The Problem With AllTrails

AllTrails is a community-driven project that promises to help users discover new hikes and provide them with an easy-to-use interface to allow for tracking hikes and navigating the backcountry with their phones. These features have meant that AllTrails has exploded in popularity over the years. Over time, I have seen the number of mentions of the app increase on the Facebook groups I help manage (Kentucky Waterfalls, Arches, and Landscapes & Explore DBNF).

While at first glance AllTrails seems to be a benign application that provides a great deal of value to users, there are a number of issues that my fellow admins and I have noticed over the years that have caused us to take a stance against the use of AllTrails in our groups. In this post, I’ll explore the problems with AllTrails and discuss some of the alternatives that are available.

Problem #1: Inaccurate Information

By far one of the biggest issues with AllTrails is that all of the data they provide is crowd-sourced. While this provides the company the ability to build a massive database of hikes around the world, it also means that there’s bound to be loads of inaccurate information. Just performing a quick search for hikes in the Red River Gorge, I found a whole host of inaccuracies:

Consider the above screenshots of “trails” located in the Red River Gorge. Do you know what all of these have in common? They don’t exist!

All of these are loop hikes that utilize a number of existing trails, but the users that have submitted these hikes have assigned arbitrary names to the hikes, suggesting that these are, in fact, trails maintained by the Forest Service. Why is this a problem, you ask?

Consider a scenario in which something goes wrong on your hike and you need to rely on search and rescue crews to come help get you out of a jam. Suppose you manage to get enough cell signal to make a call to 911, or perhaps you did your due diligence and left a plan with a trusted individual who contacts emergency services on your behalf. Regardless, the 911 dispatcher is told that you’re on the “Red River Gorge Loop Trail”. This trail doesn’t exist and is actually made up of at least half-a-dozen individual trails. To make matters worse, it refers to the “Hanson’s Point Trail”, which is a user trail, but we’ll get to that more in a bit.

So, here’s my question, where should the rescue teams start looking for you? As someone that has volunteered with search and rescue in the Red River Gorge, I can tell you that this is going to make things a lot harder if we don’t have at least some idea of where you may have been. Now, these crews have to spend valuable time just trying to decipher where in the forest you might be.

Additionally, not knowing the actual trails you’re using is dangerous from a self-reliance standpoint. It’s a lot harder to successfully navigate a trail system when you’re looking for trails that don’t exist!

Another example of inaccurate information on AllTrails. They’ve had this listed as closed for at least six months, which is not accurate.

Problem #2: Unofficial Trails

AllTrails doesn’t limit user submissions to the official, maintained trails. You’re free to record any old GPS track and throw it up for public access on AllTrails. The problem with this is that there is absolutely no distinction between a normal, official trail and an unofficial trail, which may be anything from a well-worn, easy-to-follow path to a complete off-trail bushwhack. This is simply dangerous and irresponsible for hikers that aren’t accustomed to this and who aren’t expecting to be off the official trail system.

This results in people venturing into areas that may be outside their skill-level, having the false sense of security in thinking that they’re hiking on a trail. I’m again forced to consider an emergency scenario.

A great example of this is the Indian Staircase hike in the Red River Gorge. AllTrails marks this as a trail in both their descriptions and even on the map. In fact, they mark a whole network of trails in the area that do not exist.

Much of the trail network depicted on this map does not exist in any official capacity.

This area of The Gorge has become one of the hot spots for SAR calls. It’s an area that’s extremely easy to get lost in, especially if you’re expecting official, maintained, and marked trails, and requires a scramble that can be potentially dangerous, or even deadly.

Indian Staircase, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
The scramble referred to as Indian Staircase.

Problem #3: Negative Ecological Impact on Sensitive Areas

Finally, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the extremely negative impact AllTrails can have on sensitive, off-trail areas. Something many people fail to take into account before they share a GPS track to some of these areas is the impact a huge influx of visitors will have on an area that hasn’t had a sustainable trail built for visitation. I have personally witnessed wonderful, pristine areas get destroyed from irresponsible sharing of locations on AllTrails.

The big problem here is that the AllTrails app shows you the exact path someone took to reach a location. Not only does this largely ruin the adventure in figuring out how to reach a destination but, more importantly, it makes it far too easy for people to find and visit these sensitive areas. And before anyone starts shouting that this is me advocating “gate-keeping” or being an “elitist”, that is not the case at all. In fact, I support efforts to document these off-trail beauties (I.E. The Kentucky Waterfall Database and Kentucky Arch Database). The sad fact is that making these places too easy to visit, as is the case with AllTrails, results in their destruction. You can read more about this issue by checking out the Hikers for an 8th Leave No Trace Principle.

