Trails Magazine Maps the Path to Success as a New Outdoor Mag | Westword

Trails Magazine Forges a New Path for Backpacking Media

After Outside shut down print operations for Backpacker, Ryan Wichelns took off in a different direction.
The first edition of Trails Magazine is available to subscribers now.
The first edition of Trails Magazine is available to subscribers now. Lauren Danilek
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In May 2022, when Outside Inc. announced that it would lay off 15 percent of its staff and shutter the print operations of Backpacker magazine, Ryan Wichelns — who'd long freelanced for the publication —hopped in the shower.

“There's this joke,” he says. “You come up with your best ideas in the shower. I took a shower immediately after hearing all this. I came up with the idea. Let's create something to fill that spot.”

That something is Trails Magazine, a new print publication devoted to all things backpacking, which published its first quarterly magazine in February; Wichelns is the editor-in-chief. On its website, the outlet pronounces: “The adventure community has had enough mass-produced, ad-filled, cheap magazines from outdoor media monopolies. Trails Magazine isn't that."

The state of outdoor adventure media isn’t that different from media as a whole, Wichelns says; it's a struggle. But he thinks that the advertiser-supported, grocery-store-checkout-line mag model just doesn't work anymore — and attempting to fix it is more like refilling a leaky flotation device than sending out a lifeline.

“It's not that effective anymore,” he says. “Advertisers aren't spending that kind of money, and there are better ways for them to get their brands out there. I watched it with Backpacker.”

Following that model traps publications in a vicious cycle, he contends.

First they cut back on publishing or fill more pages with cheaper ads. Then, because the product is worse, fewer people buy it and advertisers are less interested — forcing the outlet to condense yet again. When Wichelns talked to others in the outdoor media space after Backpacker’s print run ended, he saw a common theme.

“People are tired of magazines that feel like they're 50 percent advertisements and you can't really always tell what's an ad and what's not an ad,” Wichelns says. “Simultaneously, there's another brand of magazine, particularly in the outdoor space, that has been kind of turning that model on its head.”

Adventure Journal and Mountain Gazette, for example, have turned to higher-quality print products that eschew heavy advertising in favor of building a subscriber base large enough to fund the publication.

"Those magazines have proven that this kind of model can succeed and that there are people interested and willing to pay a little bit more for high-quality journalism," Wichelns says. “That's kind of where all this came from. Now there's this hole in the backpacking space. … If we're going to try and fill that space, let's do it using this other model that is on the rise right now and has some proven success, and create something that is tangibly different from what it was. Because obviously, what Backpacker was didn’t work.”

While Backpacker and other adventure publications aren't the only magazines with this problem, Wichelns says that the model Outside instituted in 2021 after Robin Thurston took over — combining the Outside name with his company, Pocket Outdoor Media, and folding the many properties he’d acquired into a subscription service called Outside+ — was a particular turnoff for some outdoor media customers.

With Outside+, subscribers get a subscription to Outside magazine, event passes, training plans and the option to select subscriptions to other publications within Outside’s catalogue, including Backpacker, which Thurston acquired in 2021 along with Outside. Wichelns says he understands the need to innovate, but adds that he and others he’s spoken to in the industry don’t understand the appeal of such a subscription.

“Everybody who actually enjoys the magazines was like, ‘What the hell is this? We don’t want this. We didn't ask for this. This is not what we were subscribing to,’” Wichelns remembers. “I've heard from a lot of people who were, frankly, disappointed with what happened over there and were excited to come our way.”

Backpacker’s print demise held a particular sting for Wichelns; not only was he a freelancer for Backpacker, but it was the first magazine he subscribed to, and it gave him a window into the wider backpacking world while he was growing up on the East Coast.

He’s since moved to Ridgway, and while that is technically where Trails Magazine is based, the rest of the small staff lives in Breckenridge, Kansas and Alaska.

To get up and running, Wichelns launched a Kickstarter campaign — netting almost $25,000 when the original goal was $10,000. That extra cash allowed him to pay the rest of the team and the contributors who added content to the issue at a competitive rate, something that was very important after all of his years as a freelancer.

“I felt like if we couldn't do that, we had no business making a magazine,” he says, noting how the people he was able to hire are the reason the final product is as nice as it is. Wichelns and his crew are still freelancing and working on other projects while they build Trails.

The first issue, which came out in February, has the San Juan Mountains on the cover.

Inside, subscribers will find a feature about thru-hiking as a cliché way to deal with depression — something that’s been popularized by movies such as Reese Witherspoon’s Wild — along with a story about backpacking long distances on a skateboard, a backpacking recipe, a photo feature from Lake Clark National Park in Alaska, and a Yelp-style review of an outhouse.

Everything from the size of the magazine to whether copy should use the Oxford comma were decisions that Wichelns and the team made together.

“It was a cool experience to figure it all out from the ground up and to create something,” Wichelns says. “In my freelance experience, all the work that I do, I'm writing something into a box that somebody else has created — whether it's the tone, or the rubric that I'm writing for, or working under somebody else's edits."

So far, Trails has gained enough subscribers to fund the next issue, and he’s happy with its trajectory. The magazine is hosting a launch party from 5 to 10 p.m. tonight, March 24, at Sanitas Brewery in Boulder, with beer, tacos and giveaways. It was important for Trails to celebrate the Kickstarter backers and subscribers who have made the magazine work, Wichelns says.

"This was the first experience that I've had in this realm of creating something out of thin air," he says.
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