Is AI the Weekend Adventurer's New Best Friend? – Outside

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Backpacker editor Zoe Gates sets off to discover if chatbots are the solution to our trip-planning woes. Preparing for wilderness excursions can be frustrating, even for seasoned adventurers. Tsunamis of online information—conflicting top ten lists, distracting ads, and trip reports of varying quality—can stand between you and getting out the door. Artificial intelligence tools claim to deliver detailed travel itineraries in response to just a single question, but can a robot really design a safe, worthwhile adventure? In an effort to simplify her weekend excursions, Zoe experiments with Outside’s in-development chatbot, Scout—and is totally at the whims of her computer.
Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.
Maren: From Outside Magazine this is the Outside Podcast.
The staff here at Outside is full of experienced outdoors people. Passionate hikers, climbers, bikers, skiers, and all kinds of people who just generally want to spend as much time out in nature as they possibly can.
Over time, these pursuits will turn anyone into a pretty good trip planner, capable of conjuring up an adventure on short notice. But even for those of us who are adept planners, it’s not easy. Scouring blogs and reservation sites, poring over maps and trip reports, and checking weather and trail conditions can take hours.
And that’s even before securing permits and snacks and packing up all the necessary gear. 
My colleague Zoe Gates is a senior editor at Backpacker, and she’s about as close to an expert at this kind of trip planning as you can get, but she admits it can be a major hassle.
Zoe Gates: Long trips are really hard to fit into a busy schedule and even harder to plan. Over the past few years, I’ve really embraced the micro adventure. Easy overnights and day trips that fill my cup and still get me home at a reasonable hour. But even quick, local adventures can be exhausting to plan.
Maren: I know what you mean. At the start of the summer, we shifted to a four day work week at Outside with the hope that that extra day off would give us all more opportunities to get outside. But at the end of a long work week, the last thing I want to do is spend a few hours planning.
Zoe: Totally. I recently moved to Bellingham, Washington, which is close to the North Cascades, British Columbia, and the ocean, and there’s just endless potential for exploring new parks and trails. But, when Thursday evening rolls around, I’m usually too tired from researching hikes at work to want to research hikes for myself.
In the early summer, I got into a bad pattern. On Friday, I’d sleep a little late, and by the time I chose a trail, studied the maps, and hit the road, the best hours of the day were already behind me. I just wanted to grab my backpack and get out the door.
Maren: I can totally relate. But, please tell me that the reason you’re here talking to me is that you have a solution.
Zoe: I might have found one. At the start of hiking season, there was all this buzz around artificial intelligence chatbots like ChatGPT. I’d heard that using a chatbot could be more efficient than searching for a whole bunch of different tasks. Then I started to hear about other journalists at outlets like the New York Times and National Geographic using these chatbots to plan international travel.
I thought, if AI can plan an entire European vacation, surely it can help me decide where to go for a day hike. So I decided to try it for myself and I managed to rope one of our other colleagues into helping me understand these tools.
Wen Yang: My name is Wen Yang. I joined Outside two years ago. I work in engineering team for discovery to build a recommender system and search to help our user to find the most relevant content to explore outdoor activities.
Zoe: Just like many of us, Wen and her team have been thinking about AI chatbots a lot. If you’ve been following the news, you probably have a basic understanding of how technologies like ChatGPT or Google BARD work.
These tools are powered by large language models, which get fed tons and tons of human generated text from across the web. They synthesize all of this data, which makes them really good at predicting sequences of words. The result is a bot that can engage in human-like conversation. So unlike Google, chatbots are really good at answering very specific questions in a conversational manner.
Wen: So imagine right now if you are trying to plan a trip and you are using Google search. You cannot directly ask, ‘oh, can you plan a trip for me in Bali?’ You will actually get tons and tons of ads. The top 10 pages, and it’s all coming from different things.
You might need to go to TripAdvisor to get the specific landmark information and you might need to go to like various different sites, jump lots of hoops to get the things you want.
Zoe: If you’ve planned a trip the old fashioned way, you’ve been here. Before you know it, you’ve got a dozen tabs open and you’re more overwhelmed than when you started.
