How Trail Tracker Works


Image Gallery: Off-roading The landing page for Trail Tracker gives you a quick glimpse of the trails in the sites database. See more off-roading pictures.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

After watching a few commercials for sport utility vehicles (SUVs), it's easy to feel the urge to go off-road driving. The ads depict rugged -- and sometimes luxurious -- vehicles journeying through environments ranging from deserts to frozen wastelands to everything in between. The commercials and the vehicles themselves appeal to the explorer inside each of us.

But purchasing an SUV doesn't guarantee weekends of adventure. The destiny of many SUVs involves more grocery shopping than trailblazing. Part of the challenge is that unless you're already knowledgeable about local trails, it's hard to find a place to drive your vehicle off-road. Most property owners and law-enforcement officials look down on drivers randomly picking a spot to test their vehicles' four-wheel-drive capability.

Now there are tools on the Internet that can help the burgeoning adventurer learn more about driving off-road and on trails. One of those tools comes to the Web courtesy of Toyota. It's called Trail Tracker.

Trail Tracker is a user-oriented community. Drivers share the knowledge they've gained from their own experiences. The site gives users the tools they need to search for trails appropriate for the vehicle they own as well as their experience level. Site members can upload information about the trails they've driven, share driving trips and pictures, too. It's part social-networking site and part wilderness guide.

Finding Trails on Trail Tracker

Browsing for trails in California.
Browsing for trails in California.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

You don't have to be a member of Trail Tracker to find a trail to explore. The site offers up its entire search engine for free.

On the Trail Tracker home page, you'll see two options to help you find a trail. There's even a search bar that prompts users to enter a location or keyword to find trails that match. There's an interactive map of the United States. Toyota also features trails on the site, giving users a quick glimpse at one of the trails in its database by displaying it on the right side of the screen.

Type a keyword into the search bar and Trail Tracker will present you with a results page containing all the trails that match your query. Trail Tracker organizes trails by state. A column on the left side of the site lists the total number of trails in the database for each state based on the search.

The interactive map gives users a quick way to see if there are any trails nearby. Moving your mouse cursor over the states on the Flash-based map will bring up a bubble that includes the state's name and the number of trails that state has in the database. A click on any state brings you to that state's page in Trail Tracker. If the community has submitted trails for that state, you'll find them on the left side of the Web site. Trail Tracker organizes the trails by city.

Before you hit the road to visit a trail you've found on Trail Tracker, it's important to learn a bit about your destination. Every trail on Trail Tracker should have a rating. The easiest trails are asphalt or scenic trails -- these are often paved roads and aren't challenging drives. Ratings between one and three indicate an easy drive on surfaces like clay or gravel -- the trail may have a gentle tilt but it shouldn't be too extreme.

A trail with a rating between four and seven is a little more challenging. The road may be rocky and uneven or very narrow in places. There may also be points along the trail that involve a steep climb. You'll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to tackle the trails in this category.

Finally, trails with a rating between eight and 10 are for the adventurous explorer who doesn't mind a challenge. Many of these trails require vehicles with options like winches or lifts. You may even have to ford a stream or drive on trails with an extreme tilt. Before tackling a trail in this category, make sure your vehicle is in good working order and that your driving skills and confidence are equal to the task.

Adding Trails to Trail Tracker

Before uploading information to Trail Tracker, you must create a free account on the site.
Before uploading information to Trail Tracker, you must create a free account on the site.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

Trail Tracker depends upon its user community. Drivers just like yourself upload trail information, photographs and tips to the site. As more people use the service, the database will expand to include more trails and information.

Before you can upload a trail, you'll need to create a user account. Accounts are free at Trail Tracker. First, you have to fill out an online form with your name, e-mail, chosen user name and password. You must also read and agree to the site's terms of service. After creating your profile, you'll receive a message from the site asking you to verify your account. One more click and you're ready to get involved in the online community.

