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How to Plan a Day Hike

Above Treeline Warning - White Mountains

When I go day hiking in New Hampshire, Vermont or Maine, I usually start preparing a few days in advance by watching the weather forecast and documenting my trip plan. It's a good habit to get into if you hike on mountains or more remote trails. I make a point to leave a copy with my wife, who knows to call the State Police if we're overdue.

Here are the things I research and document in my trip plans:

  • Weather forecast  and weather front trends
  • Read recent trip reports
  • Routes and major landmarks
  • Distance
  • Elevation gain
  • Special gear needs
  • Water crossings and water level
  • Water sources
  • Look up book time in local guidebooks
  • Sunset time
  • Turnaround time
  • Bail out options
  • Parking spot
  • Group review before hike. This is very important.
  • Leave trip plan with a reliable person who will call the State Police is we're overdue.

This kind of preparation is particularly important when you are hiking above treeline or during the winter, which can be very dangerous in New England if conditions degrade. If the weather turns suddenly or someone in your party needs to bail, it's best to have an escape route pre-planned so everyone knows what to do and you don't waste any time getting down or out to safety.

How does my trip planning method compare with yours?

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  1. How long overdue before calling for help?

    It is not uncommon for a hike to take longer than planned so I would not want a call placed immediately. But at the same time, if you are in a serious emergency situation, a couple hours could mean life or death.

    Or do you pad your completion time to count for the unexpected trail delays? I.E. I should be out by x time, but if you do not here from me by y then something is wrong.

    • Keith "Popeye" Rayeski

      I have always told my friends and family, if I say I will be home Tuesday, and I am not home Wednesday, it means I may have a problem BUT, if I am not home or, you have not heard from me by Thursday, it means there IS a problem. I always pack and provide for at least one day of unexpected and…have no doubt I can survive at the minimum, a second day…..but really, unless you are crippling injured of, having some unanticipated medical issue, you should be able to survive until you are located. I am as much into the “minimalist” as the next hiker but, I will NOT sacrifice safety for weight and comfort. I do not want to be “comfortable light” in a box! That is what I enjoy and trust so much of in Phil…..he’s a smart hiker….I like smart…..they live a full life!

  2. Great question. For me, she'll call if it gets past midnight. But it depends on the trip difficulty, season, location, and whether I go solo or not. The info I provide her in my trip plan is intended to help SAR locate my car to see whether it's still there and to retrace my steps.

    For me, calling out the State Police is the final safety net, since I carry a SPOT II satellite beacon and my wife and I have worked out a system for communicating daily status even if I don't have cell service. I can use this device if I'm conscious to send her a delay message if I'm behind schedule.

  3. OK, so midnight, we are talking way late (assuming you do not intend to hike after dark). I can definitely see how the SPOT device is useful in keeping the wife informed.

  4. I agree very much with the sentiment of leaving a trip plan (I normally leave a map with the route marked) and a time to call. If you learn nothing else from Aron Ralston's experience! I also check the weather continuously – in the UK it's so changeable that this is essential. Also, it allows you to get a sense of what has gone before as well as what might be coming which will also tell you what the ground might be like underfoot. If you're hiking alone, preparation becomes even more crucial.

  5. I have become a bit of a weather forecaster myself. It's an incredibly useful skill for evaluating risk, particular in winter, and in July, when we get a lot of heat induced thunderstorm activity. We are close to the coast in a semi-maritime climate, but the UK must be nuts! The weather just races cross country before you can say Roger!

  6. Very similar planning methods! Thanks for the list, it's always nice to double-check.

    I think it's extremely important to continually check the weather, you don't want to be surprised or not prepared. Anyone have recs on good GPS or portable weather stations?

  7. Good info! We also like to look at reports of wildlife in the area so we know if a mountain lion or bear has been recently spotted on/near the trail we’ll be on. This info doesn’t really go in our trip plan per say, but definitely gets noted as we plan.

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