Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Reflections and Experiences

At the conclusion of the Technology on the Trail Workshop, I had the pleasure of spending my spring break out on the Appalachian Trail (AT) with my hiking companion, Herb Stelter.  The workshop impacted my approach to my week out on the AT.  I engaged in interesting discussions on how people interpret being out in nature and its space, how we can utilize technology to outdoor teaching with kids, and whom would benefit having technology out on the trail.  

Two of our guest speakers, Ellie Harmon and Alan Dix, both accomplished extended hiking feats for which they reflected on technology use.  Ellie noted that during her Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike in 2013 she noted that smartphone devices were everywhere and being used for music, maps, communication, and more–particularly in comparison to her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail just five years earlier.  Alan hiked the perimeter of Wales with an expressed purpose of collecting vast amount of data using various technologies.  However, he found most technology was more trouble than it was worth–with the exception of his audio recorder, which he stated was the only reliable piece of technology that didn’t die on him constantly.  Of course, not everyone will want an audio recorder; it worked well for Alan’s (and my) self-reflection goals. The takeaway message is to choose technology that is simple, reliable, and does an important task well.

I modeled my hike into three phases to reflect the Technology on the Trail’s high level focus:  Preparation, Experience, and Reflection.  

The preparation of the my hike was the most important step out of the three, given my lack of experience in multi-day hiking situations.  It was important to have safety as a top priority while hiking the AT.  During the preparation there were many meetings with self-identified hikers to offer their opinions on what was best to prepare. Understandably, with all these opinions there were a lot of contradictions about “best” options for a new hiker such as myself.  While my hiking companion Herb dealt with planning out the exact route and testing the hiking gear, I identified and purchased the technology to take based on criteria like power usage, weight, cost.  Here is a list of the technologies taken on the trail:

  • Garmin Fenix 3 HR Watch with GPS
  • GoPro HERO Session
  • Sony Audio Recorder
  • ETON FRX-BT All-Purpose Device
  • RAVPower & Anker external battery pack
  • Motorola Droid Turbo 2 & Kyocera Brigadier E6782 smartphones

The experience was a 6-day hike in the first week of March 2017 that lasted for 53 miles, avoiding all towns and urban areas.  The section of the AT was in the Shenandoah Valley, an average of 2900 feet above sea level.  The temperatures were between 9 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the trip, pushing the limits of the operating temperatures of the technology.  Physical artifacts of the experience included pictures, videos, audio recordings, GPS coordinates, and memories.  All are important for developing an understanding for interpreting an experience especially when reflecting on these artifacts to potentially come across a new perspective–in this case, how technology positively and negatively influenced my hike.

The reflection can be summarized in some key findings:

1) Design of technology for outdoor use needs attention.  For example, we noted some issues with the Garmin Fenix where in certain scenarios that our wrists would hit a button on the watch. Perhaps this was due to the more physical nature of our movements while hiking, as we did not notice this during our testing phase.

2) Be mindful to choose/create technology that is noninvasive of the experience.  Both physical and software side need to appropriately minimize flashing lights, noises, other distracting notifications unless their utility far outweighs the enjoyment of the nature experience.

3) The dynamics of group hiking versus individual hiking has an impact on hiking dynamics and can influence design choices for technology.   For instance, communication apps are geared towards group based activities while individual hiking don’t benefit such apps.

4) The view of usefulness of technology changes based on the current situation.  As mentioned above, the ETON radio provided moral boost by having music during the hiking portions of the day.  But when resting and setting up camp, the more leisurely environment saw the GoPro camera frequently used.

5) Leave time to do a day hike trying out all the gear.  During the hike (for a beginner) I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I took the opportunity to spend a day with all the gear to get out all the kinks we came across during the hike.  This INCLUDES the use of the technology. I used it in my day-to-day life, but hiking puts forth far different situations.

For a more detailed account on this post, feel free to check out my extended abstract paper (and the other papers) accepted to the NatureCHI ’17 workshop. And you can read the Roanoke Times article about me and the Technology on the Trail workshop that appeared prior to my hike.

I want to thank Scott McCrickard, the Technology on the Trail Workshop guests (especially invited guests Alan Dix, Allison Druin, Ellie Harmon, and Norman Su), and Herb Stelter for the discussions and inspiring to take advantage of this opportunity.  I also want to thank Phyllis Newbill and ICAT for allowing the opportunity to present my experience of technology use on the trail at ICAT Day 2017.  And a big thanks to Matt Gentry from the Roanoke Times for doing an article on both Ellie Harmon, the Technology on the Trail Workshop, and myself.


ICAT Day 2017 project recap

The Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) holds its annual ICAT Day every May, and this year’s theme was Sensing Place; apropos to the geo-sensing aspects of our initiative.  We set up a series of projects related to Technology on the Trail, largely drawn from our CS 6724 graduate special topics class.  Here’s a recap of them, along with links to ongoing work and press releases.