Currently, Trail Tracker requires users to upload GPX files to add a trail to the community's database. The GPX designation stands for GPS Exchange Format. It's a type of eXtensible Markup Language (XML). Like other forms of XML, a GPX file helps describe data. You can use the GPX format to indicate pathways and waypoints that will show up properly on any device or application that relies on GPS data.

There are many ways to create a GPX file. Some mapping applications will allow you to plot a path with waypoints and save it as a GPX file. Other GPS devices can create a GPX file based on your input and export it to a computer or other device. Once you have created the file, you can use Trail Tracker's upload feature to add it to the site. The site can also import trails directly from any GPS device that has a USB plug-in.

After uploading the information to Trail Tracker, you need to assign a rating to the trail. This rating will tell other users how easy or challenging the trip will be to the average user. It should also give drivers an idea of what sort of vehicle could complete the trail safely. Adding a difficult trail to the site is acceptable as long as you give drivers an accurate idea of what to expect.

You should also include a trail story to give more details to other potential trail drivers. Trail Tracker automatically includes information from your GPX file like the average speed drivers should expect on the trail, the total distance they'll drive, how long it should take to complete the trip and the amount of elevation shift they'll encounter. Other members will be able to post comments about your trail and add their own perspectives.

Trail Tracker and EveryTrail

Each trail has its own page with tips, notes and pictures.
Each trail has its own page with tips, notes and pictures.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks.com

If you scroll down to the bottom of Trail Tracker's site, you'll see the phrase "Powered by EveryTrail." EveryTrail is a site that helps you find interesting sites to visit using a GPS device to get there. Trail Tracker licenses the technology EveryTrail uses to allow members to create trips. The two interfaces are similar but not identical.

On EveryTrail, you can search for sites by region or even by activity. Want to go kayaking? Check EveryTrail and see if there are any sites you've yet to discover in your own area. While Toyota intends Trail Tracker for off-road drivers, EveryTrail's aim is for outdoor enthusiasts in general.

Like Trail Tracker, EveryTrail relies upon its community of users to submit information about sites. EveryTrail has a broader focus than Trail Tracker. It also has some features that may pop up in Trail Tracker in the future. For example, if you want to add a trip to EveryTrail's database, you can upload a GPX file or you can draw directly on an online map. It's possible that Trail Tracker will adopt a similar feature in the future.

EveryTrail also hosts a member forum. Members can discuss trips, ask for advice and share links to other resources on the Web. The site also hosts a series of location-based guides. These guides provide more detail about specific locations and what you can expect to encounter if you visit them.

Like Trail Tracker, you can upload photos of a trip to give visitors a visual reference. You can upload a photo directly from your computer's hard drive or you can link to pictures in a Flickr account. It's possible that Trail Tracker will allow users to link to Flickr photos in a future update.

Other EveryTrail features that may indicate what the future holds for Trail Tracker include the ability to join groups, designate favorite trips and tracks and download mobile apps for smartphones and other devices. We may see Trail Tracker adopt more features from EveryTrail as the site matures.

Whether you're an off-road track novice or a trailblazing pioneer, Trail Tracker can be a helpful resource. The uninitiated can visit and learn more about sites that test their driving skills and their vehicles' off-road capabilities. Old hands at off-road travel can share their experiences and reveal hidden gems off the beaten path. So perhaps the first step in your off-road journey won't involve hitting the road -- it'll require the click of a mouse.

Learn more about outdoor activities through the links found on the following page.

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Sources:

  • EveryTrail. (Nov. 5, 2009) http://www.everytrail.com/
  • Privat, Ludovic. "Joost Schreve, everytrail.com: 'We are on a path to derive significant ad revenues.'" GPS Business News. June 30, 2009. (Nov. 6, 2009) http://www.gpsbusinessnews.com/Joost-Schreve,-everytrail-com-We-are-on-a-path-to-derive-significant-ad-revenues_a1615.html
  • Toyota Trail Tracker. (Nov. 4, 2009) http://www.trailtracker.com/
  • Tsang, Jennifer. Interactive Account Executive. Saatchi & Saatchi. Personal interview conducted via phone Nov. 5, 2009.