Saturday, September 26, 2020

Something Worth Checking Out for Hikers: Strava Heatmaps

A friend alerted me recently to a new data source that I have found incredibly addicting, called Strava Heatmap, published by Strava.

Strava is an internet service designed to track outdoor exercise and is most normally used by runners and bikers, rather than hikers.  Nevertheless, I've had a free Strava account for several years, linked to my Garmin Connect account.  It proved useful mainly for notifying me, via my Garmin watch, that hikes I'd loaded onto Garmin Connect had been recorded. I never paid much attention to it otherwise.

As an aside, I upload hikes to the cloud for a couple of reasons. (1) Hard drives containing my GPS data regularly fail, and this provides a backup.  (2) Online can easily track miles on my various hiking boots, trail runners, and other equipment, and even my dog.

Those hikes go to Strava and are recorded as runs, though I've recently determined that I can change them to walks or hikes, because I don't run.  

Strava collects all "public" data they receive, aggregate it, and publish it in the form of a heat map.  A heat map visualizes the data, showing the location of each track one of their users makes, and the more people that go over the same trail, road etc, the brighter the line on the map.  Because so many runners use it, the brightest lines are often ovals on local high school tracks.  

Some details: 

  • The heatmap shows 'heat' made by aggregated, public activities over the last two years.
  • The heatmap is updated monthly.
  • Activity that athletes mark as private is not visible.
  • Athletes may opt out by updating their privacy settings.
  • Areas with very little activity may not show any 'heat.'

The data technically isn't "Hiking" data, but trails show up and show relative use - by trail runners and by hikers like me that have an account.  And that is the catch - you have to have a Strava account to see the maps.  

Here is an example of what it shows - this is the Hone Quarry region of the GWNF west of Harrisonburg and northeast of Reddish Knob.  I've named the various trails in this area.  The lighter the line, the more it has been traveled on foot over the past two years.  (You can also do bike routes and a combined bike/pedestrian.)

What this shows me is that the Hidden Rocks Trail in the lower right is very popular, as is the Cliff Trail and the waterfall trail off of the Slate Springs Trail.  Much less popular is the Mines Run Trail and, in the upper left corner, the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.  

There is so little use that the decomissioned Rocky Run Trail is barely visible just north of the Hidden Rocks Trail, but what this tells me is that the old trail might be passible and is worth checking out in the future - another level that the Heatmap can be helpful.

There are some settings that I switch on whenever I get onto this site.  First, I set it to pedestrian use - a little shoe in the legend.  Then I make sure both "Map" and "Labels" are selected (instead of "Satellite").  Labels helps tell you where on the big map you are located, though it is still sometimes hard to figure out where you are.  It is kind of like flying in a plane at night - big cities light up and their streets are very visible.  From there, I find my way to the trails area I want to look at.  

Here you can see the Harrisonburg area from a high level - Harrisonburg and Bridgewater to its southwest are seen, as are ski trails at Massanutten, east of Harrisonburg.  Only Harrisonburg is labeled, but it gets me to the Hone Quarry area, which is on the far left end of this view.

It is interesting also to explore on the Biking level, as I can check a trail for relative mountain bike use on a trail I am considering exploring.  This can affect whether I leash my dog, or even whether I bring her.  And it can make me save a trail to hike during the week, when biker use is lower. 

It can also show illegal mountain bike trail use!  Below is the heatmap for the Ramsey's Draft area.  The red portion of the Shenandoah Mountain Trail and the trails around Hardscrabble Knob are all within the boundaries of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness, and bike use inside the wilderness is strictly forbidden under federal law.  The lines are red, indicating less use than the neon white lines on the bottom of the photo, which show the Bald Ridge, Bridge Hollow and Road Hollow trails - all part of a popular (and legal) mountain biking route.

I have run into bikers who legitimately did not know that the Shenandoah Mountain Trail travels well inside of the boundaries of Ramsey's Draft Wilderness (it does, and riding that part of the trail is illegal).  But the trails to Hardscrabble Knob are so far inside the Wilderness that there is no doubt these users knew that their presence was illegal.

I have probably only scratched the surface of this new resource.  I've found it very useful and recommend it.  If you do use it, and find something different and interesting, please leave a comment!


  1. Interesting post. Gets me wondering what are other things you could use the data for? Like trail maintenance groups could use the data to know which trails they my need to work on more due to high use. Or education put out for bikers to know where not to ride.. I live next the the larges State Park in Virginia and there was to be a bike race. The race didn't happen because of a major storm. Three riders still rode the course and uploaded their data to Strava. The three riders got called out on different social Media channels for riding during the poor trail conditions.

    1. That is great that someone would get after those bikers! My fear is that the data might be used by the Forest Service to decommission additional trails. They have approached the trail club I volunteer for in the past, seeking to take trails off of their books. This data could provide additional ammunition.


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