Maren: That definitely sounds familiar. That’s usually about when I decide to give up.
Zoe: Well, Wen told me that a chatbot can do all of that work for you with far fewer searches.
Wen: It’s very easy talking to one tool and you get 80% of the daily itinerary. Especially for places you haven’t been to before. The way to think about using this tool is pretty much you tell the chatbot about your specific needs and you will generate the bare bone of the itinerary and you can refine it. 
It’s supposed not to replace Google search, but it does provide lots of additional benefits.
Zoe: I’d been toying with the idea of planning a micro adventure with AI when Wen and her team announced that Outside is actually in the process of creating its very own chatbot.
Wen: Like everybody else, I, by the end of 2022, started to play with Chat GPT. I find it’s actually very addicting cuz you can have conversations with a chatbot in a very natural way. I thought why not give it a try ourselves?
Maren: So what does the Outside approach to AI look like?
Zoe: Outside’s bot is called Scout, though Wen and her team were calling it Chat Outside for a while, so you might hear her use that name too. Wen told me I could think of Scout like a super smart prodigy whose goal is to become an expert in outdoor recreation.
And one of the best ways to become an outdoor expert is by consuming a whole lot of Outside articles. Scout is powered by ChatGPT, but where ChatGPT’s knowledge library comes from all over the web, Scout pulls from articles by expert journalists at Outside Magazine, Backpacker, Climbing, and all the other publications in the Outside network.
Wen: The intention for this specific Chat Outside is trying to ride the wave of large language models to see how can we combine with the large language models technology with Outside’s specific outdoor knowledge to elevate our user’s experience.
So we give this prodigy a bookshelf with all our outdoor related knowledge articles about gears, about trails, about what was the recent trends.
This way you have the ability to both chat with large language model, but you also have additional outside knowledge to back up with your answers.
Maren: So it’s an AI chatbot, but designed specifically for trip planning?
Zoe: It can certainly do that, but that’s not all. You can ask Scout detailed questions about gear. For example, it could compare two different models of hiking shoes or backpacks. Or you could get meal planning tips, cater to your preferences, or even a full training plan for a specific fitness goal. Ween told me that this specificity is really helpful when it comes to planning a trip.
Wen: So the user may have lots of things going on and they have different interests that might change over time. They have specific questions they wanted to ask, and this chat bot can provide a very targeted answer, and it’s all driven by the user.
So you need to ask a very direct, very specific question. For example, let’s say, Instead of asking, can you recommend a hiking trail in San Francisco, I would tell the chatbot exactly my preference. Can you recommend a hiking trail in San Francisco under four miles with a view of water? Things like that.
When the user ask a question, the chat bot will first trying to find the most relevant context from our knowledge base and we will send these users questions combined with those additional context to the large language model. And the large language model will synthesize those two pieces of information and generate a very concise, easy, understandable answer to the user, 
Maren: That sounds pretty cool. So when can I start trying it out?
Zoe: Scout will be available to Outside plus members later this year, but I got a sneak preview. I wanted to see if it could really make planning my Friday micro adventures easier.
Maren: Well, are you going to tell me how it went?
Zoe: Sure. After the break.
Zoe: So it’s Thursday afternoon, getting ready to plan my hike for my day off tomorrow. So I’ve just opened up Scout on my computer. I’m gonna ask it some questions and see what we get.
Maren: So when you sat down to start planning this trip, did you have any stipulations?
Zoe: Yeah, so I wanted a micro adventure, something that would be doable on my Friday off from work. And I wanted to go somewhere I’d never been before, since I’m new to Washington and still trying to explore.
Maren: But, besides that, you’d be totally at the mercy of Scout’s whims.
Zoe: Yeah, as long as it was safe and legal, I’d go wherever Scout told me to go.
Maren: Okay, so what did you ask it?
Zoe: Wen Yang from Scout’s development team told me that I’d get the best results by making my questions as specific as possible. And I’d been wanting to check out North Cascades National Park, which is about 90 minutes east of where I live in Bellingham. I knew there’s a ton of awesome hiking there, but I hadn’t done any research yet.
