Scott Morris is a self-described “lifelong mountain biker, trail mapper and programmer.” He’s the creator of Track Leaders, a live tracking website for bikepacking races, and TopoFusion mapping software.
In this episode we ask:
- How did first make the connection between mountain biking and computer programming?
- Why did you and your brother decide to create TopoFusion?
- Have there been growing pains as bikepacking races like the Arizona Trail Race become more popular?
- Will some of the unofficial races need to become more official and organized as they get larger?
- Are you able to keep the list of ultra endurance records for races like the Tour Divide and Huracan 300 up to date? Do you think there’s a value in keeping official records for races like this, and for FKTs? What are the challenges involved in maintaining an official list like this?
- What led you to create Track Leaders, and how does it work?
- Are SPOT devices still the best way to track outdoor races? Do you see other devices like smartphones becoming viable for this anytime soon?
- As a programmer, how do you account for GPS data accuracy when tracking races? Is it easy for someone to cheat?
- Why is elevation data so notoriously difficult to track accurately with a GPS?
- When did you fully commit to the digital nomad lifestyle? How’d you finally make the jump? Do you have any tips for going full nomad?
- When you go for a ride in a new place, do you rely on GPS entirely or do you also pack a paper map?
- What are you planning for your next adventure?
This episode of the Singletracks podcast is sponsored by Explore Brevard.
Professional mountain biker Adam Craig says it’s one of the top three places in the universe he’s ever ridden. Where is this magical mountain biking nirvana? It’s none other than Brevard, North Carolina, home to Pisgah National Forest and DuPont Recreational Forest. The area boasts over 300 miles of peerless singletrack, not to mention hundreds of miles of gravel roads, creating a near endless array of routes, terrains, and challenges to explore. Four vibrant bike shops will get you sorted, whether you need gear, service, or a top notch rental. Top it off with an array of craft breweries, cafes and gathering spots that have earned Brevard the title as one of the best small towns in America in 2021. It all adds up to a premier mountain biking destination you’ll want to experience for yourself. Find out more at ExploreBrevard.com.
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Hey everybody, welcome to the Singletracks podcast. My name is Jeff and today my guest is Scott Morris. Scott is a self described lifelong mountain biker trail mapper and programmer. He’s the creator of trek leaders, a live tracking website for bikepacking races, and Topo fusion mapping software. Thanks for joining us, Scott.
Good to be here. Jeff. Thanks for having me.
So how did you first make the connection between mountain biking and computer programming?
Yeah, it was really the GPS system coming online, or at least me becoming aware of it. I think the timing was good in that it was pretty new. Right when I was coming out of high school, and really getting into into computer programming. And so there wasn’t really, you know, I think people were trying to figure out what the GPS system could do. And what, what new applications there were. And yeah, they were from a very early age, I got pretty interested in computers. And in programming. I was a pretty nerdy kid growing up, like, I mean, like, you know, I had glasses going into kindergarten, like that level of nerdiness. And yeah, I got super into, like, Nintendo games and computer games. And I always kind of thought that thought about making my own company or making my own games. And I thought that that was going to be my way of combining my two interests of computers and games. Yeah. But when I was about 13, or 14, After many failed attempts for my dad to try to get me to do like team sports, and just awful at baseball, and basketball, and all these things that people did, I think one of his last ditch efforts was to get me a very crappy mountain bike, and take me out on the trails. And, man, I just fell hard for mountain biking. I mean, I just cool. Yeah, I absolutely loved it. And started mountain biking every day. I think when I was 14, maybe, at least not Well, every day, I could, I guess, not in the winter, but super lucky to have trails that I could drive to, from my house. So it was like ultimate freedom of being able to ride. Yeah, from home to trails. And before I even had a driver’s license, so mountain biking, yeah, was just was just became everything to me. And computer games quickly fill out the wayside has not been very real. And so then, yeah, it’s shifted to trying to combine something with outdoors and mountain biking, and program. And the GPS system was a hack. You know, I think it was online in the early 90s and became available public some years after that, but it was with this thing called selective availability that maybe you remember that maybe not. But you do. Yeah. Yeah. That? Yeah, that was when they were adding the error. You know, that’s a systematic random error. Yes, signal, right. And I remember my brother borrowed a GPS from someone. And we tracked this really long ride that we did. And it was so cool to be able to see where we had gone on this map. But there was like, big random shifts, where all of a sudden, you would be way off the trail. I mean, wait, much bigger than, you know, like errors you’d see today from GPS. But and so I kind of thought that could be something but the error was really hard to to get too excited about. But luckily, they turned that select availability off. They meaning the government, US government. Yeah, in 2000, I think. And then it started working really good. And Garmin started making, you know, really small, handheld devices that you could put on your handlebars. And yeah, I thought, okay, maybe there’s, there’s something here.
Yeah, I remember you and I connected early on, like, Yeah, I think it was early 2000s. When, you know, I was playing around GPS as well, and trying to figure out like, how could you create maps and share them with other people? And I remember at the time, like, didn’t you do like, some graduate studies or something around this idea of like, how do you take GPS data and like, make it more accurate or like, take a bunch of people who ride the same trail and like, figure out what is like the true path versus like, all these paths that have slight errors in them? Am I getting that right?
Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. So I I was doing my grad work in Tucson at the University of Arizona in Computer Science and kind of had aspirations of not only starting like a small company, but also doing research and trying to solve problems that people hadn’t thought of, with GPS data, especially related to the outdoors. And so, yeah, one of my papers was exactly what you just said, which was to take, you know, a collection of rides in an area that could be from one person or could be from multiple people and combine it into a GPS network. That gives you only the unique trails instead of multiple versions of it. And, yeah, publish that paper, a smarter person probably would not have published that and made more commercial.