Andrey Esakia presented FitAware, his extension to the FitEx health and fitness program. FitEx leverages relationships within and between teams to improve physical activity behaviors, and FitAware helps raise awareness of individual and team fitness behaviors through smartwatch and mobile device interfaces. FitAware was a featured story in Virginia Tech News, and he authored a work-in-progress paper that appeared at the ACM SIGCHI Conference in May.  Andrey was funded by ICAT this past year, in collaboration with Mike Horning, Samantha Harden, and Scott McCrickard.

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Shuo and blog author Alan Dix interacting with his data on the Microsoft Perspective Pixel and a secondary cloud display

Shuo Niu demoed his collaborative surface system for exploring hiking blog data. He uses a 55-inch multitouch tabletop display to show various analytics-based visualizations of the contents of hiking blogs. Words and phrases from the blogs can be manipulated to reveal repeated themes within a blog–often themes that the blog authors themselves didn’t realize were part of their blogs! A paper about this work is under review to appear at the ACM GROUP Conference (available upon request).

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Gracie exhibiting her cultural probe materials at ICAT Day

Gracie Fields displayed results from her cultural probes, a technique she employed to understand how people prepare for, undertake, and reflect on hiking experiences. Probes were sent to hikers of varying ages and abilities, from a 13-year-old Boy Scout who has done a few extended hikes to people in their 60s who have spent weeks at a time hiking. The probes asked people to answer questions, undertake preparatory hiking activities, reflect on personal and themed pictures, and much more over a multi-week session, toward encouraging participants to think and reflect in multiple ways about what hikes mean to them. Navya Kondor and Jagath Iyer also presented a spinoff presentation focused on the “would you rather” questions. More about Gracie’s work can be found in her recently completed thesis (available on request).

Tim Stelter presented a reflection on his week on the Appalachian Trail. I gave my class the challenge that if they took technology onto the trail for a 100-mile hike, it would earn them an automatic “A”. He and his dad covered over 50 miles (so 100 miles combined?) over spring break, and Tim generated a reflection paper to appear in the NatureCHI workshop in September. An article about his preparation for the hike appeared in our local Roanoke Times newspaper.

An ICAT Day attendee trying out Wallace’s Microsoft Hololens waypoint identification system

Some quick notes about other projects related to the theme. Colin Shea-Blymyer investigated mindfulness and forest bathing using EEG devices that monitored brain waves. He looked at baseline data from indoor EEG use, then compared it to data collected on outdoor hikes. Abigail Bartolome is collecting Twitter data from the three “triple crown of hiking” trails in the US: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Her focus in Spring 2017 looked at the different emotional themes that emerged on each trail. Phillip Summers crafted visualizations of hiking data that was uploaded to a public repository, particularly the geo-temporal data. He was able to identify main trails, side trails, camping areas, common turnaround points, and more. And Wallace Lages used the Microsoft Hololens to craft an augmented reality waypoint identification system for hikers.

Most of these project are still under way, so comments below or via email would be greatly appreciated!


Reading Reflection: Tim Ingold’s Lines

At our Technology on the Trail workshop in March, invited speaker Alan Dix highly recommended a book by Tim Ingold titled Lines: A Brief History. We purchased it and made it available to people taking part in the initiative, with some thoughts listed here.

From Alan Dix’s blog post referencing Lines: “Ingold’s thesis is that we have privileged the point or place in modern thought, seeing the connection as merely the means of getting from A to B. Ingold is an anthropologist and spent time studying reindeer herders. Their way of life is to follow the herds as they make seasonal migrations; for the tribes following the herds it is the way they follow, the path, the line, which is primary.”

Ingold’s book explores how lines are a key part of walking, writing, storytelling, and much more.  The book probes the foundational meaning of a line, and what it is and means across various domains, noting early on that “to an illiterate reader, lines have no more meaning than abstract art”. There are tons of other examples in computing in HCI, e.g., certainly those who study visualization have a skill in recognizing patterns that an unskilled eye could not pick out.

The book is highly speculative, putting forth a series of analyses of topics and situations that were often not well grounded in evidence, which some found unsatisfying. Grad seminar participant Colin Shea-Blymer summed up this viewpoint very well:

I honestly appreciate the book’s magnificent scope, and, when taken as more of an artistic endeavor, it succeeds in that scope in many ways. However, coming into the book from a more critical perspective I found Ingold’s introductory apology for his lack of depth in many of the subjects he tied lines to unsatisfactory. The sections of his book that I muddled through read more like a stringing-together of romantic-era aesthetic arguments as evidence towards an unstated hypothesis; done without criticism of the arguments he appropriates. In brief, the book works well if you’re looking for an eye-opening overview of how lines go undetected in human art and society, but falters if the reader begins to scrutinize the arguments within. The path Ingold illuminates is beautiful and worth peering down, but the steps he takes appear treacherous and unstable upon closer inspection.

