You should never underestimate the importance of local knowledge when planning a backpacking route or day hike. Trail conditions tend to change far more quickly than the reference information coded in maps or guidebooks and the only way to factor in that information is to refer to local sources.
Here are a few examples of local knowledge that can completely derail or significantly alter a trip if not researched and discovered in advance:
- Trail closures
- Shelter closures or removals
- Seasonal road closures
- Fire closures
- Avalanche danger
- Land slides
- High water crossings
- Flash flood warnings
- Bridged (frozen) stream crossings
- Frozen lakes and ponds
- Rerouted water courses, usually from floods
- Bridge washouts
- Bridge removals
- Localized bad weather patterns, such as seasonal thunderstorms or high wind
- Ice danger on very steep routes
- Snow depth
I’ve experienced every one of these issues on day trips or backpacking trips in the past few years, some requiring minor route changes and others requiring a complete last-minute change-of-plans!
Local Knowledge Sources
Finding this information can be tricky if you don’t know someone local who is knowledgeable about the terrain, trail system, and weather patterns in an area. Local knowledge is always the most up to date and best informed and you should seek it out.
Here are a few good places to look. I’ll give you a few of the local examples I use here for route planning in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. You can find similar resource collections like this in the Pacific Northwest and Adirondacks, and other places that have sufficient hiker populations.
- Local hiking bloggers who write trip reports – these are very valuable!
- Trip report forums: New England Trail Conditions, Views from the Top, Hike-NH
- Trip report aggregation engines: TrailsNH.com
- Online trail guides: Appalachian Mountain Club, White Mountain Guide Online
Forest Service/National Park Notices
- Seasonal road closures: WMNF Forest Roads status
- Trail and area closures: WMNF Hurricane Irene damage
- Avalanche forecasts: Mount Washington Avalanche Forecast
- Timber, mining, or construction closures: WMNF Current Projects
- Higher Summits Forecast: Mt Washington Observatory
- Lower Elevation forecast: Mt Washington Valley Forecast
- Snow depth: AMC Snow Stake Depths; Bretton Woods Nordic Ski Conditions
- Seasonal temperatures and rainfall: Mt Washington Normals, Means, and extremes
Expecting the Unexpected
Hiking and backpacking require great self-reliance and judgement for coping with unexpected situations. That’s part of what makes them so challenging and fun. But all too often, I run into people who are poorly informed about the areas they’re hiking in because they’ve based their planning on outdated information or incorrectly assumed that weather conditions would cooperate when they planned their trips months in advance.
If there’s one thing you CAN count on during a hiking or backpacking trip, it’s that conditions on the trail, off-trail, and the weather will often be different from what you expected. Foreknowledge is the best preparation however, and if you can find more up-to-date local information in advance, you’ll be much better prepared for your journey.