Right? Yeah, cuz everybody like Strava. Now, like, yeah, you know, is the thing. They’re able to kind of figure out like, Okay, you and 10 other people rode this exact same trail segment. And, you know, I mean, but at the time, like, you know, early 2000s, it was like, this is, this is a hard problem to solve.
Yeah, that’s right. And Strava does it very, very well. And a couple of people do now. But yeah, based on that paper, I did get a few job offers or inquiries, and I remember being in an interview or two, and people straight up asked me, why did you do this is like a really complex algorithm you came up with? Why did you publish it? Wow, interesting. And I don’t know, if anyone, you know, really used that certainly was the idea. I don’t know if they actually use the algorithm or, or maybe it got them started. But yeah, that’s just how the academic world is like you share things. And, you know, I’d rather be known as someone that can solve problems, then just be known for someone that solved one problem, I guess.
Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. Well, did you work with like any of the GPS companies over the years, because, again, like, the GPS, as you’d mentioned, that Garmin, like when those came out, like, those weren’t great. Like, I think most people kind of understood, like, these could be a lot better. And there’s like, a lot of issues with them. So were you able to, like, work with any of these companies? Or have you been focused? More like on the software side?
Yeah, I would, I kind of always treated the hardware as something I just had to deal with. And, you know, process the errors and do what I could. And, yeah, I never really had like a good open channel with Garmin or anything to give feedback. But other than that, occasionally, they became aware of what I was doing, and wanted want to hire me. But I refused. Multiple times. Yeah. Yeah.
Interesting. Well, so yeah, I mean, still kind of back in the early 2000s. You and your brother started Topo, fusion created the software for viewing topo maps on a computer and being able to overlay GPS data on them. And now that’s something that we take for granted. I think, you know, I mean, we’ve got Google Maps and all these online solutions. But what made you decide to start Topo fusion, like, what was what was the problem you’re trying to solve? Then,
the biggest thing was that every other piece of software that we knew of or found, at that time, we determined that it pretty much sucked. That’s really the reason we just like we, we couldn’t find anything that did what we wanted to do, which was just have a really clean, easy to use interface for loading your tracks and planning rides and, and doing it in a way that was I don’t know that, that like to warm a topple USA was one of them in the interface was just atrocious. I mean, you couldn’t, you couldn’t zoom in and out the tracks, you could never tell where the tracks are going. And what else was back there? Maybe National Geographic Topo with an exclamation point.
Yeah. And both of those, I remember using both of those, and they were didn’t they like, come on? See? That’s right. Like, I don’t feel like they were even internet connected, whereas Topo fusion was right. Like you were getting the map tiles, or was it like a self contained?
Yeah, you could just download a really small file, you know, even off of this dial up days back then. And then the maps came from terrorists or Microsoft terrorists or Okay, yeah. And that that made it that was a really cool opportunity. It was not only the GPS system and Garmins coming out, but also Yeah, there was this map server that was public domain, and that we could Download and display. And then yeah, you didn’t have to like go to the store and buy a piece of software in a box that had a bunch of CDs. And then the maps were static, you know. So it’s a different little different model of mapping software. But yeah, mainly, we just wanted a program to map our own rides the way we thought that it should be done. And so we saw this need for something that we wanted, and that seemed like we were the right people to fit that need. So anytime you you’re in that kind of situation, it’s a pretty special place to be. And yeah, topple fusion was we just last month, a couple weeks ago, we was the 20th anniversary of the first release of top of fusion. Yeah, so it’s, it’s 2002, which I think single tracks you started a little before that, is that right?
Yeah, we started the website in like, 9809. But yeah, didn’t didn’t start doing mapping stuff until a few years after that. Okay. Yep. Because I remember some really early on conversations with you about Yeah, mapping and showing things and
but yeah, maybe in the 90s, you were more of like a blog, kind of, uh,
yeah, I mean, we were always we always were about helping people find trails. But yeah, just mapping wasn’t a thing yet, like. So you also started the Arizona Trail race in the early 2000s. And since that time, the Arizona Trail race and others like it seemed to have really exploded in popularity. I’m curious to know, like, what the growing pains were like, along the way, like, was this? Was this kind of like an easy and natural thing to do? Or what was it like starting a bike packing race back in the early 2000s? Yeah,
the Arizona Trail race, I think, similar to top of fusion grew out of a need that I saw that something that didn’t exist, and also something that I wanted to do myself, which was to race my bike on single track for multiple days. And at the time, the only things that were similar were the Great Divide race, which was the predecessor to tour divide. There was something called the Grand loop that Mike curio put at put on Utah, but nothing that was on single track. And so I did, I did those races, and I failed spectacularly. Great, great. And I’d race. It was it was I made all the mistakes you could possibly make. But also it was dirt roads. And that was my excuse at the time was like, oh, it’s all dirt roads. But I’m like, Yeah, but the truth is, it’s hard no matter what kind of surface, if you’re doing it on and what the conditions are. But this was 2006 that I started the first AC T 300 300 mile version of the Arizona Trail race. And at the time, it you know, it felt like something new. I mean, wasn’t wasn’t. In reality, it’s just riding your bike for a lot of hours and a lot of miles. And we now we know now that the surface, whatever doesn’t matter if there’s a lot of hype a bike or if it’s writable. But at the time, you know, I wasn’t really sure it was a good idea to be 300 miles of stringing together rides that had crushed me individually. You know, it was like putting together 1212 rides, that all day rides that just absolutely destroyed me on their own. And so what was going to happen?
Yeah, were you just like looking at a map? Or? I mean, it sounds like you had written most of it, or had you written all of it, just like different times?