So, let’s see. I’m gonna ask, ‘can you recommend a hike in North Cascades National Park that’s between say, seven and 12 miles with a view of mountains.’
It says, ‘absolutely, I could recommend the Cascade Pass Trail in North Cascades National Park. This trail is 7.4 miles round trip, climbs 1700 feet to the summit of its namesake pass.’
Right away, Scout suggested two different trails and gave me some info on distance, difficulty, and the scenery.
It offers expansive views of the surrounding peaks and glaciers. It’s a moderately challenging hike due to the elevation gain, but it’s well worth it for the stunning views.
The two options it gave me both sounded great, so I asked Scout very broadly to tell me what one of the trails was like to see if it could help me decide.
So it’s giving me a little bit more information. It says the Cascade Pass Trail is a popular, moderately difficult trail that offers a bit of everything. Checks all the boxes for forest, wildflowers, glaciers, and high peaks.
At this point, Scout also told me about a way to tack on some extra mileage, so I had even more options.
It also says, for a more challenging adventure, you can continue up the broad shoulder of Sahale Mountain, pitching a tent at the glacier camp and enjoying a bird’s eye view of the triplets Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan Sounds really cool. I’m excited.
Maren: It sounds like you were able to pick a hike.
Zoe: I did! I decided on the Cascade Pass trail, but picking a trail is only one part of trip planning, and I wanted to see how far Scout’s abilities could go.
Maren: Like, you wanted to know what the trail conditions would be like, so you would know what gear you needed to bring and stuff like that.
Zoe: Yeah, and this is where I started running into some of the limitations. Scout is built on ChatGPT, and ChatGPT only has access to data predating September of 2021. That can be really tricky when you’re planning a trip, because obviously weather conditions and road and trail closures change all the time.
So I’d heard something about the road to this trail being closed earlier this year, and I had some questions about snow coverage, but Scout couldn’t tell me anything about that.
Maren: Ugh, that seems like kind of a problem.
Zoe: Yeah, but Wen told me that these issues are likely to be resolved as chatbots get more and more advanced. We’re just not quite there yet.
Maren: Okay, so you had to do a little old fashioned Googling to find out some answers.
Zoe: I did, And Scout even suggested some websites I could search to find current conditions. So I read those, and I also found a recent trip report from one of my go to sites. Above all, I wanted to prioritize safety, so I did double check a few of Scout’s claims. It seemed like, all in all, what Scout told me was pretty accurate.
Maren: I remember Wen saying that Scout could get you like 80% of the way there on an itinerary. Did you feel like that was true?
Zoe: For sure, it was a lot quicker than if I was doing all my own research from scratch.
Scout just gave me a full itinerary for my day tomorrow. Just told me that I should start my day early to make the most of the daylight, have a hearty breakfast. Told me exactly where I should have my packed lunch, which is pretty cool.
I guess all this left to do is download my maps, pack some snacks, and I’ll be off on my adventure.
I did get a little bit of a later start than planned because, of course, I needed to stop for a breakfast sandwich.
Maren: Completely understandable.
Zoe : I’m driving the last mile to the trailhead and I’ve been driving through the forest along this creek for maybe an hour, kind of just broke out of the trees. There’s these huge granite peaks next to me on the road. You can see glaciers, a bunch of snow fields. There’s like these little waterfalls coming down the, the rock walls above the road. There’s tons of green on the hillside. It’s so pretty.
Because of my late start, the trailhead was pretty crowded when I arrived around 10:30.
Maren: I guess you shoulda listened to Scout.
Zoe: All right. Found a parking spot. I am off. The views just from the trailhead are insane already, so I’m pretty excited.
So the hike started with a pretty steady climb through the forest and then, just like Scout had told me, the trees thinned out and there were just endless views of snowy peaks.
I think I’m almost to the pass, and up above treeline now hiking kind of through these meadows and across some scree slopes. It’s just this crazy rocky ridgeline to my right and up to my left, these big green slopes with wild flowers, beautiful day. There’s definitely a lot of other hikers out here, but I don’t mind.
Maren: It sounds like it was a pretty cool hike. I’m wondering if it felt any different to you than like other hikes you’ve planned for yourself without AI?
