Trip Planning Mistakes

Sherpa and Wysteria (top) of Mt Jefferson in New Hampshire, several years later

Sherpa and Wysteria (top) on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire, several years later

When Wysteria, Sherpa, and I arrived at the trail head we found 4 foot snow drifts covering the trail. It was late March, and we’d planned to backpack north over Mt Greylock past the Massachusetts/Vermont border. We knew that there might be some lingering snow in the early spring, but we had no idea winter would still be in full force. Scratch that trip.

I’ve since learned to wait until mid-April before hiking the AT in Western Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire for lingering winter snow to melt off.

More Trip Planning Goofs

I consider myself a pretty good trip planner, but I’ve still made lots of trip planning mistakes or omissions over the years that are comical or just plain embarrassing.

Here are a few select nuggets:

  • The time I parked my car seven miles farther down the Appalachian Trail from where I’d expected to find it, so I had to keep walking when I thought I’d finished my hike.
  • The time I ran out of food on an overseas hike and ended up eating cans of baked beans I found in a shelter until I could get to a town to resupply.
  • The time I found that the trail I’d planned to backpack had been washed away two years earlier and was closed by the Forest Service. That required a complete trip reroute at the trail head.
  • Multiple times when high water crossings have forced me to make extended detours. This is something I could have figured out with a little local knowledge and closer attention to stream crossings on the map.
  • Times when I didn’t test meals at home before bringing them on a hike and they turned out to be disastrously inedible.
  • Where I underestimated the impact of a physical limitation and was forced to get off the trail and figure out a shuttle back to my car in the middle of rural Maine. This is harder and more expensive than it may sound!
  • Times where I’ve brought too little sleep insulation and had a long cold night.
  • When I underestimated the amount of fuel required to prime an alcohol stove in cold weather.
  • The time I figured I could hitch-hike 10 miles back to my car, but never got a ride and had to walk it.
  • All of the times I’ve carried way more food than I actually ate.

With experience, the number of such trip planning mistakes does drop, but you still need to be on guard and pay attention to what you’re doing. If anything, you need to become an even more meticulous planner, particularly if you’re hiking outside your comfort zone where trip planning mistakes can have real consequences.

Route Planning

Route Planning

A Trip Planning Guide

While none of my trip planning mistakes have been serious enough to get me killed, many have caused discomfort, expense, or inconvenience that I could have done without.

Here’s a check list of trip planning tasks for day hikes and backpacking trips that might go beyond the planning activities you engage in today.

  1. Plot the route on a map or in a digital mapping tool. Double check the route with a guidebook or paper based map since digital mapping tools can significantly underestimate distance (See Distance Discrepancies Between Digital Mapping Tools, Paper Maps, and Guidebooks.)
  2. Estimate how many days your route will take you to hike. Be realistic. How many hours per day will you hike? How fast can you hike? How many hours of daylight are there? (See Route Planning: Book Time)
  3. Depending on the trip, plot out bad weather escape routes or car-drops where you can hike out if conditions or health issues warrant an early exit.
  4. Check local backcountry regulations and wilderness area rules.
  5. Find trip reports or other recent condition updates about the route you plan to hike, including fire restrictions, trail conditions, high water crossings, snow depth (ice melt), etc (See Hiking Route Planning and Local Knowledge.)
  6. Write a description of what you expect to see or experience every quarter-mile along the route. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to miss things on the map because you only use it to compute mileage and elevation gains. For example: steep climbs, view points, tree cover, and so forth. This extra planning step makes you look at the map at a fine level of detail.
  7. If backpacking, try to identify good camping spots along your route if you are not staying at shelters or designated campsites (See How to Select a Good Campsite.)
  8. Identify local water sources.
  9. Check seasonal weather patterns and temperature ranges.
  10. Check sunset and sunrise times (See Planning a Hike: Sunrise and Sunset Times.)
  11. Determine the type of stove/fuel combination you need based on weather and fuel supply availability (See How to Choose a Backpacking Stove and Pot.)
  12. How much food you need to carry for your trip: 2 pounds per day is a good estimating amount that you can refine later.
  13. Test your food in advance if eating it for the first time, especially specially packaged backpacking foods. You don’t want to find that your food is awful at the beginning of a multi-day trip. This includes cooking it using the stove system you plan to bring.
  14. Assemble the right gear for your trip needs based on the climate, landscape, and backcountry regulations for the area you’ll be hiking in.
  15. Figure out transportation to and from the trail head. Is a shuttle required? Carpooling?
  16. Write up a trip plan to leave with a friend or relative in case you are overdue.
    • When to contact authorities if you are overdue.
    • Who to call, including phone number.
    • Where you parked your car.
    • What your route plan was, including escape routes if any.
    • What gear you are carrying.