Yeah, I had done it as a tour I had, I had written the Arizona Trail from end to end with a friend of mine, Lee Blackwell. And it taken 20 some odd days. And so I knew the trail pretty well. And I knew this racing thing was was really my Curie X idea of self supported and unorganized, like backing races. Although we didn’t call it like backing at that time. But I did not. Yeah, but there wasn’t one single track. And so that was what was super interesting. was to put it on this this trail that was coming together at the time. And yeah, I think the jury’s still out on whether it is a good idea or not. I think if you tell people if you ask people right after they finish, most people would say it’s not a good idea. But But, but it’s, ya know, it’s been an awesome thing. I think a lot of people have fallen in love with the trail and we’re like Becky, and grown a lot and push a lot of limits and that’s been super rewarding and super awesome to see. But as far as growing pains, there have definitely been some. I mean, there’s always been little controversies and, and things that happened. But I don’t really think it’s been anything bigger than what you would expect out of a group of humans trying to coordinate with each other and communicate with each other, and compromise on different ideas and the way they see stuff. So Right. I think bikepacking community is really awesome. And yeah, I don’t think it’s been outrageous or higher than what you’d expect. And as far as popularity, you know, they’re still not really exploding. I think, at least,
the triple. Like, the idea of it is really muscular, but, but sounds like people aren’t actually like, doing it. Well. Is that is that kind of where we’re at? Yeah, I
think it’s just that it’s really, really hard. I mean, the idea Yeah, it’s one thing to look at routes and, you know, pack your bags and stuff. But once you get out there, yeah, it’s just, it’s really hard. And it’s hard. It’s so hard that there aren’t a lot of people who race year after year, by factor. There’s exceptions. There’s definitely people who are long, long time, like back racers, and who can pull it off consistently. But most people I known, and myself included, did it for a number of years. And then yeah, kind of decided that it was super hard. And maybe not that good for your pod for your body and your mind to be pushing sleep deprivation and pushing that many hours on the bike. So yeah, you know, I’m thinking mostly are speaking mostly about the Triple Crown races, which is sort of I’d Colorado trail race and AZT. And yeah, those of you know, they haven’t gotten super huge. The AZT in this and the Colorado trail, have a limit of 74 riders.
And that’s, that’s, I’m guessing based on the Forest Service. Right, right. Yeah, that’s if you have over 75, you need a permit?
That’s right. Yeah, that’s the non commercial, non permitted group or competitive event limit of 74 people. And so you know, they pushed against that a little bit, or maybe had to turn around, turn away a couple people, but then people get in usually with the waitlist when people cancel. But it’s not like, you know, 500 people are trying to sign up for these events. And yeah, yeah, so yeah, I mean, it’s interest is increased. But um, yeah, I think you’re somewhat self limiting. Just because they’re, they are so hard. Especially in the last five or six years, there’s tons of new bike packing routes all over the country world. And that, in that sense, bike packing races, definitely, races are growing. But you know, are we ever going to see 2000 people wanting to raise the AC T? Maybe not.
Yeah, the Arizona Trail race to remember it, it’s being sort of unique. And maybe this is when you were kind of, you know, looking at going from the 300, or the 350, to the 700, or 750. Like the full route of it, and part of the route. That’s right, had to go through the Grand Canyon, I guess where, you know, you’re obviously not allowed to bike. And so part of that was like, you had to break down bikes, and carry them. So I mean, as was, when you were planning this out, were you thinking about those things? Like, we need to get permits, we need to, like, ask permission, or was it more just like, hey, this is out there? Like, we want to do it, and we’re going to, we’re going to just make it happen. And yeah, it’s a more on the ladder and eating after the fact.
You know, throw it out there and keep it small. And it wasn’t really on people’s radar to begin with. And then as it slowly grew, there was concerns that, yeah, we’d get attention from land managers and such, and I knew it was never going to be fully a secret. But
yeah, it’s sort of the approach to software, too, right? Like, I’m making this connection now. Where in the software world, you don’t like ask permission, like you just do stuff. And then like, sort of figure it out later, or like, yeah, regulations catch up with it or whatever. You have sort of that same ethos.
You adapt as things develop, but you sort of put it out there and see how it goes. Yeah, there was certainly never a master plan. Or double fusion or track leaders or drill race. It was just they all seem like really good ideas and to put out into the world.
Yeah, yeah. So another project of yours is bikepacking.net. And on there, there’s a page listing ultra endurance records for races like the tour divide and the hurry. Can 300 And I know that’s a resource I’ve used at times like writing articles or you know, doing research on athletes. And yeah, just seeing, like, who has the record for this route? Or what is the record? Are you able to keep the list up to date? It seems like seems like a really tough task to like, keep the records for one, but also to like, verify them and stuff. Like, is that something that you are able to take on? Or want to take on? Or does like, should that even exist? I guess I just have lots of questions.
Yeah, that’s fair. Yeah, that page is kind of a funny, kind of a funny one. I mean, I started just because it didn’t really exist. There. I just wanted to sort of coalesce a few different events into one page. But the the idea is really just to give something people to shoot for and aspire to. And I don’t, I don’t think it’s claiming really to be anything super official, you know, I mean, like, I can,
yeah, but there is nothing else is a problem. I mean, yeah, I see it as a problem as a journalist, as someone who’s like, okay, like, I need to make sure this is accurate, or this is a fact or whatever. And, yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s kind of the only thing that’s out there for that,
you know, track leaders has a pretty good archive of a lot of old events, but it doesn’t necessarily call out records and such, but we’re maybe in the best position to possibly verify those things. But the reality is, I just, you know, in my opinion, it’s totally up to the individual race directors as to what they consider the race, or what they consider the records are. And so, if they tell me that this such and such record is broken by this person, you know, that I’ll update that page. And I don’t I don’t take responsibility for being the ultimate word on whether a record is official or not. But yeah, there is kind of a need for something a little bit better than that. And possibly, it’s a new website, like the PT, one in the running world. Right?
