Oh, you have to be physically fit and have all this expensive gear,’” Ms. Rumney said. “Part of that is true because it makes things easier. But at the same time, you’re walking, and unless you have a disability that should be accessible to us all.”

At AllTrails corporate headquarters in San Francisco, the word “accessibility” comes up often. “A lot of people were coming to us or were interested in the outdoors, but they didn’t think of themselves as an outdoorsy person,” said Carly Smith, who joined the company in 2021 as its chief marketing officer.

Ms. Smith arrived in the wake of two major milestones at AllTrails: In January 2021, the company reached one million paid subscriptions to AllTrails+, which allows users to download maps for offline access, among other features. (Trail maps and basic aspects of the app’s search function remain completely free.) And in November of that year, AllTrails announced that it has secured $150 million in additional funding.

Under Ms. Smith’s supervision, AllTrails has become sleeker, more lifestyle-y. Where hikers were once offered the chance to “find your next favorite trail,” they’re now invited to “find your outdoors.” In the app, users can see their stats for the year and track the time it took them to complete a hike using an interface that’s not so different from fitness apps like Peloton or Strava.

Now redesigned to appeal as much to your Gen Z cousin as to your crunchiest, outdoorsy uncle, AllTrails was named Apple’s 2023 app of the year for nurturing “community through comprehensive trail guides and outdoor exploration for everyone.”

“In software development, there’s not a lot of awards ceremonies,” Mr. Schneidermann said. “This feels like our Pulitzer Prize.”

And like any 21st century company, AllTrails has doubled down on expanding its network of brand ambassadors and influencers. During Black History Month, for instance, the company unveiled a clothing and accessory collaboration with three Black artists in support of the nonprofit Vibe Tribes Adventures. In March, AllTrails highlighted products from six women-led brands.

Evelynn Escobar, the founder of the nonprofit Hike Clerb, said she had recently been in contact with AllTrails for a potential partnership. Though she doesn’t credit AllTrails with introducing her to the pleasures of hiking — that honor belongs to an aunt who took her hiking in and around L.A. as a child — the app is “at the core of my outdoor lifestyle,” she said. “I build my hikes off what I’m finding on there.”

Accordingly, Mrs. Escobar provided each member of Hike Clerb’s inaugural class of hiking guides with an AllTrails+ subscription, so they can better plan their hikes, which cater predominantly to “Black, brown and Indigenous women, and gender-expansive people.”

“The outdoors are still such a homogeneous space,” Mrs. Escobar said, citing her first trips to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. “I noticed that in these literal hubs of outdoor recreation, it’s still nothing but white people out here.”

But if AllTrails has its way, the national parks system could soon be filled with its younger and more diverse user base. In March, the company unveiled its Public Lands Program, a partnership with land managers at 270 parks across the U.S. that allows them to access real-time data about trail activity and also to send out real-time alerts about trail conditions to AllTrails users. Participation in the program is free of charge.

According to AllTrails, a 2023 pilot test with Olympic National Park in Washington resulted in a 66 percent decrease in search and rescue incidents on two of the park’s most popular trails and a 62 percent decrease in such operations across all the park’s trails compared with the previous year.

Directly connecting park rangers to users might also help avoid negative press, such as an incident last fall when SFGate reported that AllTrails was giving users directions to a treacherous tourist attraction on the Hawaiian island of Kauai that had been closed for more than a month. In response, the company encouraged users to “help us maintain accurate and up-to-date trail information by suggesting edits or leaving reviews.”

AllTrails relies on users not only for edits and warnings, but also for advice on adding trails. The company’s “data integrity” team researches and then approves or rejects the suggestion. “We’re going to run everything through a whole layer of machine learning, computer vision, validation first, and then it goes through a whole level of human curation before anything,” said Mr. Schneidermann, though he readily admitted that the outdoors are, by their nature, prone to change.

“Once a trail goes live on our site that doesn’t mean that it’s static, that it’s just going to be that way forever,” he added.

Just like the trails themselves, hiking habits can change over time. Some think that involves eventually moving away from AllTrails — and venturing out on your own.

“If I were in the shoes of someone whose beginner hiking experiences were through AllTrails, I would say that it’s absolutely worth trying to wean off,” said Ryan Tripp, a 21-year-old environmental engineering student at Dartmouth College who grew up hiking near his home in Oakland, Calif., and has led his own hiking trips.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say turn off your phone, turn off everything and just go into the woods,” he continued, “but I think a progressive shift away has the potential to be really rewarding and to expose people to what I think are the benefits of being outside,” like the feelings of self-sufficiency and independence.

“Technology will continue to creep into the outdoors,” Mr. Tripp said, citing the ongoing debates over whether cellphone service and infrastructure should be expanded in national parks.

But Mr. Schneidermann insists that AllTrails is strictly on the side of the outdoors, even if users are looking at their phones rather than weatherworn trail signage. He no longer sees other hiking apps as his competition and is focused instead on being an alternative to tech companies like Facebook and TikTok.

“There are these incredibly strong, well-fortified companies pulling in some of the best minds out there, you know, designed to keep people behind the screen, inside all day” he said. “And obviously, we’re the anti-Metaverse.”



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Amit Ghosh
Amit Ghoshhttps://serpways.com
MYSELF AMIT GOSH. I AM A PROFESSIONAL BLOGGER AND RESEARCHER.
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