Zoe: This hike did feel a little different and I think that’s because I put so much trust into Scout before I ever hit the trail. Normally, I’d read more than one description, look at photos, I’d study some maps, and get a pretty good sense of my hike ahead of time. And Scout gave me all the info I needed, but the whole point of this hike was to abbreviate the planning process.
As a result, I was really pleasantly surprised by everything I encountered on the trail. I think that blind trust could just as easily have led to disappointment, but in this case, it was a delight.
Maren: Kind of like watching a movie after having seen all the trailers and read all the reviews versus like just going in having heard it was good and not much else.
Zoe: Exactly.
So I just finished my hike. I’m back in the car heading back down. Such a great day in the mountains.
For the most part, it was as satisfying as something I’d planned myself. I ended up taking the extension that Scout suggested for me, and I was really glad to have had that option.So I added on a couple extra miles and got really up above treeline into the mountains and it was just so beautiful. I saw six mountain goats, including three little babies. Um, some really, really incredible views of the North cascades and glaciers, and it was such a gorgeous day.
If I had stuck with Scout’s initial recommendation, I think I would have been itching for more, but the chatbot seemed to almost anticipate that and it gave me choices.
Maren: You said that, for the most part, it was great. Were there any downsides?
Zoe: One drawback is that I passed literally hundreds of other hikers on this trail.
Maren: Oh no.
Zoe: Yeah, it definitely made me realize that unless you specify otherwise, Scout might recommend the most popular trail in an area. I thought about this as I was driving home, but I decided it wasn’t a huge deal to me.
It was, you know, my first time in this area in such a good way to see the park. So, it wasn’t really a problem for me that it was a super popular trail. And I do think too, that, and you can be more specific and ask for less popular trails, more solitude, and Scout will deliver that. 
Maren: It sounds like if you’re open minded and game for a little bit of a surprise, using AI to plan might be the thing for you. But if you have very particular objectives, or if you’re trying to get off the beaten path, this might not be what you’re looking for.
Zoe: I’d agree with that, And I think we could say the same thing about really any tool. If you use Google or even an old school guidebook, they’re usually going to give you popular destinations. You always have to dig a little bit deeper if you want to avoid the crowds. In the end, my goal for this hike was to see a new area with as little planning as possible.
And in that sense, the bang for my buck was fantastic.
Maren: That’s great.
Zoe: I am curious to see how I might feel using this tool for planning hikes week after week. Because Scout always gives unique responses, it could be a roll of the dice. Like, it only told me that I could extend my hike when I asked for more information, and that tidbit ended up being the best part of my whole day.
I think it’ll take some practice to really get good at asking the kinds of super specific questions that will lead to the best responses.
Maren: It seems pretty clear that this technology is gonna change how so many of us operate on a daily basis, both at work and at play. What do you think the future of AI chatbots looks like for outdoor enthusiasts?
Zoe: I asked Wen pretty much this exact question, and she assured me that we’ve really only scratched the surface of what tools like Scout can do for us.
Wen: Hopefully in the near future, we will be able to incorporate a large language model, being able to read content from maps or images, things like that. So that is one way to expand. 
And then the second way is to equip the chatbot with some ability to interacting with the outside world. People might ask, ‘oh can you help me book campsites in Yellowstone Park’ or your send, things like that, that also requires interacting with probably a plugging or other external tools. 
Maren: If Scout can book me a campsite, you can absolutely count me in.
Zoe: It really does feel like we’re on the cusp of so much possibility with AI.
Maren: In the meantime, are you gonna let Scout plan another micro adventure for you?
Zoe: You know, the weekend is coming up fast, and I have been dying to check out Mount Rainier National Park. Maybe Scout has some suggestions for me.
Maren: Thank you to Wen Yang for talking to Zoe for this episode.
Outside plus subscribers can keep an eye out for Scout on our platforms later this year.
This episode was written and produced by Zoe Gates and edited by me, Maren Larsen, with additional editing from Michael Roberts. Music and mixing by Robbie Carver. Listener, how have you used technology in the outdoors? Record your story as a voice memo and email it to us at podcast at outside inc dot com.
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