My Experience Writing a Hiking Guidebook

Johanna Flashman on Mt. Bliss

My Experience Writing a Hiking Guidebook

If you follow me on social media or have talked to me at all in the past, you’ll probably know that I’ve been writing a hiking guidebook for Southern California. Specifically, beer hiking Southern California. 

Quick recap of how this went down:

  • In July~August 2022, one of my clients recommended me to his publisher as someone who might be able to write a hiking guidebook for Southern California and the publishers reached out.
  • October 2022, I submitted a sample chapter and the publisher (Helvetiq) agreed to sign me.
  • November 2022, I went on my first official research hikes and interviewed the first breweries.
  • December 2022, my cousin loaned me his built out sprinter van and I drove it from Florida to Southern California to begin my research and book journey in earnest.
  • January-August 2023, I did approximately 45-50 hikes and spoke with 40+ brewery owners and brewers. Part of this time I also balanced other work and navigated the challenges of getting to know vanlife.
  • September 2023, I finished final edits and proofing after the publishing team had created the design and put everything together in a single pdf of the whole book. Now I’m just waiting for it to print.

To be honest, the process was exhausting. I didn’t do things perfectly and I wish I’d done some parts differently. At the same time, it’s my first book and I have to have compassion for myself. Doing things differently could have created better results, but I also might not have gotten some of the good outcomes I got too.

The Anxieties I Had About the Book

Johanna flashman in the sprinter van
In my cousin’s sprinter van that I lived in for six months. (Photo: Johanna Flashman)

If I could have been entirely honest and used my own, self deprecating humorous writing style, this would have been a part of the book’s introduction:

Can I be real with you right now? You’ve made the decision to pick up my book and maybe even purchase it, so I’ve decided we’re friends now and I’m going to be real with you. 

This book is not perfect. I worked really hard to get everything correct and accurate and be respectful, but you know, sometimes things fall through the cracks. Maybe you would have done a few things differently than I did if you’d written it. Hell, I would have done a few things differently. But I’m excited to share the information I found with you and I hope you’re excited to learn about this wildly diverse, exciting region. It’s my first book; have some compassion. This shit’s harder than you think. 

As for the turn by turn directions, let’s be honest, when was the last time you picked up a guidebook and didn’t get mind-blowingly lost by trying to follow the turn by turn directions? So, let’s use that as our baseline, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Basically, I wanted to tell everyone who picked up this book a big, “You’ve been duped. I don’t know what I’m doing. Sorry.”

The Devil’s Backbone trail up to Mt. Baldy. (Photo: Johanna Flashman)

I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have gone well with my publisher and probably wouldn’t have sold that well. But that’s how I felt (and sometimes still feel) about the book. Like, who am I to claim I know something about the best hikes in this area? I’m not even from Southern California. What if people read it and think all the hikes I chose are rubbish? Maybe if I say it’s trash, other people won’t? Maybe if I trash talk the book myself, the people I’ve made up in my head who are ready and waiting to trash talk the book will have some compassion? 

My Solution:

However, I think the truth is that if I downplay the book, why wouldn’t everyone else disregard it? In reality, I put SO MUCH time and energy researching trails and breweries to include. I looked at location, mileage, elevation, reviews, photos, difficulty, accessibility, and much more. When I could, I asked brewery owners and locals for recommendations and I personally did every single hike and then some. 

I have to remind myself that I have done a lot to know what to recommend and to provide good and accurate information. This wasn’t put together haphazardly. This was 9 months of on-the-ground research from a perspective of new eyes that can view this area with curiosity. Ultimately, I collected information that people who have lived in the area their whole lives may not have known.

Looking Back, What I Would Have Done Differently

hiking Mount Baldy
Hiking Mt. Baldy. To avoid the worst of the heat, we started hiking at sunrise, but it was still brutally hot. (Photo: Colin Lauzon.)

That being said, the book didn’t go perfectly. Nothing really goes perfectly and it was my first book—of course I was going to get some things wrong. It’s hard to know if doing things any differently would have actually led to better results. However, I do think these things could have improved the book and my experience of it.

1. Reached Out to Other Guidebook Authors Sooner

Around July, I reached out to another author who had written several hiking guidebooks around Southern California. I really like his books and his writing and hoped I could get some advice.

He was kind enough to agree and offered some really wonderful advice and comfort for some of my worries. However, I did this seven months into the project. I wish I’d reached out at the beginning and gotten more guidance to begin with.

Sometimes those anxieties and imposter syndrome feelings really are there for a reason and it’s because I did have so much to learn before writing a whole guidebook! I did talk to some people before I started, but some of the advice this author gave me, I really wish I’d known seven months earlier. If I’d reached out earlier, maybe I would have. 

2. Given Myself More Time

johanna flashman taking photos in Joshua Tree
Taking photos during the hike in Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo: Colin Lauzon.)

The way I see it, the amount of time allotted to a project often correlates to the quality of the finished product based approximately on a logarithmic graph where the x value is time and y value is quality. In the case of this book, I’d say I was here:

I got it most of the way there and don’t get me wrong, it’s good. But there was still that little margin where maybe a bit more time could have made it better.

Equally, the concentration of that time could have been different. Because of the amount of money that comes with an advance, it’s not really enough to sustain oneself for a full book project, so doing this on the side while working other jobs to pay the bills I think would have been the way to go. 

With my ~8-month timeframe, I wasn’t able to do that throughout the whole time period and it ate at my savings. It was worth it and I’m glad things worked out the way they did, but if I were to do it again, (subtle foreshadowing…) I’d go at a slower pace.

More time would have also created more space to talk to more people. I reached out to many groups and people, but never heard back from some. More time may have given me a better opportunity to really seek out more people and give them enough time to get back to me. I’m grateful for the connections I made, but I would have loved to spend more time getting to know more people. 

3. Timed Hikes Better

The way I structured writing the book was doing a hike or two, then writing those hikes’ chapters. I think the most backlog of hikes I’d done but not written were maybe five or six. Usually it was more like two to three. This was good for my memory of the hikes, but also meant there were many gorgeous spring days that would have provided excellent trail photos where I was in front of my computer screen writing. And the spring blooms this year were incredible. I mean, super-bloom, blow-your-mind beautiful. The trails I didn’t do in the spring had perfectly fine photos (sometimes sunrise photos to stay out of the heat!), but I can’t help but think they might have been better if I’d hiked them at peak season.

If I were to do it again, I might have squeezed more of the hikes into the wildflower season and waited to write up the chapters in a bigger batch. I might have had to take extra time remembering each trail when I was writing, but more hikes might have had photos like this:

Instead of this:

Volcan Mountain in Julian, San Diego County. (Photo: Johanna Flashman)

But that’s a different landscape and perhaps interesting to show as well.

Appreciating What I Have Done

All this being said, I’m really proud of what I did create with this book. I worked really hard to put the whole thing together. 

I’m proud that I was able to include women and minority owned breweries and create a platform for their stories to be told. 

I took all my own photos minus a couple. I hiked every single hike and then some (damaging my feet in the process, which I’m now recovering from). And I woke up at 5am to get sunrise photos and risked hiking after dark to shoot the sunset. 

A beautiful sunset on the hike to Potato Chip Rock in San Diego County. (Photo: Johanna Flashman)

According to my time tracking, I spent over 600 hours on this project. In reality, it was probably a good amount more than that. I’m excited to see it come to life in hard copies and share it with the world.

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