Alternatives

I realize that at this point I likely sound like a grumpy old curmudgeon who’s just opposed to modern advances in technology and who just wants to keep these dang kids out of my forest, but that’s not the case at all!

I am a huge proponent of utilizing technology to enhance my experience in the outdoors and to even make it a safer venture. So, with that being said, let’s consider some of the alternatives to AllTrails.

In my opinion, the best thing that AllTrails has going for it is that it allows you to download maps for offline use to assist you in navigating the backcountry and allows you to record GPS tracks of your adventures. We live in a day and age where there really isn’t an excuse for not having access to a GPS when in the backcountry. The thing is, AllTrails certainly isn’t the only app that allows you to do this. In fact, it’s not even the best app for backcountry navigation!

Gaia GPS

Gaia GPS is a full mapping and GPS application that gives you access to a whole host of map layers. It’s available for IOS and Android and even provides a web interface to allow you to plan out your routes and sync them with your other devices. It also allows for recording GPS tracks and waypoints.

I have used this application for years now and I can personally vouch for its reliability. Additionally, this has become our primary source for GPS navigation on The Wolfe County Search and Rescue Team. If that’s not a solid endorsement, I don’t know what is!

Backcountry Navigator

Backcountry Navigator is similar to Gaia GPS, though it’s more limited in some ways. This is an application that I don’t have any personal experience with, but I know a number of people whom I trust that vouch for it’s reliability. The biggest downside of Backcountry Navigator is that, at this time, it’s Android only. They do appear to be working on a new version that will be a more direct competitor to Gaia, however.

Avenza Maps

Avenza Maps is another app that I haven’t personally tried, but it has been quite popular with the U.S. Forest Service and wildland firefighting crews.

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18 Responses

  1. Great article. I too am a SAR responder. And you are absolutely correct that AllTrails is making a lot of unnecessary work for SAR. Our team uses Gaia and have started using SarTopo/CalTopo almost exclusively for planning searches and for downloading our K9 teams’ tracks and providing these to whichever organization is running the search.

    1. Can’t you use the users GPS to locate them since we have already established they have a phone with a signal?

      1. We have no way to directly track someone with a phone GPS, though there are a few options in the scenario in which the person has enough signal to get a call out and in which we can actually get the phone number from the 911 dispatcher.

        One option is to try to call and get ahold of the person and walk them through getting their current GPS coordinate and relaying it to us and tell them to just stay put. This is the best-case scenario, but rarely actually works out in practice. Another option is to try to ping the cell phone, but the accuracy on this is anything but accurate.

        I should also mention that the idea that the lost person actually has a signal and is able to use the phone is sort of the best-case scenario. Even if they are the ones that made the 911 call, the chances of them actually listening and staying put where they are and where they have signal are usually pretty slim.

        In the end, relying on SAR teams to be able to a) get in contact with you while you’re in trouble in the backcountry and b) be able to get an accurate position from your phone isn’t a very good emergency plan 🙂

        1. US National Grid, the land SAR standard since 2011: hope you are using it. Now, open USNGAPP.org on your cell and then FindMeSAR.com. Both work w/o internet after 1st load and can be used by PSAPs & location-challenged hikers easily bit.ly/find-911. Your trails AO could use Emergency Location Markers. See much more at bit.ly/USNG-resources

          1. We do have tools like that we can use, but the problem is that they all require that the lost person have the ability to access the internet. Even if we consider the scenario in which the subject calls 911 themselves, this is not a given. For one, you can get a call out in situations in which the cell signal is not strong enough to load a website. Additionally, you can often get a 911 call through even if you don’t have a signal through your carrier because the call will automatically bounce off any available tower for the purpose of that emergency call. This is great for being able to get your emergency call out, but it means that we likely won’t be able to get back in touch with you nor be able to get you to visit a website.

            I see that the USNG app will cache itself for offline use if the user has visited it previously but if they had the foresight to do that they probably wouldn’t need it to get their current location in the first place 🙂

            Like most tools, it’s fantastic when it works and certainly has its place, but definitely doesn’t always work. Relying on cell signal in The Gorge specifically is a fools game.

