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Meet the Trail Community: Outdoor Technologist

Posted by Loren Drummond at Sep 02, 2016 11:10 AM |

What role does outdoor technology have in protecting trails or building community? Ryan Branciforte of Trailhead Labs talks about the future of trails, maps, apps and tech.

For WTA's 50th Anniversary, we're highlighting trail users across Washington state. Hear what hiking means to them, and the future of their on-trail pursuits.

Ryan Branciforte
Ryan Branciforte, founder of Trailhead Labs, created a technology company to help get people outside and to support land management agencies and nonprofits in their mission to steward trails. Photo by Lech Naumovich Photography

Two things become abundantly clear when you talk to Ryan Branciforte about his work with Trailhead Labs, a small company that’s making big waves in the outdoor technology space. One: he doesn’t shy away from big ideas. Two: he clearly wants his work—and the company that he cofounded with friend and business partner Jereme Monteau—to amount to a net positive for both the outdoors and for people.

Filling in the gaps

Before founding Trailhead Labs, Ryan spent nearly 20 years working for public agencies and nonprofits, like the National Parks Service, Student Conservation Association and the Bay Area Open Space Council. During that time, he realized that government agencies and nonprofits don’t always have the resources, capacity or skills to use technology to their advantage.

“I think WTA is an anomaly, but for most organizations, it is a real struggle. Over many, many years, we just began to see this real need from the community.”

That realization, in part, led Ryan and Jereme to develop Transit & Trails with the Bay Area Open Space Council. Originally a print map, Ryan and Jereme saw the potential for a more interactive resource. In the end, they developed an incredible resource that coordinates data from many land managers, transit agencies, and nonprofits to help Bay Area residents find and access public transit-accessible recreation.

Helping the people of Portland and Vancouver get outside

Today, Ryan, Jereme (based in Bend, Ore.) and Trailhead Labs are building on that success working with many agencies around the country including Intertwine Alliance, a coalition of 150 agencies, companies and organizations working to integrate nature more deeply in the Portland-Vancouver area.

In early 2017, they will help launch a new interactive map and Daycation, a native mobile app that will connect locals and visitors to the many, many recreation opportunities around the Portland/Vancouver area.

In the spirit of a more interconnected greater Portland-Vancouver region, the mobile app will contain a wide variety of “Daycations”—fun, convenient excursions throughout the region’s abundant natural areas that showcase diverse perspectives around nature and its benefits.

A technology company for the recreation economy

In a way, both Transit & Trails and the Daycation app are projects that reflect Ryan’s perspective about the role that private companies can play when it comes to conservation, recreation and building community.

“We’re a real business, but we’re doing this in a way that is ultimately mission-driven,” he says. “It’s important for there to be nonprofits and public agencies and companies all working to ultimately get people outside.”

And getting people outside is more than just an issue of lifestyle. For Ryan, the potential impact of an outdoor technology ecosystem is far greater than recreation or outdoor retail.

Trailhead Labs Office
Trailhead Labs at work offices in Bend, Oregon. Photograph by Talia Galvin/1859 Magazine

“Outdoor tech? What does it really do for solving big problems in the world? When it comes to things like climate change or health care, you get people out of their cars, you get people walking, biking and using trails and outdoor open spaces for active transportation; that’s a big part of it.”

Access, says Ryan, has a huge role to play. And in some ways, the Trailhead Labs' open source, open data philosophy spills right over into open spaces.

“It’s important for the community. This is about connecting underserved communities to the outdoors, this is about creating economic opportunities in cities and rural areas that can drive tourism with recreation and produce jobs. I think there is a lot of good work happening in the industry to show the value of parks and trails and recreation.”

Optimistic about the future of trails, he sees their role, by creating technologies that support nonprofits and agencies in their missions, as one that still has a lot of potential. With better mapping platforms, by creating affordable, scalable technologies, by getting better data about how trails are being used, he feels like they can help bring land managers and park users closer together.

“We feel there is a huge impact to have in the world. We are playing a small role right now, but we hope to grow that role over time, and really support the agencies that manage and steward these lands and trails in a way that more people can have access and take advantage of them while also helping to care for them.”

Creating a new kind of work-life

Ryan has built a career, and now a company, around working on and for the outdoors. For some people, that might make spending time outdoors feel less relaxing. But Ryan doesn’t see it that way.

“This concept of going to work and it not being very fun; I’ve never really bought into that. I’ve always loved my work and loved my jobs. When I’m out on trails, I do think a lot about how we can do our work, and how we can do it better. When I’m out there testing some new app, it’s fun.”

From his life’s work, to the name of his company to how he chooses to spend time with the people he loves, trails are integral to Ryan’s day-to-day.

Ryan Branciforte and his Dad
On Mount Hood in 2012, Ryan Branciforte with his Dad hold up 11 fingers for 11 years of their annual trip together.

“I live in San Francisco and it’s a really expensive city. One of the things I like about trails and what open space offers, is that getting outside is just a really affordable way to spend a day. I think it’s so brilliant that the United States had this concept of preserving parks and trails and setting them aside for people. It's definitely one of America's most innovative ideas”

But his passion for urban parks and trails doesn’t keep him from the backcountry, either. Every year, he and his dad plan a week-long trip together with family and friends. This year, year 16, they’ve got their sights set on the North Cascades.

“When you’re outside and you’re going on a backpacking trip, hiking. You know how that makes you feel. Not everybody has access to that, and we feel like that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do.”