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Have you ever dreamed of taking a long road walk, but you know you don't have the time to do it? Why not take the walk virtually? Following a route on a map is one level. Seeing Google Street View pictures takes it to the next level. Miles are walked for real near home, and the pictures are real along the virtual route.
To me, a virtual hike is simulating as many aspects of an actual hike as a person desires. There are no "rules." it can be as much or as little as a person wants it to be. For me, a key aspect is the miles are actually walked. Just not on the planned route. The miles are tracked on the planned route.
I have found only one virtual hike of this type on the Internet. It is a hike of the TransAmerica bicycle trail from Virginia to Oregon. The program can be found here. It is easy to enter the miles and the program automatically tracks progress on maps. There is also a picture from near where you stop everyday. There is an option to have partners drawn from other participants. This is an excellent program to give ideas for what a person's personal program will look like. I'm about 750 miles into that hike now. I'm continuing it because it is so good for tracking miles.
There are really no restrictions for choosing a route. Especially for those who will never have an opportunity to hike a long route. A simple line drawn between two points on Google maps will work. However, I feel the route becomes more interesting if a person knows that given the right circumstances they could and would actually hike it. It is also more interesting if there is a place to get pictures along the route. With Google Maps or Google earth, this is possible almost anywhere.
The choices can be short like a 10 mile trail or long like the Appalachian Trail. There are many trails in our area. I could use virtual hiking as a way to explore the area and get ideas on where to go for real.
Just choose the route with some thought. The concept does become somewhat addictive. While on one route, other routes become more attractive. Since I hike a lot in the wilderness, other things draw me. The wilderness is for reality hiking for me. Currently, I'm hiking the 48 states on back roads. I might also be interested in hiking the railroad several times across the country. Small old railroad towns are very interesting to me. I've done a lot of traveling by motorcycle to visit them. Each old town is 8 to 10 miles apart. There is often history and pictures of these towns available on the Internet. Like real life, it will have to wait until I'm done with the trail I'm on.
Finishing the trail I'm on is an important point to me. Failing to complete a trail can teach quitting. This may carry over to real life.
I find it interesting to make a real paper map of the route as if I were walking it. Those who use GPS are a little out of luck. Making the route is easy, but tracking using the GPS won't work. What I find dissatisfying is just making a map on the computer and only tracking my progress there. But as the hike unfolds I put the points on Google maps. Google earth would also work. The reason for the computer is the ability to get pictures along the way. A sterile trail map is not as satisfying to me.
This can take any form a person wants. If a person is dreaming of hiking a longish trail, they may also want to record their memories. Like anything, this takes practice. Each person will have their own format. Some simply write in a book. Others might want to blog on the Internet as they travel. It sounds dumb to make a blog like this one. How much can a person write about walking similar routes near home each day. This is where projection comes into play.
While interesting things done at home are recorded, also record interesting things about what would be seen on the virtual hike. Eventually the line with reality blurs and I feel as if I'm actually on the trail. Of course, many of the hardships of the difficult trails are not there. If a person has hiked the sort of trail they are doing the virtual hike on, this is not a major problem. The mind fills in the blanks.
Some plan very long miles on a long trail. When they get there, they are lucky to do a fraction of the miles. Although I could hike 20 miles in the mountains in a single day, I also know this would be stretching my abilities. Even at 7 miles a day in the mountains with a pack, fatigue would set in after a few days and I'd be forced to take a day off. My reality preference is 4 days of hiking and then a resupply day.
The cumulative effect of long streaks of hiking becomes more apparent in virtual hiking.
I hike in all kinds of weather except for thunderstorms which can be dangerous here. There are a lot of lightening strikes and there is often hail that could be life threatening if stuck out in it. A lot of cars here look like dimpled golf balls. It sometimes only takes a few minutes of hail to have that happen. But I've found other types of "bad" weather are enjoyable to me if I have the right gear. There is not a choice of weather on a real trail, and I don't give myself that choice on a virtual trail.
If a person wants to add some training to the virtual hike, they can take some aspect of the real hike and do it for real. One thing I do is cook a lot on my backpacking stove. It helps me to find what I like and discover new things to eat. Others might decide to sleep out in their yard one night a week regardless of the weather. Some might decide to carry their backpack with them on their daily walks.
This type of training does carry over well to real backpacking.
A thru-hike is a long trail that is completed within a year or some other time frame for a very long trail. A classic example is the Appalachian Trail. Realistically, the weather gives about 6 months to complete the trail. I have a "White Blaze" mentality. If a person skips sections of a trail for whatever reason, it is not a thru-hike. Even if that reason is something like a hurricane or forest fire. Completing a thru-hike should have an element of luck to it. There should be the possibility of failure even if a person does everything right. Realistically, people skip sections of long trails and still call it a thru-hike. They may hike around a difficult mountain because they are nursing an injury or something. If they choose to call that a thru-hike, I do not mind. Everyone has a definition that works for them.
To carry this concept into a virtual hike, I feel the time criteria for the route should be somewhat challenging, but not unrealistic. For instance, I have set a 3 year goal for the 48 state hike. This means I have to average 6.4 miles a day. I'm behind now because I had to greatly reduce my miles for a couple of months. But I know I can gradually catch up if things go well.
Another person might choose a shorter trail such as the Colorado Trail which is about 483 miles long. There are only about 60 days in the summer where the trail is reasonable to attempt. This would mean averaging about 8 miles a day. For a virtual hike, a person can choose any time they want. But once chosen, that would be the criteria for calling it a thru-hike.
Virtual Segment Hiking
A segment hiker has a long term goal of completing a trail doing short segments at a time. Some might take 20 or 30 years to complete a trail as they only get a short vacation each year. This type of approach would be good for a person who does not want to commit to a schedule for a virtual thru-hike. They may have a busy schedule and only get infrequent opportunities to hike.
Comparison to Real Hiking
There is an element of being a wannabe to virtual hiking. OK, I admit it. I'm a wannabe hiker of the 48 states. Will I ever get to do it? The chances are slim, but it could happen. Everyone is a wannabe hiker of a long trail until after they hike it. Virtual hiking can be training for an actual hike or it can be a way to become immersed in a dream they know they can never fulfill. It is really no different than reading a book about a long trail or a climb of Mt. Everest.
I prefer to think of it as a unique activity with its own rewards. Yes, I do project myself into the trail. But I also learn more about the routes I frequently walk. The combination is what makes it interesting to me.
Virtual hiking is what each person makes of it. There are no rules except their own.