How a Blind Man Used Technology To Conquer the Appalachian Trail

People who accomplish great things, and how they do it.
Jan. 22 2013 2:34 PM

The Blind Hiker

How one man used technology to conquer the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail.

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On March 6, 2010, Hanson began his journey in Georgia, followed closely by Gary Steffens, a filmmaker who decided to document the trek. The two carried 40- to 50-pound backpacks filled with all of the necessary materials, including first aid kits, tents, maps, and food. For the majority of the trip, Hanson combined the use of his GPS with the employment of trekking poles. At each checkpoint, Hanson would listen to his GPS and gauge the distance and direction to the next site. Then, intermittently along the trail, Hanson could verify his position and maintain the correct orientation. While the GPS kept Hanson on track in a macro sense, his trekking poles alerted him to smaller details, such as obstacles and turns in the trail. Hanson’s sense of hearing allowed him to locate water, campgrounds, and other important sites that were not indicated on his maps.

Blind hiker Mike Hanson customized his own GPS technology to help him on his trek
Blind hiker Mike Hanson customized his own GPS technology to help him on his trek

Photo by Gary Steffens.

Occasionally, dangerous weather and terrain proved challenging. Before Hanson even set foot on the trail, a late spring blizzard blanketed the AT with snow, making it difficult for Hanson to be sure he was on the right path. Later, on Blood Mountain in Georgia, Hanson explained, the men “faced heavy rain, strong winds, and slopes we had to slide down.”

Although these setbacks slowed his pace—and forced him to skip a few sections of the trail—Hanson remained steady and, in early October, he began hiking the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, the final hurdle of the AT thru-hike. With the help of two Maine residents he met that day, Rita and Bain Pollard, Hanson found good foot- and hand-holds along the Hunt Trail up Katahdin. On Oct. 2, 2010, Hanson and his companions reached the top, the pinnacle of seven months and 1,700 miles of hard work.

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Reflecting upon the demanding trip, Hanson chooses to focus on its broad implications rather than its personal significance. Although Hanson has found success in a variety of roles—most recently as an attorney—he recognizes that many people are unaware of the tools and tactics that can allow blind people to accomplish a variety of tasks. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, 70 percent of legally blind individuals and 55 percent of visually impaired individuals are unemployed. Hanson wants to inspire these individuals to pursue grander goals, and he believes that “with the right technology, one can do quite a few things.”

Blind hiker Mike Hanson on the Appalachian Trail
Blind hiker Mike Hanson on the Appalachian Trail

Photo by Gary Steffens.

Unfortunately, although a lot of good technology exists, Hanson explains that there is a “gap between what is available cost-effectively … and what potential employers know about.” Many employers are wary of hiring visually impaired individuals because they are unfamiliar with their condition and may be misinformed about the cost of the technologies required to address it. Even worse, many visually impaired individuals are themselves unaware of the newest technologies.

Hanson is determined to address these issues, and hopes that his hike can help demonstrate the possibilities. He has written a book, and is in the process of developing new GPS technology with his business partner, Harlan Jacobs. Through their company, Wayfinder Angels Corporation, the two are working to improve upon current products while also raising awareness about tech aids in general.

As he plans his next adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail, Hanson reminds us to never “give up on an idea because you don’t know how to make it happen right now. Give it time … and just keep paying attention to what is going on in terms of technology in the world around you. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point you’ll figure out a way to make it happen.”

Sarah Trankle is an executive assistant at Slate. She lives in New York City.