There’s more Ingold work, including another book that seems like it might be even more relevant to our Technology on the Trail theme, an edited collection titled Ways of Walking: Ethnographies and Practice on Foot (also available in the Virginia Tech library), stemming from a meeting of anthropologists who split time “sitting in a traditional seminar room” and “climb[ing] up through the forest and out to the open hillside”.  Given the similarity to our own seminar, there may be a review of this book in the near future!

Projects: Appalachian Trail Counties and Cities in Southwest Virginia

A Virginia Tech class project, led by historian Tom Ewing, looked at potential influences of the Appalachian Trail (AT) on the communities that it passes through. The class goal was to encourage students “to think critically and creatively about the ways that data analysis can inform understanding of contemporary issues (and vice versa)”.  The class helped people connect to the area in which they live.  With so many of our students coming from northern Virginia, the Norfolk area, and elsewhere in Virginia, the project enabled students to explore the region that is now their home.


Students presented their projects at a poster exhibition on April 24.  Exhibits focused on how the AT influenced tourism, education, quality of life, and other topics in the communities that border the AT.  Since the AT goes through isolated and underdeveloped areas, many of the communities face challenges.  One interesting focal point of the exhibits was a probe of how data can tell very different stories regarding the Mountain Valley Pipeline that threatens the beauty and ecological balance along the AT. It was interesting to see how different organizations emphasized data in different ways to highlight whether the pipeline would benefit or harm the region in terms of dollars, jobs, and other factors.

I was able to talk with Tom about the class and his plans for future iterations of it. Possible directions include to tighten the definition of a “trail community” to focus on people for whom there’s the greatest impact; e.g., communities that rely on the AT for tourism and other economic benefits, and communities that are inconvenienced by the presence of the AT.  Details about the workshop and plans for the future can/will be found at: http://ethomasewing.org/at_virginia/.

Workshop Wrapup: Unpacking the Case of Hunters

Our Technology on the Trail Workshop featured a talk by Norman Su from Indiana University titled The Case of Hunters in the American Midwest: Examining and Designing the Resonance of Artifacts in Nature.  The talk was related to his similarly-titled upcoming paper, to be presented at CHI 2017.

Michael Horning from Virginia Tech served as discussant for the talk. Mike is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication with an interest in civic and information apps that help to support citizen engagement with news content. He had an up-front role in making comments and leading discussion for the talk, but also a behind-the-scenes series of communications with Norm about the paper.

A few highlights from their email exchange (posted with permission from Norm and Mike) that focused on the impact of constantly evolving technologies on hunters, particularly their interactions with each other. From Mike:

What I find interesting about your observations is that your findings suggest that users may actually live within worlds of constantly shifting ethoses, depending on the terms dictated by the hunting tradition. Do you agree? It seems to make the design challenges even more difficult.

Norm responded:

I think it is indeed interesting that we are not only talking about multiple users, but how each user themselves may “adopt” different practices reflecting different interpretations of fair chase. I suppose, at a fundamental level, it is perhaps just fun for hunters to don these different caps when hunting. Most hunters I encountered regularly hunted in multiple weapon/species seasons.

Technologies certainly alter the interactions between hunters and their prey.  As Norm noted in his talk, with modern technology you can hunt and kill animals that don’t even know you’re there. Mike connected that interaction with the “fair chase” notion introduced in Norm’s paper:

I see some parallels between your observations and Harrison and Dourish’s observation about Space and Place, where “space is the opportunity, and place is the understood reality.” Jacques Ellul’s concept of technique is perhaps also relevant here with the notion that every technological innovation alters in some way how we respond to the physical world either socially or cognitively. I am wondering if the term “fair chase” is self imposed by users or by traditions and technologies (in other words the places) that they find themselves in. I think this too has some interesting implications for design.

Norm noted:

I admit to being ignorant of Ellul, but I think certainly we can talk about space and place–in particular, I think use of particular technologies provides a different “filter” into the physical place. It might also be interesting to talk about technologies like weapons in terms of a medium that alters our perception of reality (e.g., a recurve bow filters our view of the world/opportunities to one within close proximity).

Mike identified some specific examples from his “youth” that highlighted some of the issues related to cheating and fair chase:

…you observe that hunters often rejected what I would call modern innovations in hunting technology (cross bows, drones, trail cams). I’m old enough to remember when muzzleloader hunters who were flintlock purists rejected modern inline muzzleloaders and when compound bows were considered “cheating” by recurve shooters. I bring these up as examples of technologies that began as unethical and have more recently moved to mainstream. It suggests to me that some of the “newer” innovations may as well. One question this may raise for HCI is the extent to which we should trust users with their own assessments, given that those attitudes may be more generational/experiential than cultural. Beyond hunting, I think this may also raise a larger question for other forms of outdoor sport as well. Many hikers, for example, may reject certain changes that future hikers eagerly embrace.

