Note: This article is not intended as a “how-to” for nature writing. It’s only function is to elucidate my own idiosyncratic methods of transcribing the experience of hiking a trail into clear instructions.
Hiking writing is perhaps the single most enjoyable activity I’ve ever engaged in, at least as far as professional activities go. While the hiking part is obvious, the creative process inherent in taking an experience and turning it into a trail write-up contains a number of different components that are all very engaging and enjoyable to me.
For me, a hiking write-up starts with an idea. I’m using the example of Thomas Mountain since it was the most recent hike I took with the intention of documentation. I became aware of Thomas Mountain about 4 years ago, and the two words have sat upon an ever-changing bucket-list ever since.
Once I’ve selected a hike, I begin the preliminary research. I use both the internet and print to get information on the hike I plan to take. Printed hiking guides, in this case David Money Harris’s Afoot and Afield Inland Empire, give directions, agency data, map data, trail conditions, natural features, and clear instructions. As I research, I watch for discrepancies conveyed in descriptions. These discrepancies can be clues for factual information that I need to research further to make sure my portrayal is accurate.
In the past, I also spent a lot of time reading print and internet sources on natural history, including plant life, animal life, geology, and cultural history. I spend less time doing that now, as I have mostly assimilated that information into my general understanding at least where Southern California is concerned. This gives me a good working knowledge of the ecological, cultural, and geological components of the hike I’m about to take.
The single most important net resource I use is Caltopo.com. I still seek out official trail maps, but I find topographic maps to be the most important source of map information I can find. This is especially true for the desert, where cross-country navigation is the norm. However, even on a hike like Thomas Mountain, where there is a clear trail from start to finish, the topo helps me identify not just the man-made features but also various topographic features.
Next, I take a hike. As I hike, I do not take any notes. When I’m doing field work, my goal is to try to experience the hike as if I’m just another person going for a stroll. I allow myself to experience start to finish, which, preferably, means having a lot of fun. This isn’t just work for me; it’s entertainment.
Although I don’t take formal notes, I do have two means of collecting information. The first, and perhaps most important, is GPS data. I do not use GPS for navigation. Instead, I turn the GPS on at the beginning of the hike and forget all about it. It provides a track of where I walked, and all I need it to do. I worry about this data later.
Photographs are also essential, and I often take copious numbers of pictures on a hike. Through pictures, I can capture the spectrum of physical highlights to present a visual representation. I can photograph plants I don’t know for identification later. I can take a picture of trail information so that I don’t have to waste time writing it down. I also quite enjoy photography, and it is as important a form of self-expression as writing. I don’t just want to take documentary pictures showing junctions or vistas. I want my pictures to have at least some visual impact and aesthetic value.
As I hike, I am constantly making mental note of everything that is happening around me. I am constantly watching the surrounding environment, taking note of the plants I’m seeing, the composition of the rocks, noting which landmarks are visible, paying attention to how I feel in my body. Much of this is a passive background mental activity that happens automatically without much conscious effort.
Now that I’ve taken the hike, shot my pictures, and collected the GPS data, I return home to process that information. I usually download the pictures first because I’m excited to see if I took any good ones. I don’t spend much time adjusting pictures as I want them to reflect the natural environment as honestly as possible. I adjust the contrast, lighting, and sometimes color. I select 15-30 different shots from 75-200, emphasizing an array of landscape, detail, and artistic shots.
Next, I download the GPS data. First, I run it through a basic editing program to remove the inconsistencies. The GPS unit will always record your position whether you are moving or not. If you stop for a half an hour, the GPS will continue to ping the satellites. However, the satellite provides a slightly different location for every ping, and the GPS records that distance as if it is moving. This can add a subtle amount of distance to the track, which can add up significantly over the course of a long hike. This is why GPS tracks tend to overstate distance. I use the editor to manually remove those extra pings during the times when I forget to turn the GPS off during my breaks.
