Hundreds of miles were logged before Paul ‘Tangent’ Bodnar and Ryan ‘Guthook’ Linn met on the Pacific Crest Trail and schemed up FarOut Guides, the leading navigation app that covers more than 200 of the best long-distance trails across the globe.
Paul thru-hiked the PCT the first time in 1997. In those early internet days, he relied more or less on a guide book to make his way to Canada.
Years later, he published his own guide book, with a goal to provide a simpler, more condensed, thru-hiker-friendly option. Pocket PCT: Complete Data and Town Guide illustrates trail junctions, documents water sources and notes elevation profiles. With Paul’s guide, hikers can plan an entire day of hiking on just one page.
When Paul wanted to update the book in 2010, he found himself on the PCT for the second time. That’s where, in Northern California, he crossed paths with hiking aficionado Ryan (aka Guthook).
With more and more hikers carrying smartphones on the trail, the pair talked for hundreds of miles (700 to be exact) about partnering to create a smartphone navigation app.
Once off trail, Paul, a skilled chemist by trade, busied himself in Berkeley, California, processing five months of trail data. Ryan, meanwhile, returned to the East Coast and spent his evenings absorbing everything he could about iOS development.
The Spring of 2012 marked the release of Guthook’s PCT Guide iPhone app. And, Paul once again returned to the PCT, this time specifically to test out their newly launched app.
Paul’s wife Alice (aka Holstein) joined him this time, and it proved itself to be a bomber year on the PCT. According to Paul, “there was hardly any snow, no rain, it was perfect.”
Upon returning, Alice was less interested in planning another thru-hike but she was drawn to modify Guthook Guides for Android users, too. “When we got back I bought a 800-page book and wrote the app,” Alice said.
By 2014, Guthook Guides added both the Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail. Now featuring the thru-hiking Triple Crown in the US, the app’s popularity really began to grow. They partnered with nonprofits, trail foundations, book authors and individuals — more boots on the ground meant more trail guides in their catalog.
Icons within the app designate campsites, water sources, trail junctions and even trail-town beta. With just a click, hikers can add comments regarding the quantity of water, quality of a campsite, or review a trail-town hostel.
Paul believes one of the app’s biggest selling points comes down to water. “Water information is hard to get from a map. It changes so much, you can’t just look at a blue line and trust water is flowing.” That’s where the app's user-generated comments and ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ have proved invaluable to hikers.
Hikers also love the app for its pictures. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a picture of a trail junction and know you’re going the right way? Because, as Paul joked, “You don’t get any credit for taking a wrong turn and hiking extra miles.”
Where a physical guide book might be updated every 5 to ten years, and maps get updated every few decades, the app refreshes its data once a day.
But what if you don’t have service? Each trail guide works completely offline, even in airplane mode. Whether you’re on a day hike or thru-hike, the app uses your smartphone’s internal GPS to keep you on the right track. Any user-generated comments made while offline will be retrieved once the hiker has service. “Everything is time-stamped and every piece of data is kept track of.”
“We have really good data,” Paul emphasized. “It’s a ton of work but it’s no accident. You just have to work hard to make the data reliable and trustworthy. That’s why we’ve been around for ten years.”
Alice agreed. “We don’t just search the web and put data out there. We properly license it and people can recognize and appreciate that. We’ve never let them down.”
In 2021, Guthook Guides rebranded to FarOut Guides to better serve other markets, including bikepacking, paddling and road cycling. “The app and awesome team behind it remains unchanged.”
They also recently began offering a web version of the app making it compatible via an internet browser on a computer or tablet.
“Hiking can be intimidating,” Paul added. “If you’re not raised hiking, it’s much harder to get into it, there’s just so much to know.” By providing a mechanism to limit the chances of getting lost or being unfamiliar with water sources, FarOut Guides believe they reduce the stress for a lot of hikers.
Alice recalled chatting at expos and trade shows and someone will undoubtedly approach her and say, “You literally saved my life” or “I wouldn’t have gotten into hiking if not for your app.”
Now that’s far out.