Walk The Distance is the type of app that motivates a very specific type of person to get off the couch and do some exercise. Instead of walking to escape zombies or catch Pokémon, you can virtually walk long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) – perfect for those of us who don’t mind our local hiking trails but wish something more picturesque.
For every mile you walk home, you’ll be shown a small icon with your photo over a map, making its way between famous landmarks like Springer Mountain in Georgia or Kennedy Meadows at the base of the Sierra Nevada. And when you reach certain points, Walk The Distance gives you pictures and facts about them. It’s, in a way, a bit like playing The Oregon Trailexcept you’re not sitting in front of a computer, but doing some exercise. (It’s worth noting that there’s actually an official Oregon Trail app that does something similar if you’d rather take a more historic trip.)
In the time I used it, I liked coming home from a walk and looking at the app to see which landmarks I pretty much passed. The descriptions it gives you are short and sweet, they explain things like the weather or the scenery in a particular location or cover certain aspects of what it’s like to walk the trail, but to me the photography makes them worthwhile to watch every time. I also found myself looking at the map in front of me and planning how far my next hike will be – when I read the description for Hawk Mountain Shelter that said the next stop is about seven miles away, I used AllTrails (a other great app) to find an 8 mile walk nearby.
In theory, all my short walks will 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 various national parks and cities if you want to start with a slightly less intimidating goal.
Now that you’ve seen a screenshot, let me get this out of the way: I don’t think Walk The Distance is a pretty app. In fact, I honestly think it’s a bit ugly. If you can look past that, the functionality of the app is pretty solid – you can see where you are on the trail relative to other users who are virtually walking on it, browse your walking history to see how many miles you’ve logged each day , and revisit sights you’ve already passed. There’s also a whole backpack of settings that let you customize much of the experience.
There’s even a social element to Walk The Distance, although I can’t say I’ve played with it much. In addition to all users broadcasting their progress publicly, you can also add friends to walk the trail with, and the app has a mode that simply shows you where you and your friends are on the trail. (If the developers are looking for free advice, it shouldn’t be the ‘friends’ section, but the ‘tramily’ section, after the portmanteau of path and family used in the hiking community. It would be a nice theme to go along with the fact that the app allows you to choose a “path name” rather than 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 not at all. You can do the first part or two of the big walks for free and then pay to unlock the rest. Unlocking the full AT costs $4.99 and unlocking the PCT costs $9.99. Some national parks and city walks are free, others cost $0.99 each.
However, if you don’t want to pay for things piecemeal, there’s a $2.99 per month / $29.99 per year plan that lets you do all the walks for free and unlocks syncing with Fitbit or Garmin. Syncing with Apple Health or Google Fit is free (and because I use a different app to sync my Fitbit data to Apple’s system, Walk The Distance picks up that data right away).
So far I am not yet ready to start paying; for the AT, that happens about 255 miles in. If I do, though, I plan to at least buy that pad. REI, an outdoor equipment supplier, estimates that hiking the Appalachian Trail costs about $6,000, so I’m really getting ahead of myself doing it for five bucks.
Of course, Walk The Distance’s form of motivation won’t work for everyone, because not everyone is a huge walking nerd. For those of us for whom it does work, reaching the next virtual hideout could be just the motivation we need to get off the couch and go outside for a while. Personally, I’m really looking forward to making significant progress on my virtual Appalachian Trail journey later this summer, when I hike part of the Pacific Crest Trail, because that’s exactly the kind of thing I find really funny.
Walk The Distance is available for free on the App Store and Google Play store.