After that, I will often go into Garmin Basecamp and do a once over, add waypoints if I need to, or, sometimes, correct or even re-draw the track. This process is too tedious and mind-numbing to describe in detail. Once I’m confident that I have the most accurate GPS data possible, I record the data in a spreadsheet. It’s worth noting that there is always a bit of variation in GPS data, and no two tracks are alike even if you hike the exact same steps.
I track every single hike I take into a spreadsheet so that I can have easy access to information on distance, elevation gain/loss, region the hike occurred in, and the time it took me to hike it. For more involved projects, I also keep agency information, links to trail maps, coordinates, and other details in a separate spreadsheet. It also allows me to keep tabs on how much I hike, which is good for tax purposes but also gratifying to tally up at the end of each month and year.
Before sitting down to write, I take the extra step of making sure that I organize everything into a place that I can easily find again. I have about 1,000 photo galleries and several hundred different GPS tracks. Without organization, I would never find anything.
Now, I’m ready to write. I begin this process by spending a lot of time doing everything other than writing. I go on Facebook. I play video games. I try to get my cats to display affection. I get a little rascally and push my wife’s buttons a bit. I go back on Facebook. I try to write while the TV is on, and then I remember how abysmal I am at splitting my focus. Then, I finally tell myself to get my act together and get something done. I stare at a blank screen (this really happens) while my mind is equally blank (this also really happens). Usually, starting is the most difficult part, as I want to find the right way to set up the story I’m about to tell.
The text that follows comes out in any number of ways. I rarely ever outline anything. Mostly, my thoughts just flow out through the keyboard and across the screen. I do a surprisingly scant amount of revision, except for that troublesome first paragraph. Most of the time, I’m trying to hack my unwieldly sentences into more digestible components. I have a bad habit of stringing clauses and phrases into linguistic freight trains.
I try very hard to avoid referring to myself (I took a right at this junction and encountered a tiger swallowtail before realizing that I had been holding my bladder for the last half hour). I try to write things universally. When I’m really paying attention, I even try to avoid using any personal pronouns (you, we, I).
I try my best to make sure that the prose is clear and precise, but also that I’m using engaging language. I try to avoid things like “the trail is windy but not too steep. There are bushes that include manzanita, scrub oak, ceanothus, and ribbonwood.” Instead, I might say “the trail wends its way leisurely uphill through a pleasant mixture of chaparral plants.” I always try to impart information that deepens the experience while also trying to make it readable. It is an interesting challenge to describe 10 miles of trail in 600 words.
This is where all of the prep work comes in handy. Once I start writing about the hike, the trail, the ecology, etc., it tends to come out in a hurry as if I am relating a story. I usually write everything up in one shot and then go back through my data to get segment distances (1.5 miles to the third junction) or to look up things I didn’t know (it’s not chaparral whitethorn, it’s hoary-leaf ceanothus you nit-wit!).
The tone of the write-up depends on what I’m writing for and what my mood is. Print is generally a lot more formal, and there’s a lot more fine tuning. I also tend to be a lot stricter with words (50-75 words per mile of the hike), largely because I’m always trying to fit the text within a targeted word or page count. In the case of Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, I had to attempt to make sure my voice didn’t clash too violently with Jerry Schad’s voice.
For online writing, I let my mood and humor slip in a bit more, given that I have more space and fewer constraints. In this way, online writing is a lot more like a combination of play, practice, and exploration of the actual skill of writing. That’s not to say I don’t get that in print, but print is a far more demanding medium. That’s not to say that I don’t worry about the facts. What this really means is that if I feel like getting a little goofy in a Modern Hiker write-up, I’ll do it. It’s for fun.
Once I’ve gotten all of the information correct and the text is legible and relatively error free, I do another thorough re-reading (usually outloud so I can catch those freight train sentences). In this way I usually catch most of the awkward phrasings, redundant wordings, or unnecessary explanations. I have a harder time catching the less conspicuous errors, and often times I find them on a final revision a few days later.
With the text done, the end result usually depends on the medium. For Modern Hiker, I will provide the additional information unique to that medium. For print, I’ll usually leave it alone since I know that further scrutiny will occur in the future, and I’ll receive somebody else’s list of revisions and suggestions.
Then, it’s on to the next one. Rinse and repeat.