Right. And I’ve seen that one. And again, it’s like, that’s a really tough thing to do. Like, I remember reading years ago that there’s some record or database of people who’ve climbed Mount Everest. And, you know, there’s different records, like mountaineering records, and all these all this, like, paperwork exists somewhere, like in Nepal, or something like some person has decided to, like, keep this up. And, you know, people will like debate like, oh, did so and so actually Summit, and, you know, there will be like years of back and forth, like, you know, you need to produce evidence, and, you know, like, all kinds of stuff like that. And it’s interesting now, because like fk T’s are becoming popular, you know, especially with the pandemic, a lot of athletes saw it, I guess, as a way to, like, get out and compete with, you know, kind of, on their own terms and on their own time. So like, it seems like it’s becoming more of a thing where people want to know, did this person do it? Or who has the record? That it also seems like it’s a really hard thing to do even with today’s technology? Like, do you see? Do you see potential problems with that in terms of just like, the politics of it? And that sort of thing?
Yeah, I think so. And, you know, maybe we’re at at a little bit of a turning point with that with more higher profile writers getting into FTTs and bikepacking. A little bit. I may be a little naive thinking that, yeah, this one web page that I maintain, is is sufficient, you know, going forward? I think it has been in the past, there hasn’t really been too many super controversial. FTTs. But, but yeah, could change in the future. And there is definitely a good argument to having something more like the running model where there’s an official, more official. Yeah, you know, I don’t know, it’s hard. bikepackers are very independent people. And, and, you know, I think a lot of people bristle at the idea of a governing body or any one official saying anything, and I’ve always kind of view records and winds and routes are ultimately subject to, you know, the, the, I don’t want to say popular opinion, but you know, what the community thinks, in the end is the most important thing. And, yeah, yeah, names on webpages are in some ways, less important than what people think and about a particular effort or, or a record. So,
yeah, I feel like bikepacking is Unique, you know, especially these races, I guess we’re talking about the big races like, it’s there’s like this tension between, like, official and unofficial, right? Like, like, yes, there are some records and we are timing it. And you know, there’s someone who finishes first. But at the same time, we want it to be laid back. And we want it to be simple. And we want it to just be like, Yeah, you know, yeah, this is unofficial. But it’s official like, yeah, it’s, it’s a really fine line. It is.
Yeah. And we we dance on both sides of that, I think with these events. And to be honest, that’s part of one of the reasons that I stepped down from putting the Arizona drill race on is that, that that dance is a little bit stressful, and mostly from the perspective of land managers who might possibly decide that, you know, these, this is too far on the side of official or not following the rules, and particularly with the AC T is kind of unique in that it crosses Grand Canyon National Park. And it’s kind of amazing that that has been allowed to go on for this many years. But you know, it’s the one of the most visited national parks in the country. And, understandably, they have a lot of challenges to managing people and a lot of challenges coming up with rules. And I wouldn’t completely blame them to if one day someone high up in the park decides that the AZT race is not something that should be tolerated. You know, and so, yeah, that that, that definitely caused me some, some stress, and I think it causes the new race director John joined some stress as well. But you know, it’s, it’s worth dealing with as well, because that race is such a special thing. It’s such an amazing thing. So I’m really grateful that he is taking that responsibility on.
Yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean, that’s what makes bikepacking What it is, too, right. Like, you don’t want to mess with it too much. But yeah, at the same time, there are those challenges. So tell us about track leaders. What led you to create that and how does it work?
Okay. Yeah, track leaders, is kind of a joint venture between myself and Matthew Lee. And Matthew is probably best known for being in the film, right, the divide, which was kind of the first major bikepacking Race movie and probably still the best known one, maybe, but followed the 2008 tour divide race, I think.
And he’s won at a number of times, right, including in 2008.
Yeah, I think Grace seven years in a row have finished seven years in a row. And one it is four or five times out of that those seven. But he took over. Well, he created the tour divide race, which was just a spin off of the Great Divide race from my curiosity, and tour divide. In the end, Matthew had the enthusiasm and the the love of the route. And that’s why people went to tour de vitesse, those to the the GDR, but it became the main divide race. And right at that time, around 2008 2007, global star was started producing the spot device for the first time. And this was a really new thing. And somehow Matthew heard about it. And he had this revelation that this could be a way to actually follow the tour divine grace, make it a spectator race in a way that doesn’t intrude on the experience of the racers. Okay. Yeah, that was a key point to him, that you should still be able to go out there and disconnect and ride your bike and have it be a relatively pure experience, if that’s what you’re looking for. And so he was able to get spot to, I think sponsor, one of the first one of those early tour divides and got a fleet of, well, I say, a fleet of spot devices, but I think there was like 50 people in the race maybe at that time. But yeah, and he he kind of knew that I was from Tahoe fusion knew that I was a GPS nerd. And programmer and I had met Matthew in 2005, great divided race. And which I did not finish. And he did, but I met him there and so kind of knew well, it was a pretty small community at that point. But the funny part was that I think in the one of those early AC T races he offered to let me use those spot trackers that he had got for the previous years for divide. Oh, cool. And this was this was a ploy to get me to do the mapping software? Mostly I think. But I said no. I said, No, I had reservations about what it was going to do to the event. And not not only the experience of the writers, but also kind of the what’s the right work the making it more visible to the public, or land managers and, and so I turned it down that first year of AZT and said, No, I don’t know that this is a good thing for bikepacking. But then, over the next couple of months, I realized that this was going to be a really, really cool thing for bike back racing, that I was a big fan of, sort of I’d and Colorado trail and some of these other events that were coming out now. And and it just had, it was something I had to be a part of my skills were just like perfectly aligned to, to do it in a way that, you know, where I was not only participant, but in a fan. So I felt like I could do a pretty good job on it. So yeah, we started collaborating, and sort of tracking, not only backpacking races, but dogs live races and sailing races and running races, ins and outs. Now we track quite a few different kinds. But backpacking is still our main thing we’re interested in, and probably in terms of the number of events that we track it, we track more bikepacking races then than anything else. But
cool. Wait, so yeah, you said that this. I mean, the whole genesis for track leaders was around the time that that the spot devices came out. 2007 2008 Yep. You know, that’s, I mean, that’s a lifetime ago in terms of technology, right. Like that was right, maybe right around the time the iPhone came out, or just before? So, spot like, is that still the best way to track these outdoor races? I mean, I know, obviously, there’s a lot of places, especially on a race, like tore divide. I’m sure there’s lots of places where there’s no, you know, cell phone service or anything like that. But do you see other devices like smartphones becoming viable for doing this anytime soon? I mean, right now, you and I are talking on a on a satellite internet connection, right, like you’ve got, you’ve got internet wherever you go. So do you see that like, sort of shifting, are we still still going to be using spots for the next 10 years?
