Lisa Zaccone was racing her coworkers to Chicago. Except, not really. They were tracking the number of steps they took each day, converting those steps into approximate mileage, and competing to see who, in a hypothetical trip starting at their office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, would arrive first in the Windy City.
Doing those calculations every day for everyone in the office was a lot of work, so Zaccone asked her son, John, a 31-year-old software engineer, to create an app that tracked the progress of their footrace for them.
John didn’t say no, even though he had never developed an app before. He wasn’t that kind of software engineer. But his mom was asking, and who can turn down their mom? So he began working on a way to track those steps. However, John thought he could do better than the imagined road walk from Michigan to Illinois that his mother and her coworkers had come up with. Instead, he coded the Appalachian Trail.
Today, John’s mom has 2,000 people to thru-hike with—virtually. That’s how many people have downloaded the app, called Walk the Distance, since June, and it’s not far off the total number of thru-hikers (2,272) who successfully completed the actual trail during its first five decades of existence. Currently, the app is only available for iOS, but John’s developing an Android version, which should be ready next year.
The app connects to your iPhone’s Health app, which measures the mileage you’ve walked while carrying your phone, even when the app isn’t in use. John’s app uses that information to then show you where you would be on the Appalachian Trail if you were thru-hiking. And you’re not hiking alone. Literally every other user is visible on the same map, passing you and getting passed by you.
“Some people tell their friends to download the app at the same time, and then they’re motivated to keep up with each other,” John says. “I want it to be a social experience.”
Having thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail last year—physically, not virtually—I was intrigued when I first heard about the app. It’s the latest example of technology finding a window into the world of thru-hiking, much like the navigation apps that many actual thru-hikers now rely on. I love the idea. Not everyone has the time, money, or ability to hike the Appalachian Trail, even if they like the idea of thru-hiking. Hiking virtually might not be as good as the real thing, but it’s a lighthearted and easy way to connect with the trail and get a sense of how long it takes to hike 2,000 miles.
“I went to school in Blacksburg, Virginia, which is basically right off the Appalachian Trail,” says John, who has backpacked a few sections of the AT. “I really wanted to make an app for the people who have the inspiration or the dream to hike the whole trail.” As users progress, they pass virtual signposts, which include shelters, scenic points, and trail-volunteer information. The first 150 miles are free, then it costs $3 to walk the rest of the way to the trail’s northern terminus in Maine, Mount Katahdin.
For a person walking 10,000 steps a day, John calculated it would take an average of 440 days to hike the entire trail on Walk the Distance. That’s more than twice as long as it would take most thru-hikers, and it doesn’t take into account elevation change or a heavy pack. But it’s still an impressive achievement, given that the average adult in the United States only walks about 5,000 steps per day. In 2020, John says, he wants to challenge people using his app to walk the entire trail within the calendar year, which would be slightly more than 12,000 steps a day.
But he isn’t content with just the Appalachian Trail. His next coding project? The Pacific Crest Trail. Who knows, maybe one day you can become a virtual triple crowner.