Dan Nelson knows his way around Washington’s woods. As the author of a dozen books on hikes, snowshoe trips, and trails throughout the Cascades, Eastern Washington, and the Olympic Peninsula, he’s logged thousands of miles for research.
“I added it up last year for a biography,” says Nelson, as he searches his pantry for a treat for his new Labrador Sophie. “It was something over 25,000 miles of trails since I started my first book.”
In 1989, as a reporter for Pierce County Herald, and fresh out of Washington State University, Nelson covered general assignment stories, environmental issues, and county government. He enjoyed the demands of the job. He enjoyed even more living in Puyallup and having Mount Rainier in his back yard. As a kid growing up in Dayton, Washington, Nelson had the Blue Mountains nearby and regular trips into the wilderness were just part of his makeup. “I hiked, rode bikes, and basically spent my childhood just playing outdoors.”
Maybe that’s why 18 months after starting at the Herald, he was happy to leave news- papers for a job editing the Washington Trails Association’s magazine. The Trail Association is a non-profit, volunteer-driven organization that promotes hiking and preserves trails in Washington. Besides needing an editor, the association needed a director of communications. Nelson was able to morph his job into that, though with some difficulty since the association’s member numbers were declining. “For one month I was the only person working for this non-profit,” he says. Fortunately the board and a new director turned things around. Today it has around 2,000 members who log 80,000 hours of volunteer work.
While he was at the association, an editor from Foghorn Press called wanting to expand a hiking series to include the Northwest. “They had good timing,” says Nelson. “I was basically living on hiking trails at that point.” He split the project with another writer. “We each did 500 routes and within a year, we wrapped it up,” he says. It didn’t take long to get to the bookstore shelves. “It was pretty incredible to be a book author,” he says. At 24 he was traveling on book signing tours.
But it wasn’t all that glamorous, he says. “Really, book publishing at this level isn’t very lucrative. You have to love trails and love writing.”
It was the 1990s, and hiking in the PNW was booming. Nelson’s next gig was with The Mountaineers writing for their 100 Hikes series. He noticed a demand for specialty series like wildflower hikes, loop hikes, and day hikes, so he pitched a book on snowshoe trails. At first his editors were dubious. “A lot of hikers were figuring out that with snowshoes, they didn’t have to take the winter off,” says Nelson. The first run of the snowshoe book “went instantly,” he says. “And the concept quickly spread as a series throughout the country. It was the book I was most proud of at that point.”
But his favorite success came in 2002 after three years of urging his editors to print a book about hiking with dogs. The Mountaineers discourages hiking with dogs because the canines can damage trails, intimidate other hikers, and threaten wildlife. But Nelson, who had logged thousands of miles with his yellow lab Parka (and almost as many with his partner Donna Meshke) while researching his other Northwest hiking books, knew the joy, as well as the challenges, of being out on a trail with a dog. “My philosophy is that people are going to go out with their dogs, so let’s do it responsibly.” He urges hikers to keep their pets close by and to practice the basics, which include manners, first aid, a backpack, trail treats, water, dog booties for rough areas, and waste disposal equipment. “And, no matter how well behaved and how friendly your dog is, a leash is essential,” he says.
Nelson’s instincts were right again. Best Hikes with Dogs in Western Washington was wildly popular. It had nine printings and this spring Nelson came out with a second edition. “We had something that people craved,” he says. In order to get the book printed, he agreed to write several other books, including Day Hiking: Mount Rainier, and Day Hiking: Snoqualmie Region.
Though so much hiking information can now be found on-line, Nelson thinks the Internet supplements, rather than replaces, the guide books. Online, it’s hard to peruse a selection of hikes and choose the right one for today, he says. At the same time, the books won’t have the latest trail conditions.
Besides writing books, and hiking, Nelson writes columns for The Seattle Times and national outdoor magazines reviewing hiking and camping gear. The up-side is that he gets to try out all kinds of socks, sweaters, backpacks, and boots. There’s a down-side, too. “I’ve had to spend a week of nights in my backyard in ineffective tents and sleeping bags that weren’t as warm as they were rated,” he says. He doesn’t like to mention the leaky coats and painful boots.
He has also found a day job that dovetails with his penchant for the outdoors—that of public information officer for the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency, a governmental agency that enforces clean air standards.
Over the years, Nelson has visited and revisited thousands of Northwest trails and has seen them change. “I’ve gotten to know the political side of it,” he says. When agencies have their budgets slashed, parks close and trails don’t get maintained. He’s even seen some beautiful hikes disappear into clearcuts. At the same time, he is seeing a lot more urban and suburban trails. While they don’t provide the full experience of a wilderness trail, he says, “They are getting people out and walking.”
He hopes it will whet their appetites to go further. “Washington is a special state,” he says. “We have lowland lakes, saltwater tideflats, alpine, and rain forests… We have a greater variety of terrain and ecosystems than just about every other state.
Nelson has his own web site: adventuresnw.net.