Where do you go for exercise and air amid nature during a pandemic? For more and more people, the urge to escape housebound claustrophobia over the past two years has led to an uptick in local hiking and walking.
And for many of those newly minted explorers in southern Ontario, University of Guelph grad Nicola Ross, B.Sc. ’81, has been the de facto guide to near-urban trail systems through her bestselling Loops & Lattes series of hiking guidebooks.
As of early February, Ross had sold almost 45,000 copies of her self-published regional hiking guides. During the past 18 months alone, she saw sales nearly double in the smaller, independent bookstores that she deliberately targets instead of the large corporate chains.
Her most recent volume published in 2020 is a guide to the Collingwood area – her sixth book since 2015, when she issued her inaugural guide to her own hometown Caledon environs.
All six books have been written, designed, marketed and even delivered in person by what the Kitchener-Waterloo Record this year called a “grassroots celebrity.”
Ross ascribes her recent success to a combination of savvy marketing, a lifetime’s worth of writing and editing, and a love for the environment and the outdoors nurtured partly during her biology undergraduate at U of G.
More recently, she said, more area trail explorers have been seeking an outlet for cabin fever triggered by pandemic lockdowns.
“A lot of people are out there walking who never walked before – to the chagrin of some people who find the trails a bit crowded,” she said. “At the same time, it’s great to see so many people getting out.”
To judge by her sales, many of those hikers are toting copies of her guidebooks on their jaunts. The portable volumes provide detailed explanations of routes, complete with numerous full-colour photos and Ross’s hand-drawn maps that point out natural and cultural landmarks.
Crediting a friend with the idea of loop trails, she said, “People like going in circles. It’s logistically easier to start and finish at the same point.”
As for the other half of the brand, she added, “on some hikes, you can actually get a latte right on the route – isn’t that cool?” For each excursion, users can refer to her listings of restaurants, cafes and coffeehouses along the way.
Growing up on her parents’ 90-acre hobby farm on the Credit River in Caledon, Ross spent time exploring the property and competing in equestrian events. She came to U of G aiming to become a veterinarian.
Her plans changed with the requisite assignment for entering vet school.
“We had to write an essay on: What have been your successes and failures in life and why do you want become a veterinarian? Being a bit cocky, I had no problem with the successes, but I suffered a bit on the failures.”
Instead, she ultimately used the writing and thinking skills developed in her classes as an environmental consultant and as a freelance writer.
Her career stints included publishing an environmental newsletter for oil and forestry industries in Western Canada, consulting on climate change issues worldwide, writing on the environment for newspapers and magazines, and authoring several regional coffee table books in southern Ontario. (Writing is a family affair for Ross: several journalist relatives wrote and edited for the Globe and Mail, and an in-law has been an administrator in Humber College’s journalism program.)
For her birthday in 2013, her partner gave her a life-altering gift: he offered to pay her basic expenses for two years so she could write a book – any book.
It took her six months to zero in on the idea of a hiking guide.
She printed 3,000 copies of her inaugural Caledon guide – a risky gamble that eventually paid for itself. The volume is still selling: “It’s like an Energizer Bunny.”
Since then, she has covered Collingwood, Dufferin, Halton, Hamilton and “Waterloo, Wellington and Guelph.” That last volume, released in fall 2019, has sold about 8,000 copies.
Quoted about “Waterloo, Wellington and Guelph” this year in The Record, David Worsley, co-owner of Words Worth Books in Waterloo, said “it’s a cinch that it’s the bestselling book of the last 15 years.”
At the Bookshelf in Guelph, Barb Minette said, “In 2020 it was our best-selling book by far and is in our top 10 for 2021. These guidebooks are beautifully designed and not only that – they are faithfully detailed. I know because I have used them.”
Besides continuing to revise her existing books, Ross plans more volumes, including guides of trail routes in Niagara and north of Toronto as well as the eastern end of the province. For now, she’s focusing on completing a book about her own hiking experiences that she hopes to publish in 2023.
Pandemic or not, she figures she’s tapped into a growing green movement with her pocket guides.
She recalls working years ago for a not-for-profit group called the Caledon Countryside Alliance. “When I ran the CCA hiking group, I realized how few people knew the local community or landscape. When you’re hiking, you see the countryside from the inside out. When you’re driving, you’re looking into it rather than being in it.
“I realized that when people hiked, they started to appreciate the general environment in a way more heartfelt way than they ever had before.”
Contrasting her current venture with the environmental newsletter she published early in her career, Ross said, “I’m convinced these little hiking guides do more for fostering environmental knowledge. I don’t get into the doom and gloom. People constantly send me notes. They like knowing where to go for coffee.”