Guidebooks on the Go: Turning a Closet Full of Print Guidebooks into Searchable PDFs

  • Updated: February 12, 2019
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

Over the years I've accumulated a fair number of of guide books.  They're a mix of peak guides, rock climbing guides, and the occasional small print book covering the history or fauna of a particular area.

While I personally feel the sources available on the internet have surpassed most of the old print guides I do find that many of them still contain valuable information. For example take Andy Zdon's Desert Summits.  While I find it to be a very frustrating book due to the lack of maps and a few other design choices it does have information on a lot of peaks you won't find elsewhere.

The problem I had with my collection was that I was rarely sitting at home with access to my bookshelf when I wanted to plan trips. In fact I had several really interesting books that I tended to forget about for years at a time.

So for a while now I've been contemplating doing something about this situation. For me the ideal was something digital I could access anywhere on my computer, phone, or tablet. (I have had a few books in digital format for example RJ Secor's Sierra guidebook but the DRM included with the legal purchase disallows copying or printing and most other guides just were not available in anything but paper.)

Enter the great guidebook scanning project of 2018!

It took me a while to pull the trigger on this project because it just seemed wrong to destroy books particularly when it's something that has such a small print run.  Eventually I decided the books weren't doing anything any good sitting around in my closet and I decided it was time.


Scanning itself was relatively straightforward.  A few years back I had used a website called to get a PDF of a single book. The cost has been reasonable and they even accepted shipments direct from Amazon so I could just buy the book myself and have it delivered to them. At the time I paid about $15 + the cost of buying and shipping the book to them.

This time around I had a whole pile of books and the best deal ended up being to sign up for their Platinum membership for a month which included 99 sets (1 set = 100 pages) and then paying for any overcharges.

In addition I bought a few other guides I'd had my eye on and had them shipped directly to the scanner. In the case of one particular book the seller was the publisher and they recognized that I was trying to ship to a scanner and canceled the order. I just reordered the book from a different seller.

I shipped out a box of books and within a few days I received a notice that the books had arrived and that scanning was complete!

That wasn't the end however since the resulting books came out rather large even after using the extra processing features from the scanner. With 36 books I was looking at 7.7 GB of data which was a bit much.

OCR & Reduction

A legitimately purchased (yet DRM stripped) version of High Sierra Peaks Passes and Trails was 68 mb for 504 pages.  Very reasonable but that was without running it through OCR.

The PDF of Desert Summits from was 195 mb for 420 pages with OCR.  Not bad but could be better.

My copy of Sierra Nevada Place Names purchased from a different digital source was 772 mb for 650 pages though it was visibility not very high quality.  So obviously there was room for improvement all around.

After doing some research I can up with a few different options including some that were free but I ended up settling on Adobe Acrobat. It had the best ease of use and resulted in the smallest size and highest quality of anything I tried.

Since Acrobat is the industry standard their pricing is quite high.  The standalone version of Acrobat costs $500+ but with the shift to the subscription model I was able to get a free 14 day trial which turned into a $25 a month subscription with no commitment.

(Also note that when I went to cancel after having been subscribed for a month or two they offered me 3 months free.)

Scans before processing: 7.7 GB
Scans after processing + OCR: 1.3 GB

That was a bit better! Some of the scans were noticeably degraded but everything was perfectly legible for printing or screen reading and now everything was text searchable.

So now I had my digital guidebooks but I had to figure out how to use them.

Storage & Software

This was an area where things changed quite a bit from my initial vision.

My idea was to get a cheap tablet and keep all the scans stored on the device. That way I could lend it out like a book and it would be useful for those remote desert campfires where we start throwing around trip ideas.

So I went looking at inexpensive tablets.

Amazon has a line of tablets called the Kindle Fire which are quite affordable.  I've never owned once before since I preferred the e ink Kindles for reading but it seemed like they might work well for this.

I purchased an 8 inch Fire HD 8 2017 on sale for $49.  The first party case they sell sells for $39 so that should tell you just how aggressively they are discounted.

The $49 version does come with ads on the lock screen but I can always remove those later.  (Also many people have had luck contacting customer support and they will do a one time exception and remove them for free.  YMMV.)

I looked at cheap case options and settled on this one for $14.  It worked reasonably well though I'd prefer a piece of bungie to keep the flap closed.

So I booted up my new Kindle Fire, found it reasonably responsive, and quickly became annoyed with the default interface.

But fortunately the Fire OS is based on an old version of Android meaning you can tweak almost everything.

First thing I changed was Settings -> Security -> Apps from Unknown Sources.  Enabling this allowed me to install the Google Play store and opened up a lot more app options that the Amazon app store.

Next up was Settings -> Apps -> Games -> Home Screens.  Disable Recommendations, Show New Items on the Home Page, and Change Home Page Navigation.  Now you won't get Amazon purchases pushed in your face all the time.

I still wasn't happy with the interface.  It's just far too cluttered since again it's main purpose is to drive everything towards Amazon services.  With minimal effort I was able to install the Google Play store and the Nova Launcher and get something a bit more palatable.

Next up I needed software capable of reading PDFs. In addition I needed to be able to search PDFs with OCR information and ideally I wanted to be able to search multiple folders of files at once.

I went on an app downloading spree and found several that would just crash when opened, a few more than would freeze when trying to read a file bigger than a hundred pages, and a few that worked -ish.

First off there's my all around prefered cloud storage solution Dropbox.  Storing the files there meant they synch across all of my devices and it also has functionality for allowing offline access to files.

The biggest downside was that handing anyone my guidebook tablet would give them access to everything I have on my Dropbox account and my grandmother is very protective of that cookie recipe she gave me.  (Not to mention I might have a few other things on there I really don't want people wandering through.)

Having the tablet offline and the guidebook files saved offline does help this somewhat but you can still see other files on your Dropbox account and access things that it has cached.  I could work around this by setting up a separate dropbox account but after experiencing the Android app losing my offline files multiple times I'd had enough.

The Android Adobe PDF Reader app proved to be a lot better from the search perspective. It loaded PDFs quickly and the way it did text searches was pretty much exactly what I was looking for. Except for the fact it could only search the open document.

It turned out that Microsoft OneDrive was the best overall match. For iOS and from a computer it would allow searching across multiple files and while the interface could be improved it was functional. There are apps for Android and iOS and you can use it from a webbrowser in addition to Windows Explorer. And the storage is included as a perk of an Office 365 subscription.

My biggest annoyance is that you have to search once to find which files the text occurs in and then search a second time to jump to the occurrences in that document so there's still room for improvement.

What I Use Now

So after all that was it worth the time and expense?

Yes...mostly. It's been great having all my guides accessible whenever I want them but the Fire tablet just hasn't been as useful as I originally envisioned. While the idea of having a tablet I can just lend out to people is still appealing the performance issues on 600 page PDFs has caused me to just default back to using my phone or computer to access OneDrive most of the time.

Still, it's a work in progress and the advantage of having the books stored in DRM free PDFs is that I can always try different things in the future. So, if you're reading this and have any feedback or ideas please feel free to reach out.

You Might Also Like