Walk The Distance is the type of app that will motivate a very specific type of person to get off the couch and exercise. Instead of letting you walk to escape zombies or catch Pokémon, it lets you practically hike long-distance routes like the Appalachian Trail (AT) and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)—perfect for those of us who don’t mind our local hiking trails but want something a little more scenic.
For every mile you walk at home, you’ll see a small icon with the image move along a map, making your way between famous landmarks like Springer Mountain in Georgia or Kennedy Meadows at the foot of the Sierra Nevada. And when you reach certain points, Walk The Distance will give you pictures and facts about them. It’s a bit like playing in a way Oregon Trailexcept instead of sitting in front of a computer, you’re outside exercising. (It’s worth noting that there’s actually an official Oregon Trail app that does something similar if you’d rather take a more historic tour.)
In my time using it, I’ve enjoyed coming home from a ride and looking at the app to see what landmarks I virtually passed. The descriptions it gives you are short and sweet, explaining things like the weather or landscape in a particular location or going over certain aspects of what it’s like to walk the trail, but for me the photography makes them worth checking out every time. I’ve also been looking at the map ahead and planning how far my next hike will be – when I read the description for Hawk Mountain Shelter that says the next stop is about seven miles away, I used AllTrails (another great app) to find an eight mile walk nearby.
In theory, all my short rides will add up to many thousands of miles and I will have completed Walk The Distance’s version of the AT. The app also offers a number of shorter tours through various national parks and cities if you want to start with a slightly less daunting goal.
Let me get this out of the way real quick now that you’ve seen a screenshot: I don’t think Walk The Distance is a pretty app. In fact, I honestly think it’s kind of ugly. If you can look past that, though, the app’s functionality is pretty solid — you can see where you are on the trail in relation to other users virtually walking it, browse your walking history to see how many miles you logged each day, and go back to points of interest you have already passed. There’s also a whole backpack of settings that let you customize a lot of the experience.
There’s even a social element to Walk The Distance, but I can’t say I’ve played with it much. In addition to all users publicly broadcasting their progress, you can also add friends to walk the trail with, and the app has a mode that only shows you where you and your friends are on the trail. (If the developers are looking for some free advice, it shouldn’t be the “friends” section, it should be the “tramily” section, after the portmanteau of paths and family used in the walking community. That would be a nice bit of theme for walking along with the fact that the app lets you choose a “path name” instead of a display name.)
I also – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – appreciate Walk The Distance’s pricing structure. It gives you a lot of flexibility in how you want to pay for the app or if you want to at all. You can do the first part or two of the big rides for free and then pay to unlock the rest. Unlocking the entire AT is $4.99, and unlocking the PCT is $9.99. Some of the national parks and city walks are free, while others cost $0.99 each.
If you don’t want to pay for things piecemeal, though, there’s a $2.99 a month / $29.99 a year subscription that lets you do all your rides for free and unlocks syncing with Fitbit or Garmin. Syncing with Apple Health or Google Fit is free (and because I use another app to sync my Fitbit data into Apple’s system, Walk The Distance pulls that data right up).
So far I haven’t gotten to the point where I need to start paying; for the AT it happens about 155 miles in. When I do, I plan to buy at least that path. REI, an outdoor supply company, estimates that hiking the Appalachian Trail actually costs about $6,000, so I’m really coming out ahead by doing it for five bucks.
Of course, Walk The Distance’s form of motivation will not work for everyone because not everyone is a big runner. For those of us for whom it works, getting to the next virtual shelter can be just the motivation we need to get off the couch and get outside for a while. Personally, I’m really looking forward to making some significant progress on my virtual Appalachian Trail journey later this summer when I’m out hiking part of the Pacific Crest Trail because that’s just the kind of thing I find really fun.
Walk The Distance is available for free on the App Store and Google Play store.