Hiking app puts the mountains at your fingertips

Zoe St. John farm tour

Zoe St. John gives Northwestern University students a farm tour. (Colin Boyle/Medill)

By Nadine Daher

Hiking is a popular sport at Kalu Yala, a sustainable community in the making in the Panamanian jungle, where interns develop their own ecological projects for agriculture, living designs, construction, and water resources. A group of these Kalu Yala residents went on a 50-mile hiking adventure and ended up walking in circles on uncharted trails, reemphasizing the importance of navigation.

Since the majority of the students at Kalu Yala are not local, they are not experts in their knowledge of the area. With new technology, however, navigation can be a tool the hiker carries to the trail. The AllTrails application is a technological innovation for navigation that, through an ongoing ecological tourism project, is being adapted to the trails around Kalu Yala.

App guides hikers, even offline

Marie Stringer, co-owner of Tres Brazos Outfitters, has been working on this project for months. “It turns your cell phone into an offline GPS tracker that tracks your points as you hike outside of cell signal. You can download the maps offline and then utilize your point on the map without Wi-Fi (or cellular service) to see the topography ahead,” said Stringer, as she explained the purpose of AllTrails.


A screenshot of the AllTrails App with a trail adapted to Kalu Yala with the San Miguel to Kalu Yala trail shown. It is described as a moderately difficult trail and is rated by other users.

The staff at Kalu Yala have been mapping the trails around the area to add to the app, founded by a group of Bay Area investors in 2010. As a result, “instead of requiring that a staff member or student know the trail, it allows people to go do this on their own,” Stringer said. She is referring to the trails meant for beginners, indicated in the app as the less challenging ones — unlike the grueling 50-mile trail to the Caribbean that required guides.  

Discovering Kalu Yala via the app

AllTrails will benefit the hiker as an individual and Kalu Yala as a community. Stringer describes it as a social sharing app. “We’ve had people just show up on our property because of the trails that we mapped for our internal use,” she recalls. Seeing as there aren’t many trails mapped around the area, people began to see Kalu Yala as a good place to stop for a break or even for the night.

More visitors at Kalu Yala could even help in the community’s mission. Jimmy Stice, founder and CEO of Kalu Yala, describes how this institution would achieve its most basic goal by spreading “environmental and social values to people who want to come here.

“What I'd really like, though, is to create an economy here where you don't have to just come here to be a student or come here to camp for the weekend — you can apply for a job here like any real city.”

As Kalu Yala scales up to a larger community, people who would initially wander in using AllTrails could learn more and spread the word about sustainable living. This expansion would lead to more guests and eventually, employees to help upkeep the sustainable ecological programs.

Helping people experience nature

This app also solves the issue of accessibility. “What AllTrails does is it allows hiking like that to be accessible to people that don’t have that sort of very specialized gear, because the gear that you need is your cell phone,” Stringer said. The fact that the app is free also allows everyone to be able to access an outdoor adventure.

Carter Angel, a hiker and a recent graduate of the internships at Kalu Yala, recalls a time when she took a hike a saw a rare red frog. The app, by making hiking easier to access, allows more people to experience nature, in nature. “There’s things along that whole trail that you would never see anywhere else because you’re literally just, you’re there,” Angel said.

However, Angel believes that the paths she worked on are in an early developmental phase, and so she did not yet post many of the trails she mapped.

Stringer reemphasizes this current challenge: “I have this amazing vision of it, but it requires actually a lot of time and energy on my part to make it what I want it to be.” She is planning to continue working on this project next semester.

A tool for education

The vision those at Kalu Yala have for AllTrails extends beyond the mapping of a few hiking trails, however.

Farm tours, usually given by the farm manager to Kalu Yala visitors, are being adapted into self-guided tours with AllTrails, from the chicken coops to the red cranberry hibiscus bushes.

“I’ll go through and do the farm tour and add every plant that I know,” Stringer said. “When people come here they can grab the brochure and then download AllTrails, upload our farm tour and literally walk around the farm clicking on the pictures … getting an explanation of what that is, how it builds a soil and what sort of nutrients it needs.”

Zoe St. John, the agriculture director at Kalu Yala, said the self-guided tours will give her more time to work on farm projects. “That means that I get roughly an extra, anywhere from an hour to six hours each week, just to work on the farm,” St. John said. “I am so thrilled."

The AllTrails app can be loaded with unlimited information. Stringer explains that the project is not yet complete because she is still collecting “culinary information or any sort of medicinal information,” among other facts about the agriculture at Kalu Yala to include in the app before posting it.  

A living project

Using the mapped trails and, in order to map others, Angel created a ‘Hiking Challenge’ for the staff and students at Kalu Yala. She wanted to build something that won’t “just get eaten by the jungle,” meaning that it would last for years and get passed on, unlike some sustainability projects that require constant maintenance. 

Angel created a point system showing scale of difficulty to encourage people to head out for that first hiking high. “If you think you’re going on a hike and your machete-ing the whole time, like, that’s not a hike — that’s a scramble. So I wanted it to be something that is fun and safe and enjoyable,” Angel said.

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