WayZada is the Company Making 3D Prints of Your Thru-Hikes

The package was lighter than I thought it would be, the contents hidden under layers of bubble wrap. When I finally dug through the protective packaging, I had a 3D-printed replica of Jeff’s exact GPX track from his Colorado Trail record. It looked like an abstract sculpture, but each peak and valley represented his footsteps—the actual climbs and descents from the 486-mile trail. I’d also ordered a profile and baseplate, with his name, time, and the trail details etched into the profile.

I’d been racking my brain trying to figure out a birthday present for Jeff (men are hard to buy for) and when the new company started following me on social media, I looked at what they made, and it was a no brainer to order one.

When I first looked into WayZada, they were mostly making 3D prints of runners’ road races, including custom baseplates with race details. I sent them a message, asking if they could print a trail or thru-hike. The answer was an enthusiastic Yes. We went back and forth with messages and mockups, coming up with two models: the copper-colored, sculptural route, and the stark black-and-white profile with his record details, including trail name, distance, and time.

How WayZada Started

A 3D-printed route from Jeff’s Colorado Trail GPX track. I also had a profile made with a printed baseplate and details of the record.

WayZada began as the brainchild of Rob Henschel and Adam Ward, friends and neighbors in Indiana. Robert works with supercomputers, and is the Director of Research Software at Indiana University.

Adam is an Associate Professor at the same school. He is a hydrologist, studying pollutant transport and remediation in streams and rivers. Both are tech-savvy, avid runners on the lookout for new projects.

This past June, a few friends ran the Goggins Challenge. After completing 12 separate runs, Adam and Robert came up with the idea to stitch those runs together and produce 3D prints of them as a custom trophy for the team, using data from the runners’ fitness trackers.

“The stories and memories came pouring out,” says Adam. “Here is the steep climb that nearly broke us in the middle of the night. Who knew that one trail segment was so low in elevation… no wonder the climb was so rough.”

They continued experimenting with their own runs, then started offering the prints to the running and hiking community. They combined Adam’s GIS experience and 3D printing with Robert’s IT skills and small business experience. By the next month, they’d started a company and were expanding to trails across the US.

Custom-printed route and profile from Julia “Rocket” Sheehan’s Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Courtesy of WayZada.

“The best part is interacting with our customers,” says Adam. “We learn about new events and trails and get to share in their stories of epic hikes. The surprise gifts are a favorite—we work with a spouse, friend, parent, child, or coach to design something special. We play a part in commemorating these special achievements.”

I worked with Adam and Robert to figure out the best way to represent the Colorado Trail, after which they printed the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. I asked if they were interested in stocking the shelves at outfitters or on-trail visitor centers, but they weren’t keen on the idea. The customization is what makes their prints special. They want to be able to put the trail name, the time, the hiker’s GPX track (if they have it), and custom icons at significant mile markers.

How it Works

The process is somewhat confounding to me, and I had to repeatedly tell them that to the average person, the process of 3D printing is both fascinating and still somewhat unbelievable.

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Hikers—or friends and family of the hiker—start by ordering via their website, but it’s a communication-heavy process. The web order just provides a starting point with the trail info, customization, and color preferences. From there, the design process is highly collaborative—they work with each customer on the design from start to finish before anything is printed.

They start with a GPS track of the route. They love when the person has their own tracker data to turn into a 3D model, but they’re also more than happy to source the route elsewhere.

“If the data aren’t available,” they said, “we are able to reconstruct hikes and events from maps and notes—we haven’t met an activity we couldn’t reconstruct.”

Printing another Appalachian Trail route, with the state lines. Courtesy of WayZada.

They’ve done everything from hand-written notes on a paper map—which they converted into digital coordinates for locating the topography—to converting fitness trackers, app data, and combining mapping software with all of the above.

Interacting with the customers and understanding their trail experience is the best part of the process for Adam and Robert. “Learning why they want a specific icon at a particular bend in the trail, and hearing them ask about possibilities is what keeps us on our toes,” says Robert.

From there, they work with spatial data. This means manipulating the information, filling in gaps, or reconstructing portions of the route where someone forgot to start tracking after packing up camp. They are data fiends, and are constantly discovering new databases and building out tools to help make this process more efficient.

The raw materials for the 3D print. Courtesy of WayZada.

The process is always evolving. They’ve printed more than 100 individual routes, and over 37,000 miles of trail so far. They now have an interactive visualization tool, where each customer gets a link to interact with their data in 3D and see how it looks as an elevation profile and a fully 3D route.

Once the customer is happy with the mockup and the details, the printing starts. Since everything is custom, they don’t keep any routes on hand, just the raw materials. The prints are made from a plastic filament that comes on a spool—it looks like a large reel of colored plastic “wire.” The filament itself is made of a biodegradable plastic derived from plant starches, then dyed to achieve its color. There are options for different additives that give some materials a metallic or silky finish, while others are matte.

With the design finalized and colors selected, the model is sent to the 3D printer. The filament is drawn into the printer, melted, and then extruded from a nozzle to build the product out of layers that are 0.1-0.3 mm thick.

Printer at work. Courtesy of WayZada.

“This is a high precision, hard-plastic version of squeezing frosting out of a tube,” says Adam, trying to explain it in terms I can understand. “You can also think of it as stacking layers of soft-serve ice cream to make a cone.”

Since the process is apparently so interesting to people who don’t work with GIS or, you know, supercomputers, they recently started recording time-lapse videos of each print so customers can get a sense of what happens behind the scenes as their trail models objects are built up from hundreds—or thousands—of ultra-thin layers.

These custom prints fit into the gift category for parents, family, and friends of thru-hikers, who run into the question every birthday, holiday, and new trail completion. What do you get someone who is very picky about their gear, probably has more than they need, and likes to live in the woods for months on end? As WayZada gears up for thru-hiking season, that’s exactly what they’re hoping for.

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