Active Outdoors: Going by the book

Last modified: 6/17/2015 2:19:13 AM
It almost sounds quaint in this age of Apple Watches and Google Glasses that something as old-fashioned as a book may still be your best source if you are looking for outdoor fun around New England. Sure, there’s a lot of information online, all available with just a few clicks. I’ll concede that I do web research all the time and that the web is better at immediate information, especially trail closures, snow conditions, water flows and other events that are generally weather-related.

But, overall, I’ve found many web sources, especially those that offer only unedited user-input, to be a lot less reliable and comprehensive than a well-researched, well-edited book. The web world is improving, but to really get the sense of what a specific adventure is like before you do it, and especially to compare one adventure to another, books are still the gold standard. Besides, the battery never goes dead on a book. There seems, however, to be a great age divide. If you are under about 40 and it doesn’t show up online, it doesn’t exist. That’s a shame because, as I’ve already said, in some cases books are just plain better.

The only source I can think of that’s more reliable than a good book is recent personal experience by someone you know and trust. Note the words “recent” and “trust.” Nothing can get you into trouble faster than blindly following advice from someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about. The information in a good guidebook has been checked and vetted – something you can’t say about the information from your office-mate’s second cousin.

Looking at the bookshelf in my office, I have close to 50 guidebooks within easy reach, almost every one dog-eared and stained from use. They cover hiking, paddling, pedaling, camping, rock and ice climbing, snowshoeing and backcountry skiing in the six New England states and New York. I have a bunch more “nature books,” most of which offer insights into particular places. Together, these books detail more potential adventures than any one person could easily do in a decade. Most of the adventures I’ve written about in the past 10 years of doing this column show up in one guidebook or another.

I’m not alone. Everywhere I go, I meet people who are doing something fun that they found in a book. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I was playing hooky from the office, threw a kayak on the car and drove to one of my favorite paddling spots nearby. At the launch, I met two other kayakers, John and Paula, just launching their boats. We paddled together for a while, and being the nosy sort that I am, I asked how they’d discovered my not-so-secret “secret” spot. Their answer was simple. The first purchase they made after buying kayaks, paddles and PFDs was to buy the AMC’s Quiet Water canoe and kayak guide to New Hampshire and Vermont. They are slowly exploring all the interesting paddling options they have found in this marvelous book, gradually working their way farther and farther from home.

That’s precisely the way a guidebook like this should be used. Enjoy looking through it and find ideas that lead you outdoors, then go out and enjoy the reality even more. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

“The Book”

When the first AMC White Mountain Guide was published back in 1907, it started a revolution. Before that, guidebooks had focused largely on places to stay and attractions. This one took you out into the wild world. Every “50 Hikes” or “Where to Paddle” or “Bike Routes” book published since then owes a debt to the White Mountain Guide, which is now in its 29th edition. I’d be willing to bet there’s a 30th already in the works.

I can’t imagine going anywhere near the White Mountains without a copy of this book handy. In addition to the trail descriptions, it has loads of good advice, including recommended hikes for all ability levels.

The amount of work in each edition of this book is almost incomprehensible.

The level of accuracy is stunning. Following the directions and the maps, you should have no trouble finding a particular trail head, and once on the trail you’ll know what to expect. If it says something like “… the footway may be wet and obscure in places, and markings should be followed with care,” it means you better pay attention.

If you go by “The Book,” you can stay out of trouble.

In a very real sense, the White Mountains as we know them today – vast tracts of protected land – are a direct result of the White Mountain Guide. Without this book, far fewer people would ever have left the roads to discover the wonders of this region. Without all those people invested in the idea of keeping this beautiful place protected, we would almost certainly have a lot less public land, a lot fewer hiking trails, and a lot more development and encroachment of civilization.

What guidebooks to own?

The simple answer, I’ve decided, is “all of them.” That’s why my collection seems to keep on growing and growing. Every time I find a new guidebook, I buy it. They never sit unused.

I suppose if you only do one outdoor sport or only play in one small area, you don’t need a lot of guidebooks, but the whole point of guidebooks is to expand your opportunities for adventure. Guidebooks are almost as much about dreaming as they are about doing.

If you live in New England or nearby, and want to start your own collection, you can’t really go wrong by starting with the multitudinous guides published by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Supplement them with the guides published by the Green Mountain Club and the Adirondack Mountain Club and you’ve pretty well covered the region.

While you are collecting, don’t neglect the myriad guidebooks from Moon Outdoors, especially the ones on hiking, biking and camping. More general, less outdoor-specific but still useful are the Explorer’s Guides published by Countryman Press.

(Tim Jones can be reached at

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