Walk The Distance is the type of app that motivates a very specific type of person to get off the couch and start moving. Instead of having you walk Zombies escape or catching Pokémon, it lets you virtually hike long-distance routes like the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) — perfect for those of us who don’t mind our local trails but want something a little more scenic.
For every mile you walk home, you’ll see a small icon with your picture moving along a map, wandering between famous landmarks like Springer Mountain in Georgia or Kennedy Meadows in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. And when you reach certain points, Walk The Distance shows you pictures and facts about them. It’s a bit like gaming in a way The Oregon Trailexcept that you’re not sitting in front of a computer, you’re moving around. (It’s worth noting that there actually is an official Oregon Trail app this does something similar if you’d rather take a more historical trip.)
In my time using it, I’ve enjoyed coming home from a walk and checking out the app to see which sights I’ve virtually passed by. The descriptions it gives you are short and sweet, explaining things like the weather or the scenery at a specific location, or going into specific aspects of the hike along the way, but for me it’s worth checking out every time. I was also looking at the map in front of me and planning how far my next walk will be – when I read the description for Hawk Mountain Shelter, which says the nearest stop is about seven miles, I got AllTrails (another great one App) used to find an eight-mile hike nearby.
In theory, all my short walks add up to many thousands of miles and I will have completed the Walk The Distance version of the AT. The app also offers a variety of shorter hikes through different national parks and cities if you want to start with a slightly less intimidating destination.
Let me get that out of the way real quick after you’ve seen a screenshot: I don’t think Walk The Distance is a good looking app. In fact, to be honest, I find it a bit ugly. If you can overlook that, the app’s functionality is pretty solid – you can see where you are on the trail relative to other users virtually hiking it, browse your hike history to see how many miles you’re doing each day traveled and revisit attractions you’ve already passed. There’s also a whole backpack of settings you can use to customize much of the experience.
Walk The Distance even has a social element, although I can’t say I’ve played around with it much. In addition to all users posting their progress publicly, you can also add friends to walk the trail with, and the app has a mode that only shows you where you and your friends are along the trail. (If the developers are looking for free advice, it shouldn’t be the “Friends” section, it should be the “Tramily” section after which Portmanteau of trail and family this is used in the thru-hiking community. It would be a nice theme to go along with the fact that the app lets you choose a “trail name” instead of a display name.)
I also appreciate – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – Walk The Distance’s pricing structure. It gives you a lot of flexibility in how you want to pay for the app, or if you want to at all. You can do the first part or two of the great hikes for free and then pay to unlock the rest. Unlocking the entire AT costs $4.99 and unlocking the PCT costs $9.99. Some of the national parks and city walks are free, while others cost $0.99 each.
However, if you don’t want to pay by the piece, there’s a $2.99 a month/$29.99 a year subscription that gets you all the hikes for free and unlocks syncing with Fitbit or Garmin. Syncing to Apple Health or Google Fit is free (and since I use another app to sync my Fitbit data to the Apple system, Walk The Distance takes that data directly).
So far I haven’t gotten to the point where I have to start paying; for the AT, that happens about 155 miles. If I do, however, I plan to buy at least this trail. REI, an outdoor utility company, estimates that you actually hike the Appalachian Trail costs around $6,000so I’m really getting ahead by doing it for five bucks.
Of course, the Walk The Distance form of motivation does not work for everyone, because not everyone is a big hiking nerd. However, for those of us it works for, it may be just the motivation we need to get off the couch and go outside for a bit if we make it to the nearest virtual shelter. Personally, I’m really looking forward to making some significant progress on my virtual Appalachian Trail journey later this summer when I hike a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, which I find deeply funny.