May 31, 2008
If you've searched the web for information on a trail or peak, chances are you've come across a listing from Trails.com, a subscription-only website offering trail information and topo maps. For $49.00 per year, Trails.com claims to give you unlimited access to over 40,000 trail guides and topo maps for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
Generally I prefer my websites free, so I always ignored Trails' ubiquitous listings—though I often wondered what their content was like. Recently, Trails.com absorbed my favorite online map service, Topozone.com. That plus Trails' 14 day free trial offer prompted me to take a look at their service. The verdict? Trails.com offers a depth and breadth of coverage that is considerably more than I was expecting. Is it worth $49 a year?
Let's start with the free 14 day trial.
Click through to Trails.com, and you'll be prompted to create a user account. To help keep you motivated, Trails offers a decent package of incentives right from the start, including a few free catalogs, travel guides, and two free issues of Backpacker Magazine. Chose the ones you like and keep moving.
Next comes the dreaded credit card field. Yes, Trails.com wants a charge card number in exchange for your 14 day 'free' trial. If you're like me, this alone is enough to make you give them the digital finger and take your business elsewhere, but for the sake of the review I decided to take one for the team and persevere.
I have to say, I'm glad I did.
Log into your new account, and you get a simple but effective interface offering a variety of ways to search or browse Trails' immense content database.
What kind of content do you get to access? Here's the surprise (at least for me): Trails.com gives you direct access to complete unaltered excerpts from hiking and climbing guidebooks.
Imagine my surprise when a search for "Mount Williamson" turned up the full Bairs Creek Cirque section of Paul Richins Jr.'s 50 Backcountry Skiing Descents in California.
Click through to the report, and Trails gives you a preview page which includes current weather conditions for the Mount Williamson region, a list of links for local resources (including travel and hotel reservations), and a short excerpt from the guidebook. You can also find current conditions—or post a report here yourself.
You also have the option to view the entire text of the book's Mount Williamson section.
You can view and print the text, formatted as a flash document.
The scan quality is excellent: clean and clear. No jagged text dots or scan blemishes in sight.
At this point in my Trails.com experience, I realized that when they say unlimited access to 40,000+ trails, they're talking about access to actual sections of guide books.
A quick search of the Trails catalog revealed excerpts from quite a few books which are currently sitting on my bookshelf.
Suddenly, $49.00 a year seemed like a pretty darn good deal to me.
You're not just accessing web-only content here; you're given access to a huge list of published guidebooks (see list below) from regions all across the country. That makes the yearly subscription fee a reasonable alternative to individually buying guidebooks for trails, canyons, and mountains as you need them. Even if you do have a big book collection already, it's likely they're all regional. With Trails' reach, you can search guidebooks for peaks and trails in states far and wide.
How complete is Trails.com's 40,000-trail database?
I ran searches on a wide variety of hikes, like Paria Canyon, Rainbow Bridge from Navajo Mountain, Mount Holy Cross, and of course the Bairs Creek Cirque. Overall, Trails' comprehensiveness is very impressive. I was able to stump it with arcane scrambles like the Walter Powell Route or Flagstaff's Lost Burro Trail, but in all fairness these aren't really officially recognized hikes.
Regarding your 14 day free trial, Trails limits you to three guidebook viewings, presumably to prevent you from downloading everything in sight and then cancelling. You can save the complete trail guides (I chose the Bairs Descent, Mt. San Jacinto's Cactus to Clouds, and a bike route along the Los Angeles River) in the "My Trails" section of your account, and view/print them at will. Full membership lifts this restriction, allowing unlimited access.
As mentioned earlier, Trails.com has now absorbed Topozone.com, which featured searchable topo maps in a variety of formats from across the U.S. Unfortunately, Trails.com has not as yet added the full functionality of Topozone, though perhaps this is currently being phased-in. In any case, Topozone was free (for unlimited viewing) and free of a registration requirement, so the loss of Topozone remains significant.
Trails.com does feature its own set of searchable USGS quads. These appear to be the 7.5 series maps. Resolution for web viewing is adequate (1600x1200 pixels), but less inspiring for printing: 8x10" at 150 dpi. Once again, Topozone offered considerably higher resolution scans, as well as the full complement of editions. Hopefully, these will eventually be added to Trails' service.
If you've never browsed through Trails.com, it's worth giving the 14 free days a try. If nothing else, you can find and download three of your favorite hikes or hikes-to-be, and then cancel your account before the trial period ends and it switches over to a regular, annual subscription. On the other hand, if you regularly travel to a wide range of locales, and you want premium-quality information about all of them, you'll easily get your money's worth out of the Trails database of guidebook excerpts.
I have to say, I wasn't expecting to find information of this level of quality from Trails. It is definitely a big advantage being able to search through so many guidebook articles for a single subject (example: a Mount Whitney search returns over 120 results).
Well, there's only one bit of business left: cancelling my free trial. I was a little apprehensive about this. I'm sure we're all familiar with horror stories about 'free' trials which require you to jump through an impossible set of hoops to cancel, locking you in to an endless loop of unanswered customer service calls.
Trails.com makes it effortless to cancel. Just click the "My Account" link at the top of every page, and there, in plain sight, is a link that allows you to cancel. Click 'cancel my trial' once and you're done—no last-minute pleading or attempts to change your mind.
UPDATE: since I first published my Trails.com review in May 2008, it has received a steady trickle of comments, almost none of which are positive. Many people complain that Trails' business practices are deceptive, and especially that charges appeared on their credit cards that they were not expecting. My experience with Trails.com was entirely different: I signed up, browsed their content, and canceled my membership with no issues and no hidden charges. The frequency of negative comments from others, however, is alarming — April 10, 2010.