Yeah, that’s a good question. Yeah, we’re talking. I’m camping right now. And I’ve got Starlink set up. So
there’s a great connection to it’s not like
Superman. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. It’s it’s changing things for mobile living, for sure. But as far as satellite trackers go, it’s a really good question. I wish I knew the answer. Of course, it’s like a plan. Our business model? Yeah. Yeah, and there’s a few things coming out soon, probably in the next two or three years, like the late the next version of Starlink. Satellites are gonna have essentially a cell tower on them for low, low bandwidth. Think it’s T Mobile will be able to talk to the satellites and send emergency text, anytime you can see a satellite, and probably some data, too. And maybe tracking will come out of that, as well. So that’d be through your phone.
And the new iPhones to like, they have the SOS feature, which I don’t know that that like, that’s right, you know, obviously, it’s not for playing around. It’s not for just going on a race. But But yeah, it seems like that’s where we’re heading.
It could be Yeah, I mean, I think that spot or global stars, devoting the bulk of their satellite bandwidth to the new iPhone, when that comes out. And so we could see tracking through that, as well. But that I think there’s still a need for a dedicated tracking device. It depends on the event a little bit. You know, if you’re, if you’re talking about an ultra running race, or we’re a bike, or a bike race, that’s not one of these unofficial, like, no joke Joker races, like I put on or where, if it’s a little bit more official, you know, are you really going to rely on every participant to carry their phone to keep it charged to like not have it crashing all the time, or full of space or, you know, whatever. It’s, it doesn’t really make sense to, to rely on participants for certain events. Or as if you can just have a dedicated tracker that you give to them and It’s on, it’s always on and I never have to touch it. And they put it on their back or whatever. And it goes. That’s still an important piece. But for a bikepacking race, yeah, you know, especially ones that are a little more laid back than, than others. You could, you could say, yeah, a phone is fine. You don’t need to have a spot or an inreach. Or, or rent one.
Yeah, I feel you’re speaking exactly to me. Because yeah, I mean, the reason I asked this is because, you know, I did one of these Joker bikepacking races. Recently this year, and yeah, and I was like, Well, I’m not racing it. So I don’t, I don’t care that it’s like super official, and that it’s, you know, it’s tracking me every 10 seconds or minute or five minutes, whatever it is on a spot. And then also, obviously, like, I’m not gonna let my phone run out. It’s a It’s my smartphone, right. Like these days. We make sure that we our phone is working at all times. No matter what we’re doing. So yeah, it seems like there’s that opportunity. And this race was somewhere where I pretty sure there was no cell coverage for 95% of it or whatever. So yeah, that makes sense that you kind of split that out. Like if this is a serious race, like, there really isn’t anything better than spot. But yeah, maybe for other races. There are other technologies. Yeah,
Which event did you do?
I did the hurricane.
Oh, cool. Carlos is Yeah, yeah. Right on. Yep. And
right. Yeah. I mean, and they use spots for that race as well. And it’s on track leaders and everything. But yeah, there’s plenty of not serious people, I guess the do it. That don’t track it. Yeah,
that’s true. Even. Yeah, even on some of the more serious bikepacking races, only the, you know, maybe 20 or 30, percenter really racing hard. The rest are just, you know, it’s still there. They’re riding herd, but then maybe don’t care as much about their placement and such. Yeah. And for people like that, yeah, a phone, even if you don’t track for 10 hours or, or something, that that might be okay. In certain situations, yet. Yeah. In other cases, if it’s 100 mile Ultra race that has no cell coverage, then, you know, they need to know where everybody is all the time. And they want. They want opinion every five minutes. So that that kind of a case, you know, I don’t think is going to change in the next five years, possibly not the next 10 years. Until because the limitations of satellites and higher bandwidth. I think they’re a long ways out for being overcome.
Yeah, yeah, it is interesting. I mean, you bring up a good point that the tracking is, you know, I mean, it sounds like initially, the idea was, well, this is a way that people can like, sort of follow along on the race. So it’s, it’s kind of like a way to broadcast it. But but really, also you’re talking safety in terms of like race directors, being able to know where people are on the course. And then also, also, I mean, is it do you feel like it’s an accurate way to track a race, like to know, somebody finished the race, and they stayed on the course. And they finish, you know, start and finish at the time that they said they did? Like, is it a pretty accurate record? Of like, finish times?