      2. Not necessarily. As a 911 dispatcher, the phone will ping the closest tower & ring into the closest 911 center. There may or may not be a signal that pinpoints the location &, often, using the provider to repeatedly ping the phone for a relative location is how we find the phone. It’s like playing “hot & cold” & takes time that you may not have. Also, if the phone is VOIP, it rings into the 911 center closest to the computer. (Read: you’ve fallen in Utah but your VOIP is registered in minneapolis. Minneapolis 911 will get the call.)

  2. So I’m new to hiking and have started to day hike weekly. I have used AllTrails almost exclusively to find trails and judge time and difficulty and it has been a huge help for me.

    I’ve only been hiking regularly for the past 5 months and I’m new to my area, Roanoke VA. What do you recommend as an alternative to AllTrails when it comes to finding marked trails in my area? Most google searches and people recommend AllTrails. I’m not experienced enough to use only a map and I’m not familiar enough with my area.
    My long term plan is to gain more experience and equipment to do off trail hiking but until then I feel kinda lost without all trails.
    Any advice with AllTrails alternatives for finding trails in my area or words of wisdom for a new hiker are welcome.

    1. I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with utilizing AllTrails to get a high-level idea of what an area may have to offer. My issue with it is more when people rely 100% on that one app and takes everything on it as gospel (that and the environmental impacts I mentioned).

      For trails and such, however, it’s really hard to beat the official maps for the area you’re going to, rather it be through the Forest Service, National Park Service, etc. Pretty much all of these areas will have a section on their website dedicated to the trails in the area. For example, the list for the Daniel Boone National Forest can be found here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/dbnf/recreation/hiking/?recid=39314&actid=50

    2. You should consider buying a Garmin etrex GPS & spring for the appropriate mini SIM card from Garmin for your intended hiking area.(about $100 & worth every penny) GPS is easy to learn & with the regional SIM card you can have confidence that hiking trails/ roads etc… will all be shown. Updates are available through Garmin too!

  3. I don’t have a GPS, or even a smart Phone but I have learned how to read a Map and use a Compass. I know that neither of these will be much help if i’m injured and waiting for the hopes someone will be looking for me. I agree though that All Trails has a lot of misinformation, i’ve tried to find things they list that just don’t seem to exist.

  4. I have had the experience where i went to a trail on all trails and there was no trail, just some old overgrown roads with major blowdowns that had been there for years. In less than a quarter of a mile all the faint deer trails blended into the wooded wilderness. It was so frustrating. I wasted my morning and accomplished nothing. I did leave a review on all trails with my comments.

  5. If AllTrails allowed local gurus to step in and edit as “Trusted Users”, so much of the mis-information could be cleaned up.

    I would think this would be in everyone’s best interests.

  6. All Trails has created problems here in the Adirondacks as well. They have been open to making changes I have suggested as I could represent myself as the editor of the Adirondack Mt. Club’s High Peaks guidebook. Unfortunately, it’s a bit like “whack-a-mole” however, because then some user will post an erroneous comment that again causes problems, requiring me to go back and ask for another correction. That said, All Trails is much, much better than Google Maps, which tries to provide directions to every named point on the USGS maps. Most of those directions past the trailhead are totally inaccurate, but Google won’t change them. And then there are trailhead directions that tell users they can drive private roads, or in one case drive a former Jeep trail that was abandoned over 50 years ago. All one can seemingly do is post nasty reviews that may or may not be read.

    1. I think the best maps are paper maps provided with well written guidebooks like Tony Goodwins. This is a necessary skill in the backcountry. Too many people rely on cell phones and with so many neophytes out in the woods it is a rescue waiting to happen.

  7. The underlying map and trails (the black dashed lines in the map under #2) come from Open Street Maps (http://openstreetmap.org) which is a crowd sourced map. People that maintain this information are usually pretty diligent about entering correct data. If they don’t, someone else will come along and fix it.

    What users of All Trails need to understand is if there is not a black dashed line peeking out from under a hiker’s red GPS track, that hiker was not on a trail. Your #2 map is a good example of someone bushwhacking off-trail. Perhaps All Trails should put up such a warning.

    1. Checking Open Street Map, I have to retract specific statements about the trail shown in #2. There are trails marked there – the above is just not zoomed in to see them peeking out. Premise is still the same though if zoomed in sufficiently. If there shouldn’t be trails there, someone can go to OSM and remove them.

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