AWE shucks: Dealing with unanswerable questions

By: Patrick W. Zimmerman

Unanswerable….for now.

The idea was interesting enough and didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary: try to measure the payoff of hiking trails, which as part of a growing suite of Trailmetrics would serve as a nice counterpoint to our degree of difficulty measure, HARM (which was much more straightforward). As with any attempt to quantify the inherently qualitative (and aggregate the individual), there were always going to be a few concessions to the imprecision of reality (translation: arbitrary decisions, best guesses, and oh-sure-why-nots), but these are familiar challenges.

The question

What do you do with something fundamentally variable from person-to-person? How do you measure the pleasure derived from a given experience? You rely on self-reporting. How do you minimize the variance in observer biases and compare across different trails (and different seasons)? Aggregate lots and lots of self-reports. This kind of metarating is done all the time for movies, games, restaurants, and dog-friendly bespoke clothing stores within a 5-mile radius of the Castro. We use these kinds of aggregate ratings in our projects, as does pretty much everyone else in the Greater Internet Intelligentsia. Using metaratings to smooth out weirdness from individual taste is not a new concept.

The quest

So, the challenge was to find one for hiking trails. These systems exist for everything, right? Isn’t that a rule of the Internet? To the Google!


A quick search turned up two reasonable possibilities: Alltrails and good old Trip Advisor’s “Things to do” section. So, we turned to our model, the Belly River Trail in Glacier National Park, and found….one single solitary review. Uno. Uhhh, that’s not going to yield quite the p-value we’re looking for, methinks.

Not going to cut it.
Sample size epic fail.

Ok, let’s see ratings on a super-famous and well-traveled trail. I turned to the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail (186 reviews), the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail (154), Muir Woods (106), and Boston’s Freedom Trail (30). Nope. Noooope. Noperoooo. I’ve been to Muir Woods at times when there are more than 106 cars in the parking lot, so that seems a bit low for an all-time total of reviews.

Dammit. Alltrails is a couple of orders of magnitude less used than typical movie or book ratings, or even than Yelp reviews of stores and restaurants. To compare, the Upper Yosemite Falls trail, one of the most popular trails in one of the most heavily-visited parks in the US, has the exact same number of user ratings on Alltrails, 186, as the incredibly obscure Samurai Zombie (2008) does on IMDb (of course, I totally want to watch this movie, now. If anyone finds a copy oh-please-yes send it to me). Think I’m cherry-picking? Here, check out the list of the other 44,894 films that have been released since Jan 1, 2000 that have 186 ratings or fewer. I doubt anyone not associated with the film industry, if not the film production teams themselves, have ever heard of a single one, much less seen them. That’s not really going to work for us. Back to the Google!

After hours of :headdesk:ing, it dawns on me that no, this is one dataset that isn’t publicly available. The sharing economy apparently hasn’t gotten around to the Great Outdoors yet.

So, now what?

When faced with the unprecedented and deplorable situation that not enough people have overshared every tiny minutiae of their lives on the Internet, the obvious solution is to play the Long Game. If evidence hasn’t been collected yet, gather it.

It’s not like we’re investigating a question of whether or not some event happened (like, say, election hacking, the Roswell Incident, or if you had coffee or tea this morning). The National Park Service tracks park visitor numbers back to 1904, 12 years before the agency was even formed (some of the parks predate the department by over 40 years). The people, they have come. We just need them to tell us what they thought and link that rating to particular trails.


The AWE Project. We’re betting that, given enough time, you readers can help supplement the speed at which the existing rating systems collect information on trails. It’ll be a slow burner, but I believe in the power of people who both like the outdoors and like giving advice about the outdoors.

Help a fellow hiker out and submit your trail reviews below. We need you to tell us where you’ve hiked and how awesome it was!

About The Author

Architeuthis Rex, a man of (little) wealth and (questionable) taste. Historian and anthropologist interested in identity, regionalism / nationalism, mass culture, and the social and political contexts in which they exist. Earned Ph.D. in social and cultural History with a concentration in anthropology from Carnegie Mellon University and then (mostly) fled academia to write things that more than 10 other people will actually read. Driven to pursue a doctorate to try and answer the question, "Why do they all hate each other?" — still working on it. Plays beer-league hockey, softball, and soccer. Professional toddler wrangler. Likes dogs, good booze, food, and horribly awesome kung-fu movies.

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