Yeah, I think it is. You know, you can’t tell the difference between a sprint finish, right? Yeah, two people, you know, finish within 10 seconds, or even a couple of minutes on each other, then you’d have to rely on either someone there who saw them or self reporting, to say, like, oh, yeah, I crossed the line before this person did. But generally, for a race, it’s, you know, a day or two or longer, you know, people are coming in much more spread apart. And it is pretty darn accurate as far as showing when people started when they finished and whether they stayed on the route because it’s, it’s very hard to fake, you know, it’s just a device that’s transmitting your location. And no one I know, is sophisticated enough to hack a dedicated spot tracking device and change what it’s transmitting to the satellites into the ground stations. That does bring up an interesting point that with a phone tracker, that becomes much more of a possibility where people could, you know, someone could write a little app or something that that hacks the, the tracking function, and yeah, and then transmit something that’s not reality. But right now that’s for the dedicated tracker. Yeah, that’s it. are very hard to fake.
Yeah, yeah, I guess I’m thinking of like Strava to where, I mean, they take data from any device, you can upload a file, and it counts that toward kom and things like that. And so yeah, that and we have heard, especially in the early days, we heard about E doping, right, like the idea of people would manipulate. Yeah.
Websites, and you could upload, yeah, add 10%, you know, speed or whatever, it is super easy to do. Yeah, right.
I guess you’re saying was spot you can’t do that. I mean, you’re getting the data directly from spot, I guess, like they have some kind of API, that that gives you that data?
That’s correct. Yeah. And so there’s really no, no opportunity to to mess with it. In any way.
Do people ever say like, Oh, my spot, like, malfunctioned or, I mean, because you do see that, like, you’ll see a weird waypoint or something. And you can usually chalk that up to some kind of
error. Yeah, usually, you can tell, you know, you’ll most points will be on the route, and then all sudden, you get one or two that are clearly, you know, at the top of a peak or something, and it was impossible for them to have gotten up there. Or it won’t have shown that they cut the course, randomly. It’s not going to show them on the route. Most likely, it was just an error. But yeah, what you said there is, is the one way that there is an issue, and that’s if they aren’t tracking at all, then you can’t really say where they were, or if they stayed on Route. And, and that happens, you know, sometimes naturally, sometimes, I don’t know, they, your tracker falls and into the bottom of your pack or something, yeah, isn’t transmitting Well, or it runs out of batteries, and you didn’t notice. And I think in very, very rare cases, we’ve had people turn their trackers off, and then do something they did not want to be seen. Possibly not not not really cutting the course that I can think of. But definitely we’ve had people where they went off course, then they realized what had happened. And instead of they didn’t want to turn around and go back to the point where they lost the course. And so they turned the tracker off, and then they returned to the course via a shorter route, and then then turn their tracker back on and kept going as though nothing had happened. Right. Interesting in that. Yeah. And that, you know, that’s one where you just need a human to look at it and and say like, Well, okay, is it possible that they went back to where they were supposed to to ride the whole route? Or is it impossible just based on the time? And so there’s still ways to figure that out. But that is the one place where people could possibly cheat is, yeah, they turn their tracker off, or it happens to have turned off, then, then it’s hard to say what they did. So the best thing if you’re getting a record, or an FTD is, obviously to have a complete ball track with no real holes in it.
Yeah, yeah. Even if you go off course Keep it keep it running. Yep, absolutely. Yep. Cool. So random. GPS question for you. Why is elevation data so notoriously difficult to track with a GPS? Like, I mean, you know, people go on a ride with their buddies and four people will have like four different elevation plots and four different, like, you know, climbs and descents. Why is that? Why is it so hard still to get that data accurately?
Yeah, I think it’s a good question. I think it’s, the biggest thing is, is just an inherent limitation to satellite tracking. In general, which is that your, your, if you think about triangulation, you’re you’re looking at time differences between the satellites, you can see, but if you’re on the surface of the Earth, you can only see satellites that are either above you or your the horizons. And you cannot see satellites that are below you, like on the other side of the Earth, right. And because the signal can’t go through dirt, or mantle. And so if you think about trying to triangulate a 2d location, if you’ve got a satellite on, say, to the directly to the north, on the horizon, and a satellite to the cell around the horizon, and use those two time differences to figure out your distance between those two, the airs, cancel each other out, you’re gonna get a really good fix in that way. Okay. But then same with East West, and you don’t, they don’t have to be north, south, east west. But if you have three or four satellites near the horizon, in any reasonable direction, which you mostly do, given how the constellation works out, and you’re going to be able to get a really good 2d fix. But for 3d, all you have is basically the satellite that’s right above you, or any that are near, and not anything below. And so the errors add up, and it’s a lot harder to accurately figure out your your elevation, then there’s also some problems with like the model of the earth because it’s not a actual, it’s not a sphere, but it’s also not an ellipsoid. And so, approximating that it can be difficult to, and then oh, so there’s, I think the general rule is that your if your 2d accuracy is a one meter than your 3d would be your elevation with the double that are 1.7 times that, okay? So there’s that source of error. But if you’re talking about comparing rides with your buddies, and why, why a total climbing number is going to be off. Another thing to understand there, I think, is that it’s a sum. So you’re you’re adding up differences in elevation as you go along, and then a ride. And so the more errors there are, it just accumulates as you go along. So that that really can throw things off, too. So it’s a big, it’s a challenge, you know, most software has an equally Tableau fusion has some kind of filtering, where it’s smoothing the data a little bit to get so that you don’t add up so many, so many small ups and downs that aren’t actually there. But sometimes it can penalize it too. Like, if you’ve done a little bit, there’s actually a little ups and downs on the trail. It can get smoothed those out. So, yeah, at some point, you just have to kind of choose an algorithm and go with it. And yeah, especially if you’re comparing between different apps like Strava, and Garmin, you know, then there’s going to be different, you know, variances and then different devices. And so yeah, who always take a elevation gain number with a grain of salt, I guess.
