The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Gowalla, Foursquare, and Trailhead on the Eastern Rim of San Diego County

Sitting atop Foster's Point - or am I?

Come on you dirty rat bastard,” I swore at my phone as I watched the little data wheel turning slowly, “give me that good Edge network lovin’ – what the….awww, not again!” For the second time, foursquare had given me its fail message: “Your phone thinks you are too far away from Font’s Point, so no badges or points for you.” I stepped off Foster’s Point, cursed loudly to the clouds, grinned, and stepped back onto it. It was a beautiful day out on the Eastern Rim of the Laguna Crest. The warm desert winds of early fall were cascading up the canyons lining the mountains before pouring over the peaks and down into San Diego county. The yellow sun was warming trees, shrubs, rocks, and lone trail runners.

Lanky, high clouds strolled calmly across the pale blue sky. One could not ask for a more perfect day, especially with the smell of forest and new-old growth trees wafting around. I grinned again. I was in a fantastic spot with dramatic drop offs on one side, sloping mountains on the other, and I was focused on my mobile. I could only laugh at my ridiculousness. However, I was still slightly annoyed: I had created this location before. I had stood in this very spot. I had used this very phone. And yet, now, in the same spot, with the same phone, I was mysteriously too far away. I could only laugh. It was absurd. Not as absurd as spending part of my day staring at my phone, but still slightly absurd.

Let me backtrack a moment to explain why I was staring at my phone. I have an iPhone 4. It’s my second iPhone. When I purchased my first iPhone, my friend and fellow blogger K.Ho ( said to me, “It’ll change your life!” At the time, I had laughed at him. Two years later, I realize that he was right. Having an iPhone has changed my life. Unfortunately, while it hasn’t made me taller, wittier, more popular, or handsomer, its been a useful tool. There’s probably a discussion that could be had here about whether smartphones in general are good or bad things, but I’ll save that for a later date. If you have an iPhone or any type of smartphone, you’re aware that there are many applications that you can install on your device. If you’re not aware of this fact, guess what: there’s these crazy things called applications that you can install on your device that will allow you to get your money’s worth.

Mystery wreck...

This year, I started using foursquare ( Foursquare is an application that uses the GPS feature on the phone to identify where you are, and allows you to “Check-In”. Checking in allows you to see reviews of the location, and allows you to see what other users are there, while collecting points and badges. I’ll be the first to admit it: foursquare is frightfully silly. But, it’s also a great deal of fun. Shortly after I began using foursquare, Rude Boy had told me about a similar application, Gowalla ( Gowalla succinctly bills itself as a way to: “Keep up with your friends, share the places you go, and discover the extraordinary in the world around you.” In many respects, it is like foursquare, but one of the main differences is the ability to mark locations with photos you have taken, and to pick up and or put down virtual items. Personally, I’m a foursquare person for the most part, but Rude Boy is partial to Gowalla. I find whether you are a foursquare or Gowalla person depends on your individual personal preferences. 

In general, the applications work great in cities where there is lots of cell coverage. In rural areas with little to no service, the applications, like your phone, do not work as well. After using these for a while, Rude Boy mentioned to me that the North Face had come out with a similar type of application, Trailhead (, which was designed to provide people with the locations of trails in their area, and allow people to actively track themselves in the wilderness, while providing a readout of elevation gained, lost, and time spent hiking, while overlaying the results over a map of the area. If you’ve ever read this blog, or any part of this blog, or even just looked at the photos, you’d know this is the application for me. I downloaded it, and told Rude Boy that I’d try it out as soon as possible. In between discussing this with him and heading out, I decided that if I was going to test one application on the trail, I’d test a bunch of applications. 

Because of this promise, I found myself on Foster’s Point cursing at my phone. Irrespective of whether I’m testing applications, one of my favorite training runs starts from Penny Pines (, heads South to Font’s Point, where I turn around, and head North, looping back over the first portion of the run, before angling out to a brutal uphill stretch up Garnet Peak (, and then back to the car. The run is a great way to decompress, and has a little of everything – single track forest terrain, rocky slopes and steep drop offs and great views of the desert and mountains. In order to make my tests as “difficult” as possible, I didn’t start using the applications until I was out on Foster’s Point.

Unfortunately, foursquare didn’t think I was on Foster’s Point. In order to see if this was a fluke, I jogged a little extra up the trail, and checked in at another location, before I doubled back and was again unable to check in. Gowalla didn’t know where I was, but it was perfectly happy to let me create a spot where I was at, and upload any photos, or drop any virtual loot that I wanted. I then opened up Trailhead, and after checking to make sure my Camelback was secure, began jogging back down my route.

 Summit, Garnet Peak

After five minutes, I checked the application. The screen had a distinct line on the map of where I was, and where I had gone, and it seemed to be checking off how fast I was moving, and how much I had descended. Satisfied that it was at least working, I kept a tight grip on my phone, and kept running. At the secret abandoned wrecked Packard which is off that route, I stopped, exited the application, and paused my progress. I wandered off the trail, checked the wreck (still there and rusting), and re-started the application. It immediately picked up my location, and kept recording. I didn’t look at it again until I reached the top of Garnet Peak, where I again turned it off as I was taking my final break of the day. After listening to the sun burn and the universe whirl for a while, I turned it back on, and headed back down.

As I entered the parking lot at the end of the run, I checked Trailhead and found that it had tracked me the whole time, despite the interruptions I had imposed upon it. I was impressed. It had also noted that the run was 6.4 miles, which corresponded to how long I knew the trail to be. However, there were some gaps in its otherwise flawless coverage: for example, it stated that my pace had been -.7 miles per hour. I’m not sure how to take that. It either meant I was GIANT SLOTH SLOW (false), or I was the Flash Fast (also false, sadly). I was also a little suspicious of its total elevation gained and lost, until I realized that it meant cumulatively over the course of the hike, at which point I was again impressed. Overall though, I was the most impressed with its performance in rural areas. So, if you are like me and like to know what you are doing, and like to use your smartphone at times when perhaps, you would be better suited not using your smartphone, find my ratings as follows:

THE GOOD: TNF Trailhead. Kept an accurate reading of everything I did; and had a nifty feature that allowed me to save what I had done. THE BAD: Gowalla. Mainly “bad” because no locations were marked in the areas I was at. That’s a mild bad though, like a dirty car. Otherwise worked great. I even left some virtual loot for any other nerds at the top of Garnet Peak. THE UGLY: foursquare. Hate to say it, because I’m a big fan, but it refused to check me into two locations that I had created, even though I was standing in the exact same spot with the exact same phone. Not sure what that was all about. However, it treats me great in cities, so I can’t be that mad at it. And that is the roundup on location finding applications for Fall 2010.