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Ask an Expert: Robert Stone on writing guidebooks

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BY KELSEY DAYTON
Chances are if you are an outdoor communicator you love to be outside. You probably are the one friends turn to for suggestions on where to go when getting out. Ever thought of recording your knowledge and writing a guidebook?
About 20 years ago Robert Stone typed up a pamphlet to give to the people who always asked about the best hikes near his home in Red Lodge, Montana. It was so popular he decided to write up one for Yellowstone National Park. He now sells more than 30,000 guidebooks a year and has covered trails in Hawaii, Montana, along the coast of California and in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Stone shares lessons he’s learned about turning one of his favorite activities into a career.
Have you always been a hiker?
I always have been, but now having worked all these year at hiking, I realize how little I knew back then, especially in describing (routes) in detail.
How many times do you hike a trail before you feel comfortable including it in a guidebook?
I can frequently do it one time and by the time I’m done with it…I can immediately remember the trailhead and the hike. I can absolutely zone in and just be there.
Do you take notes on the trail?
Yes. I write on the trail.
What do you make sure to include in your trail descriptions?
The main thing is I don’t want anyone to go out there and be confused. I have to be very clear and precise about junctions and if there are things to watch for that could make for an easy mistake. That’s my primary concern — not to bowl people over with my knowledge, but to just get them on the trail to have a good time. I want to make the book as easy and user-friendly as possible. … I will add in other information if it’s pertinent or really interesting, but I don’t digress into too many tangents.
How do you decide which hikes to include?
At this point, the books are so comprehensive, there isn’t much that isn’t in there (for the area each book covers). But originally I thought, if there is a waterfall, I’m going to include it. People love waterfalls. If there’s a lake, that’s in. People love to hike to a lake. That’s the pay-off.
Do you ever exclude hikes you’ve done and if so, how do you make that decision?
If I leave something out because it’s too difficult, it’s because it’s like a Billy goat trail, like it’s so brutal you have to be a crazy hiker or the surface is so rocky, it’s not even enjoyable. I think, if someone sent me out on a hike and I was bummed that this is what I went out and did, then I leave it out. I won’t eliminate steep hikes if it’s a normal trail with a lot of elevation.
Do you ever find a trail so good you don’t want to write about it?
That doesn’t happen for me. … I don’t think I wreck a place. I don’t think my book creates a fervor on any particular trail.
What makes a good guide book?
Accuracy. … You’ve got to be trustworthy. … You don’t want someone getting out there and getting lost.
How do you rate trail difficulty?
I don’t rate things in comparison to what I can do, because when I am into a book, I build up leg muscles where I can keep up with most people. So I think about if I was coming out here with a friend who doesn’t hike very often, would they think it’s a moderate hike or a strenuous hike? I try to rate it to what the general public would think.
Why did you decide to go the self-publishing route?
From a business standpoint, I wanted to self-publish. I didn’t want someone else to tell me where to go, when to do it and how many pages I could write. Yet I didn’t want to do sales. I wanted a publishing house to distribute my books. At the time I didn’t understand how any of this works, or even the terminology. I self-publish, but I have a large publishing company distribute my books, which is referred to in the publishing world as a distributed line of books. … It’s my baby yet I don’t have to do any sales. They do all the returns, invoices and fee collections and pay me monthly.
How many days do you get out hiking each year?
I was at 200 trails a year for years and years. … If I fly into an area I get up as early as I can and hike til I drop to maximize my time, so on those days I do more than one trail a day.
What do I need to think about if I want to write a guidebook?
The marketing. A lot of people can write a book, but how do you get it in stores? If you are going to do it yourself, it’s an expensive game. Printing is not inexpensive. … Also it takes dedication. A lot of people, if they had the freedom to go out and do what I do, they’d have a hard time disciplining themselves to create the final product. … The whole thing takes discipline, you have to think of it as a job even if you are doing something people do for pleasure. … I would start
with laying out a book. I want to round it out and decide what the scope is going to entail and how I can cover most of the area, and how comprehensive it should be. I kind of create a pre-outline before I even start working on it. Once I’m out there, I’m really diligent — especially on driving directions. I write those every day at the end of the day before I do anything else. If there is any “Uh, oh, was it a tenth of a mile to that turn-off?” I have to go back.
Do you still like to hike now that it’s work?
I love it. There are times I think I can’t believe how lucky I am. I’ll look at the area I’m in and I’ll think “This is my office. I’m at work. Unbelievable. How did I get so lucky?” ♦
— Kelsey Dayton, editor, kdayton@owaa.org
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