NSF SmarTrail Project

The US National Science Foundation generously funded a Virginia Tech grant titled “EAGER: SAI: SmarTrail: An Infrastructure Services Framework for Sustainable Trail Management” that is investigating ways to identify, communicate, and address sustainability issues on long-distance trails like the Appalachian Trail. EAGER grants like this one explore potentially transformative research areas. This grant–through interviews, surveys, social media analysis, and mobile phone app deployment–seeks to understand the role of digital technologies in supporting sustainable trail management on the Appalachian Trail (the AT). The project runs from 2021-2023, with the possibility of extensions.

The multidisciplinary project is led by Kris Wernstedt of the School of Public and International Affairs and includes as co-PIs Scott McCrickard of the Department of Computer Science and the Center for Human Computer Interaction, Shalini Misra of the School of Public and International Affairs, and Jeff Marion of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and the USGS. Grad students Norhan Abdelgawad (Public and International Affairs), Jaitun Patel (Computer Science), and Morva Saaty (Computer Science) are assisting on the project, along with other grad students and undergrads.

This page gathers some of the project outcomes, situating them within the goals of the project. Current outcomes include:

  • ICSE Gone Walking project: We are grateful to Virginia Tech’s Institute for Society, Culture and Environment (ICSE) for funding a seed project to explore the risk, resource management, and social informatics in the hiking community. These 2020-2021 Scholars Program funds helped launch our NSF SmarTrail project.
  • Project kickoff meeting: Our project team held a kickoff meeting in Staunton VA for a project kickoff meeting in January 2022. Results from the meeting and an announcement of the project goals can be found here.
  • Stakeholder interviews: This round of stakeholder interviews, held in Spring 2022, focused on investigating how digital information systems can support sustainable trail, camping, and visitor use management on the AT. We interviewed trail managers and stewards to learn how AT hikers use smartphones, apps, and social media in their communications related to safety information, regulations, educational messaging, and stewardship. We are analyzing the collected interviews to identify opportunities for using technologies to enhance conservation objectives; e.g., to reduce visitor crowding, flatten the thru-hiker “bubble”, reduce camping impacts, communicate Leave No Trace impacts, and understand hiker behaviors. Full writeups of our results are coming soon.
  • COMPASS 2022 paper: Grad student Morva Saaty led a paper at the ACM Conference on Computing and Sustainable Societies (COMPASS), published and presented in June 2022. The paper examined data from the social media platform Reddit that focused on AT thru-hike experiences. As expected, the most frequently discussed topics were on planning and preparing for the AT hike, but hikers also discussed trail experiences and sustainable practices. The paper can be downloaded here.
  • ALDHI workshop: Four members of our research team attended the 2022 Appalachian Trail Long Distance Hikers Association meeting (ALDHA 2022) in Williamstown MA in September 2022. We presented a workshop titled Trail Apps: Digital Trail Magic or Duds. It likened the explosion of digital technology on the AT to the opening of a Pandora Box, probing former AT thru-hikers about their likes and dislikes of various platforms and debate whether these technologies have changed the zen of a long-distance hike. Reactions were generally hostile to the possibility that technology could overwhelm trail experiences, though with acknowledgement that there are benefits to technology as well. A description of the workshop can be found here.
  • Thru-hike kickoff meeting: Project PI Kris Wernstedt is attending the Appalachian Trail Kick-Off Weekend on March 3-5. He will be interviewing thru-hikers who are starting their 2000-mile journeys along the AT, and he will be promoting an early version of our SmarTrail mobile phone app that helps assess the mental and physical issues that hikers experience during this long journey. More details to come on outcomes of this meeting.

Please contact Scott McCrickard at mccricks@cs.vt.edu for more information about any of these outcomes, or for ways to get involved in ongoing research.