The Blind Hiker
How one man used technology to conquer the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail.
Photo by Gary Steffens.
The Appalachian Trail spans more than 2,000 miles across 14 states, traversing woodlands and peaks from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It is one of the world’s longest continuous footpaths, and each year thousands of individuals attempt to hike the entire thing.
For any thru-hiker, making the trek is an accomplishment (fewer than 25 percent successfully complete the journey). But that’s especially true if you’re blind. Which is why it’s so impressive that Minneapolis-based attorney Mike Hanson set out along the Appalachian Trail in the spring of 2010. Using only a GPS device and trekking poles, the visually impaired Hanson plotted and completed the majority of the Appalachian Trail without outside assistance, making an important point about the power of technology and the independence of those without sight.
Born in Madison, Wis., Hanson has been blind since birth. When he was born prematurely, doctors gave him a high concentration of oxygen, which damaged his retinas. Despite his impairment, Hanson is an avid outdoorsman. As a child, his father’s stories about pheasant hunting in rural South Dakota inspired him to seek out wilderness. Later on, Hanson became a president of Capable Partners, a program designed to help visually impaired individuals partake in hunting and fishing by providing them with seeing partners as aides.
These experiences motivated him to pursue a long-distance hike, and the AT seemed like a fitting goal. Many other visually impaired individuals have completed similar journeys—among them Bill Irwin, who hiked the AT with a guide dog—but few have employed GPS systems. Hanson firmly believes that technology has the potential to change the way that the visually impaired interact with the world, and he suspected that using GPS to complete a big-ticket hike would help him prove his point. For years, though, the technology was both too expensive and too limited in its capabilities, which meant Hanson had to put his plans on hold.
Finally, in 2006, he noticed an increasing “availability of GPS that you can use without sight.” Using his Nokia N82 cellphone, Hanson downloaded a Loadstone GPS system, which is a free, open-source application specifically designed to facilitate the mobility of blind and visually impaired persons. The Loadstone GPS system allows its users to search for points of interest in an area—such as grocery stores, schools, and office buildings—and store those sites along with labels for future use. With the addition of screen reader technology, the Loadstone program can then provide oral instructions, letting a user know when to turn and when a destination is nearby, all with the help of clock-face directions. This data can later be shared online with other users, leading to a crowdsourced database of sites. Unlike, say, your iPhone’s navigation system, the Loadstone program does not have extensive existing data points; however, the Loadstone program allows visually impaired users to create their own personalized databases at a low cost.
Photo by Gary Steffens.
For his hike of the Appalachian Trail, however, Hanson needed more detailed maps than crowdsourcing could provide. Hanson gathered data from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and other sources and converted the information to the Loadstone GPS format on his phone. Hanson then used tools on the Loadstone website—such as a route planner function—to generate checkpoints along the trail. These locations—created by entering geographical coordinates into the route planner—included things like campsites, trailheads, and water sources. Most importantly, the Loadstone tools allowed Hanson to store oral instructions along with each point, which would be necessary on the trail.
Over the course of the next few years, Hanson continued to update his GPS device while pushing himself into top physical shape. In true sports montage fashion, Hanson did everything from hiking to lifting weights to walking on a stair climber with a backpack. In 2007, Hanson flew to Shenandoah National Park for a week and hiked part of the AT in order to test his Loadstone system. The majority of his data proved to be accurate, and each major point was within approximately 20 feet of the GPS estimation. The test run also showed Hanson that he would need a GPS receiver with longer battery life. Hanson replaced the receiver—moving from a six-hour battery to a 32-hour battery—and began to make final preparations for his hike.
Sarah Trankle is an executive assistant at Slate. She lives in New York City.