Yeah. Yeah. Same. And it’s funny, too, because, like you said, this has always been a problem. And there’s a reason why it’s a problem. Like it’s not going to be solved, unfortunately. I mean,
yeah, there’s not going to be like, ABS version two, that eliminates it. I mean, you know, any, anytime they make improvements in overall accuracy, that’s good. But yeah, it is kind of an inherent limitation to just determining a position on a sphere. On a planet. With satellites. Yeah,
yeah. Yeah. And a lot of the devices now they they have like a barometric altimeter that’s built in that, I guess, tries to like reconcile some of that and prove it some, but I’ve found that that doesn’t really help. Like, do you have any opinion on that? Like as to whether that can give you better data or does it? I feel like it gets confused because barometric pressure also changes, right? Like, the weather is constantly changing. So I don’t I don’t know how that can make it better.
Yeah, that’s right. You know, you could get a low pressure system or something coming in and changes it. It’s I think it does help if you if you’re one of those people who calibrates their altitude barometric pressure. Yeah, but it takes effort. I only know one person that I’ve ever seen do that before. Like before a ride. They’re like, Okay, what is the elevation here and I’m gonna plug that in to reset the barometric,
right? How do you even know do you look for one of those like, like markers?
Markers? Yeah, if you were really obsessive, you would you’d like anytime you get to one of those USGS markers you get that exact location and put it in but you know, if it’s your house, you know, you can you know what your right elevation is there. Or you can look at a topo map if you’re camping somewhere at trailhead, but, yeah, I think that takes it to a little bit of an obsessive level. Yeah, yeah. I don’t think that barometric really, totally solves that. In some cases, it can make it better, but it’s definitely not a not a silver bullet.
Yeah. Well, so I mentioned you’re you’re currently coming to us live from your van somewhere in Utah. When did you fully commit to the digital nomad lifestyle? And how did you make that jump?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I guess for us. Meaning me and my partner, Esther. It was kind of just a natural progression. We are we live in Tucson for a bit and when I was a grad student, I never spent the summer there. And so we’re always going to Colorado, or other places that were cooler and never really staying in one place for an entire year. And then in let’s see in 2014 We spent the summer Four months of the summer living off our bikes, or riding the Continental Divide Trail. Yeah. And so we did that. And then in 2015, we were living out of a minivan. So we upgraded to a minivan, and just traveled all over the West. And then in 2016, we finally got a scamp trailer, which is a little 13 foot fiberglass eggshell kind of a small trailer, and we towed it with a minivan. And, you know, people asked us then, like, How can you live out of this, you know, just a tiny little scamp trailer, and we thought, well, this is a luxury compared to just a minivan, or just what we can carry on our bikes. Yeah, so yeah, it wasn’t necessarily like a heart, like, Oh, we’re going like full time, mobile, all of a sudden, just sort of grew grew naturally. And but when we did do this camp, we did like fully, you know, didn’t have a storage unit didn’t have weren’t renting a place or anything anymore. Wow. And that was 2016. So it was a little bit of a jump. And there was a couple of things to figure out as far as to how we’re going to work effectively and keep computers charged. Get internet and all that kind of stuff. And, and then yeah, in the pandemic sort of forced us to upgrade to a bigger trailer where we had, you know, it couldn’t spend as much time in coffee shops and libraries and even friends houses, it seemed like, at the time, especially at the beginning. And so we got a bigger trailer that has bathroom and more power cell boosters, and this year got the Starlink satellite internet setup, which has been pretty amazing, too. Yeah, it’s just been kind of a progression, I guess.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s, that’s interesting that you kind of, you kind of started from like, something really tiny, like living off your bike, to living, you know, out of a minivan, which, you know, by comparison is a step up. I think a lot of us imagined, like, you know, we’re living in a house or an apartment or whatever. And imagine like going down in terms of our space, in our lifestyle, but yeah, for you, it’s like, you know, get really, really low, and then whatever you do, from there, it’s gonna is gonna feel like an upgrade.
Yeah, that’s right. I think that’s maybe a little bit of a trick that we kind of told ourselves anyway. Yeah, seems. Yeah, like, make it seem luxurious and be like, Oh, look, you know. When it rains, we don’t have to, like, look for a tree to hide 100.
Yeah, yeah, it’s the little things. Yep. So yeah. Do you have any tips for people who are like, what? When people find out that you’re living this lifestyle? And you know, maybe they’ve considered it? What are the things that they’re most concerned about? That they’re like, Oh, well, how do you do this? Like, what is the biggest, biggest tips you can give the people who are thinking about doing that?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of people ask us about internet, like, how we how we’re able to work, and power computers and stuff. And, you know, Starlink is pretty amazing, but you don’t need it. You know, we we just operated off our phones, we just using them as a hotspot of no dedicated life fi thing or anything. And that actually worked pretty well. You know, you’re limited to camping somewhere where their cell signal. But But well, and it depends on what your job is, you know, neither of us do a lot of high, necessarily high bandwidth stuff. If you’re doing zoom meetings in that all the time. Something like Sterling makes a lot more sense. And it would have been pretty challenging to do that. Without it, just with cell based stuff. But if you’re just programming and logging into servers, or sending emails and stuff, that’s pretty low bandwidth. Right? And, and powering stuff is super easy with solar. It’s amazing how little power you can get away with in any kind of a mobile setup. But tips for going. Yeah, going to the full nomad. The one thing I would say, I guess is that to realize that there’s many, many different ways to do it. And to not look at any one particular person or YouTube or anything and be like that’s what mobile life is, right? Yeah, that there’s ways to do it that are super cheap, and are way cheaper than living in even a cheap apartment. There’s ways to do it that are expensive, more expensive than owning a house. And everything in between and there’s ways to do it where you’re camping free and we’re staying in campgrounds or RV parks or staying in one place for a long time or moving around. You know there’s so much variety in it and I guess the thing I would say to someone considering it a new was just don’t have a set idea of how it’s going to be like you have to kind of find your, your style of camping and mobile living, it’s really hard to know what that’s going to be without trying it. Whether you’re the kind of person that, yeah, wants to stay, and, you know, maybe move twice a year or two, three times a year, or whether you’re gonna want to move around and really follow through good weather, and, and, and explore a lot. So yeah, don’t have any hard expectations of what those decisions are going to be until you get out there. And so I guess, with that in mind, go with the cheaper way of starting. And that way, you’re not too invested in one style, because depending on how those things all shake out, you know, then the band work makes more sense than a big RV, and those decisions could be different. So yeah, yeah.
