Hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, Lon Cooper looks like a human version of the Google Street View car.
Rising out of the side of his stuffed backpack is a gray pipe with a small, but thick, circular top. The antennae stands about 3 inches out of the top of his pack and looks like a miniature version of the tall cameras standing atop the infamous mapping cars. What is harder to see is the pipe running down the entire side of Cooper’s pack and the wire that follows that pipe. And what is impossible to see is what the wire connects to deep in Cooper’s pack: A geo logger.
In a way Cooper is like a two-legged version of the street view cars. Instead of snapping pictures, though, the equipment he’s carrying is logging data to help improve a mobile phone app — the Halfmile PCT app — that has helped thousands of hikers along the same route he’s traversing.
“I never dreamed it would become so popular,” Cooper said of the app during a recent pitstop at Snoqualmie Pass.
From print map to app
Created by David Lippke and Cooper together in early 2012, the Halfmile PCT app serves as a companion to Cooper’s famous Halfmile PCT printed maps — Cooper’s nickname is Halfmile — and aids navigation on the PCT. Using a phone’s internal GPS locator, the app provides trail diagrams, tells hikers of upcoming points of interest and calculates distance and elevation gains and losses.
“The app knows where you are exactly,” Cooper said. “It knows how far it is to landmarks, knows the amount of elevation gain. It’s a big help to planning your route.”
The app was born from the frustration Lippke had on a tandem hike and bike trip with his wife, Tina Lippke, in 2010. While Tina hiked the PCT, Lippke followed a parallel course on his bike. But the inadequacy of maps stymied Lippke. He had trouble finding the trail’s road crossings to meet Tina and was disappointed in the available mapping software.
“Making the app useful was the primary mission,” Lippke said. “Google and Garmin are a real hodgepodge when it comes to the PCT. It’s not continuous. We wanted something that was the actual track for through-hikers.”
So Lippke decided to go to the source of the best printed maps of the trail. He contacted Cooper in February, 2012 and talked to him about turning his Halfmile maps — the name derives from Cooper’s signature marks every half mile on the maps — into an app. With the annual PCT kickoff just two months away, the two worked continuously to get the project done. Lippke, a retired senior vice president of AOL, working on the technology and Cooper cross-checking and editing the data.
“I’m the tech and he’s the curator and spiritual leader of the project.” Lippke said, laughing.
They delivered a fully functional iOS app for iPhones in late April, midway through the kickoff. Since then they introduced an Android app in 2013 and a substantial update to the iOS app in 2014.
Lippke said the reviews have overall been very positive. All 13 reviews of the iOS app in the Apple App Store are five-star ratings, with most reviews praising its easy-to-use interface and useful data.
The simplicity of the app is by design. The app’s map is defined by its sparesness, using a simple live trail diagram to help in navigation with just a few trail markers. The trail simulation mode shows upcoming points north or south depending on direction of the hiker’s position according to GPS and “how to walk there” instructions for all points. A few people have approached Lippke wondering if he’s going to make the app more dynamic or add, as Lippke puts it, “more gizmos.” But Lippke said he’s against making it too complex.
“We made a decision early on to keep it simple and limit what it did,” said Lippke of the app. “I’m really against making it too complex. For someone on the trail they want it to do a very specific job. I think it does that.”
One of the most integral aspects of the app is its ability to work without cell service. When the app is downloaded all of the data it needs is on it and it doesn’t need to communicate with a cell phone tower. All it needs is to communicate with the GPS receiver in the phone.
‘Every single meter’
Lippke and Cooper are on a mission: map every meter of the iconic Pacific Crest Trail.
The next step in that mission concerns the logging equipment Cooper has been hauling northward along the PCT since leaving Campo, California, 2 miles north of the Mexican border, in April. That external, UFO-shaped antennae is connected to GPS logging equipment in Cooper’s pack and is recording every square meter of the trail as Cooper pushes past tree limbs and scrambles over rock outcrops along the PCT.
The logging equipment is only half of it. As he hikes the trail, Cooper is also using a voice recorder to note landmarks such as water sources, campsites and resupply locations. After he’s finished with his through-hike, Cooper will sit down and pour over his notes and he and Lippke will match them up with the data the logging equipment spits out.
Cooper’s not alone. Lippke’s friends, John “Dirt Stew” Haffner and his wife, Christine “Dormouse” Martens, are hiking southward along the PCT and carrying the same equipment, creating a second cross-check of Cooper’s data.
The goal of the project is to create a data-set on the app that averages 1-meter accuracy from Mexico to Canada. Right now the app has about 400 miles of the trail at half-meter accuracy, according to Lippke. The rest of the 2,250 miles of trail is hand-curated and cross-checked with unreliable satellite photos, making its accuracy unknown.
In a few weeks, after Cooper, and Haffner and Martens have essentially traded places and finished their respective trips at the Canadian and Mexican borders, Lippke will sit down and start to slowly piece together the data. All in an effort to make the Halfmile PCT app more accurate and thus more helpful to the increasing number of hikers using it to explore the trail.
“In the end, what we want is every single meter of that trail tracked,” Lippke said.
The Halfmile PCT App
The app serves as a companion to Halfmile’s PCT printed maps to aid navigation on the Pacific Crest Trail. It determines your location using GPS and calculates trail distances to 2,650 landmarks and has relevant trail notes.
Free for iPhone or Android.
For more information, go to www.halfmileproject.org.