Norm responded:

I think there is also the conundrum of how to resolve the age old cycle of rejecting the new, eventual adoption of the new, and now the new becomes the old. The resolution is difficult in terms of design because I personally think design can’t dismiss these snapshots of admonishment, but at the same time, as you said, we also need to realize that assessments often become outdated.

At the heart of this debate seems to be values, and the consideration of values on the design process.  I agree with Norm that resolution is difficult in terms of design, but there are certainly ways that design can account for the tensions between changing technologies and human reaction.

Mike brings up one way that this can be addressed, through value sensitive design:

You also mentioned the theme of moving beyond value sensitive design. I think this is an interesting and important question. I would look forward to the discussion that comes from it. I could see this also being a good starting point for smaller group discussions during the talk. I thought about this issue as I read your interviewer’s comments. While their concept of fair chase resonated with my own experiences, you mentioned that the hunters acknowledge that they were not paragons of virtue. It does raise the question of whether value sensitive design is giving us a comprehensive view of users or more of their reflections on their ideal types of users. And if it isn’t accurate or is limited what are we missing?  Does a hunter, for example, who has not seen any success after two weeks of hunting give up on his/her concept of a fair chase and pursue less approaches? How can we design experiences that help hunters maintain their ideals?

Norm responded:

Ideal vs what is done in practice is interesting to consider. I might argue that perhaps hunters need to see that living up to an ideal is difficult but should nonetheless be aware of what that ideal is. It reminds me almost of something like what many religions preach that we should try to seek an unreachable ideal.

Mike closes by circling back to the core tension between people with different values, and hints at similar tensions in other Technology on the Trail domains.

at two points in your paper you discussed the design of what I’ll call restrictive or limiting designs. The first was related to technically mediated experiences that limit capabilities and power relationships with nature. Near the end of the paper, you discuss designs that address unethical behavior. This seems like an observation that may get at the heart of this tension that exists between the desire to commune with nature and the tendency to see technologies as intrusive on that experience. Perhaps users may be more willing to adopt technologies that create additional challenges or that in some way intensify their struggle with nature. Such technological designs wouldn’t violate the norms of fair chase or be seen as “cheating” in other contexts (e.g. hiking). I think it might be worth thinking about what designs that “limit” look like and how we go about identifying requirements for such a design.

Norm closes with:

I think if we create designs, we might ask how we can cater to people who only want to hunt on weekends vs those who basically live in large private lands for hunting.

Certainly there are similar tensions between thru-hikers and day-hikers on the Appalachian Trail and similar hikes, as well as the tensions between hikers and people who live in the towns along a trail.  Mike led an activity at the workshop that identified over 30 different roles for people on trails, many with overlapping values but many with values that lead to conflicts, too. All too often, design focuses on the target users, but one lesson from this exchange is the need to consider the great many stakeholders that are impacted by the introduction of any new technology–particularly in places where people often go to escape technology.

Reading Reflection: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died yesterday. His book is one of the historically great Technology on the Trail books, balancing tech issues of maintaining a motorcycle with the experiences afforded by a road trip through small towns with his son. I’ve read it previously and picked it up again after hearing of Pirsig’s death—it’s interesting to reconnect with his journey after recently reading and hearing about the journeys identified in preparation for our Technology on the Trail initiative.

Worth a look if you’re not familiar with it, and worth a look if you haven’t looked in a while.  Good luck finding a copy…I suspect there will be a run on the copies for a while.

Student Projects: Appalachian Trail Counties and Cities in Southwest Virginia

We received a heads-up about a relevant class here at VT that will be displaying their final projects in a public event on Monday, April 24th in VT’s Newman Library Multi-purpose Room. Here’s the blurb about the projects and their website. Scott and Gracie are planning on going, and hopefully our own TotT class will be interested as well.

I’m a historian at VT, teaching a course, Introduction to Data in Social Context, which encourages to think critically and creatively about the ways that data analysis can inform understanding of contemporary issues (and vice versa). For their final projects, the twelve students in the class will be examining data about the twenty or so cities and counties close to the Appalachian trail between the NC / TN border and just north of Roanoke. The students have identified themes that they will be researching in the next couple of weeks. Their projects will be displayed in Newman library on Monday, April 24, from 10-11 am in the Multipurpose Room. Given your interest in technology along the trail, I hope that you might also be interested in their research on the communities along the trail. Please forward this invitation to your colleagues involved in this project, or to others who might be interested. The schedule will be posted (and updated) at the website linked below.

Appalachian Trail Cities and Counties in Southwest Virginia: http://ethomasewing.org/at_virginia/