Tech helps reduce overcrowding at Washington state trails via new recommendation feature

WTA’s Hike Recommender. (WTA Photo)

Seattle-area hikers know that on weekend mornings, popular trails such as Mt. Si are bound to be packed. The Washington Trail Association saw the need to add something new to prevent overcrowding and point hikers to different trails.

WTA recently launched a new recommender in the “My Backpack” feature on its website which recommends trails to users based on their preferences — including inclination, distance, location and more.

WTA gives trail recommendations to hikers all the time, said Loren Drummond, WTA digital content manager, and the new feature digitizes that process.

“[The goal was] giving really quality personal recommendations that you might get in a real life conversation with us to help you discover, as well as to help impact the trail system in a positive way,” Drummond said.

My Backpack launched in 2012, and it allows users to write about their hikes, share photos and bookmark trails they’re interested in.

The new recommender feature analyzes the trail database based on features of hikes you’ve saved or written reports on. This sparks a “sense of discovery” and is meant to increase interest in Washington hikes beyond just the popular ones.

Washington has more than 4,000 trails, but the 20 near Seattle get most of the traffic.

WTA Digital Content Manager Loren Drummond in Olympic National Park. (Tyler LePard Photo)

The intersection of tech and hiking may seem small, and many turn to nature to escape tech, but Drummond said WTA treats technology just like any other tool to sustain the trails.

“Every piece of technology we put out there, we really think carefully about what is the impact of this going to be both for hikers and the hiker experience as well as for the trail system on our public lands,” Drummond said.

WTA, a 55-year-old nonprofit organization, has often been ahead on tech over the years. WTA launched its website in the early days of the internet, and Drummond said it developed its hiking guide and user-created trip reports before other online trail databases formed.

As a nonprofit, WTA relies on volunteers for most of its tech ventures. Those volunteers built WTA’s app, Trailblazer, and Drummond said volunteers still work on it today.

Jade Tabony, WTA tech volunteer. (WTA Photo)

The recommender feature was built by one of WTA’s tech volunteers, Jade Tabony, who said she was surprised by the suggestions and says she’s found new hikes thanks to the tech.

The pandemic has increased interest in outdoor activities, with many turning to nature as an escape. The Washington Post reported that national and state parks saw an increase in visitors in 2020. Apps that help people engage with nature also saw an increase in users in the pandemic, as did camping startups such as Cabana and The Dyrt.

There are other popular apps for mapping hiking trails, but WTA’s is the only one focused on Washington.

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