Yeah, that’s a good point. Everybody’s got like different interests and priorities. And but it is fascinating to me that the first thing you said that people ask about is like internet and charging devices. Whereas I don’t know, I assumed it would be like, where do I go to the bathroom? Or like, how do I get food and cook it? Like, you know, more basic options, but I guess this is 2022. And so yeah, we know, you have different priorities.
Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right. Especially if you’re trying to work, you know, then internet becomes pretty important to
exactly right, everybody has different work situations and responsibilities that they, they still have to maintain. So when you go for a ride in a new place, do you rely on GPS or a smartphone? Or do you also pack a paper map,
I would say like, if I’m doing a new, a new route I haven’t done before, the main thing I would rely on is a well researched GPX track that i i drew I figured out, or I pieced together from other other people’s tracks and research. So once I’ve got that loaded on my, my Garmin on my handlebars, or on my phone, if it’s on foot, you know, then I’m pretty confident in that track. And that I can follow it and make small adjustments. But that’s the main thing I ever would rely on. It’s pretty rare that I actually carry a paper map. Favor maps are fun to look at in good for daydreaming and a big idea. You know, I definitely we have a good collection that we haul around. Even though we’re mobile, pretty heavy box of maps and guidebooks and stuff. And they’re worth it. They’re totally awesome. But yeah, to carry them as I would say is pretty rare.
Yeah. Yeah. I wasn’t sure how you would answer that, like, I could see you going either way. Like being a traditionalist or, or being, you know, fully invested in this digital world that we’re in and like, so do you? Do you have like a backup, though? Like, that’s one of the things I’m starting to think about is Yeah, I mean, what do we do when our device fails? And I mean, I guess you you know, better than anybody, like, what are the chances of that happening? But yeah, what would you do if your, your GPS just stopped working for some reason? Yeah.
I mean, sometimes you can even just smash it, like, crash on wrong or something? Yeah. Yeah. You know, if it’s something long enough, probably the best thing to do is other, you can carry a spare device, which, yes, if I’m on my own, maybe I’d have it on my Garmin and also on my phone and prefer to navigate off the handlebars. But if you need to look at the phone, but the other thing is, is relying on other people that you might have that are coming with you. So like, a couple days ago, I did arrive with Esther and Brenda was camping with us, and I just emailed that GPX file out so that it was on multiple people’s devices, partly for as a failsafe, but also just because then they could help me navigate it if I am not paying attention in this turn or something. But yeah, but a paper Yeah, I don’t know. I, I, myself don’t often consider bringing a map. I don’t know why exactly.
I haven’t I haven’t brought one in years. But I mean, I felt like there was a point where I was like, Oh, I really like paper and I still kind of appreciate that. But I guess there was a point where I just said no, like, I don’t need that anymore.
Yeah, it’s not that they’re that heavy, really, but I don’t know. For some reason yeah, I guess it just been my whole adventure even my whole adventure in life. I’ve pretty much been a GPS guy started doing new new rides outside of established trail systems. Yeah, I was always loading tracks and looking at tracks and so that’s just the way I operate. So yeah, maybe I’m just not old enough to
do digital native. Yeah. Yeah.
Something like that.
So what are you planning for your next adventure? Be it an outdoor adventure or business venture?
Hmm, yeah. Well, we just booked our tickets to go to New Zealand for this winter. Oh, cool. Yeah. So I think that’s going to be the big the next big adventure. Which
are over there. Yeah, yeah, I wish.
Yeah. Yeah, no, we started going to New Zealand in the winters once we had the scamp, just because I’m not that interested in camping, when the days are so short. Even if you’re down somewhere warm, like Arizona, it’s still winter, you know, and it’s still not quite dark. And one of the really cool things about being mobile, is that we don’t have expenses really at home. So we can park the deck in the US, you know, we can park the trailer at our friend’s house or something and not be paying for mortgage and stuff and then go to New Zealand and be relatively unencumbered. So yeah, taking advantage of that. It’s pretty cool. And then, yeah, getting another summer solstice Solstice instead of a winter solstice
is to two summers. That’s awesome.
Yeah. Yep. And then yeah, just continue exploring ride bikes, and scrambling around on foot and doing a little peck rafting down there as well. Yeah, should be awesome.
Well, Scott, thanks so much for taking the time to chat. It was great catching up and hearing about all the cool projects that you’re a part of, and I can’t wait to see what you’re up to next.
Yeah, thanks, Jeff. It’s great being on here. And yeah, Kent. It’ll be interesting to see how singletracks goes in the next 20 years.
Well, you can find out more about taco fusion and trek leaders on why and we’ll have links to those in the show notes. So we’ve got this week. We’ll talk to you next week.
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