Hiking and backpacking trips start well before you ever get to the trail head. Becoming a good trip planner is an important skill in becoming an expert hiker or backpacker. But practice makes perfect, so start practicing now!

Have you made any memorable trip planning mistakes?

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22 Responses to Trip Planning Mistakes

  1. Louis Brooks March 27, 2014 at 7:16 am #

    Wow, reading your list of mistakes was like a walk through my backpacking history. Untested food that tastes like wet cardboard. Check! Cold nights due to not enough insulation. Check! Unknown trip reroutes. Check! Miss estimating mileage. Check! Carrying twice as much food as you needed. Check! Fortunately I have lived and learned to hike another day. Thanks for sharing your guidelines, I picked up a couple of tricks to add to my own process.

    • planB March 27, 2014 at 11:23 am #

      Twelve hours without water is very unpleasnt and unforgetable. Now I carry too much water weight out of fear of a repeat of that mistake.

      • Philip Werner March 27, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

        Had the same thing happen to me on the Maine AT during a drought. That was bad.

        • louisfbrooks March 27, 2014 at 12:43 pm #

          My very first backpacking trip after a 20 year hiatus I ended up hiking without water for close to 15 miles. It was down near the coast here in Florida and several of the water sources I was depending on had turned brackish after the last hurricane came through. Spent one night and half the next day without drinkable water. I was so happy to come across a fresh water pond even if the water was dark brown after filtering.

  2. Bronson W. March 27, 2014 at 8:46 am #

    Oh. Yeah,
    I definitely can look back and see the same mistakes I made years ago.
    I actually remember running out of water while hiking trough the “Namibe desert” in 1995. That was a crazy. Luckily..
    Letting my map get soaked in the rain in Gaborone, Botswana.
    Today we still are making mistakes, but looking back it seemed ridiculous.

  3. Carl March 27, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    Your post elicited a knowing smile… been there, done that! One of the dumbest/funniest mistakes I made was when I was day hiking on a business trip in El Paso. I parked my rental car at the trailhead armed with an optimistic appraisal of how long the Ron Coleman Trail would take me and inadequate knowledge of when the gates for the park would close. Needless to say, the difficult trail was made more difficult by routefinding errors (including sweating through my copy of the map until it was unreadable), and when I got back to the car, the park gates were locked for the night. I had the choice the next morning to be late for my meeting or show up looking and smelling like I’d had a hard hike and slept in the back seat of a Honda Civic!

  4. Wystiria March 27, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    my favorite moments when something has gone wrong (typically nothing big for us) is inevitably one of us says “Who planned this trip anyway!”

    Like the 3rd time we were trying to complete the NY AT and we found ourselves attempting to cross the Palisades parkway at 4pm on the Friday before memorial day……

  5. eddie s. March 27, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    Leaving the Map at home for a Cross Country Trip in the Mojave Desert was not a good idea. I continued on any way and suddenly realized on the second day that I could not recall all the known water cashe spots and secondary known natural ones along my Route. It got ugly. One trick I learned to do was to Graph out on paper the Elevation Changes during preplanning that I learned from some Guidebooks of the PCT. I found that doing that greatly inhanced my knowledge of the area and really helped me make the Right decision. Very.Bad Commerically prepared Foods is or was my next mistake. Teriyaki anything makes me sick and I did not know that seems my body does not like Soy sauce and Ginger combination and I had 3 packages of it cause I got it on Sale. Another Mistake, taking my self inflatable Air Mattress on a Desert trip where I slept under a Tarp on the ground leaving the ground cloth at home to save weight which was replaced by water weight. Ssssssssssssssss kerflat! And not bringing a repair kit which would have been useless anyway. #1. Mistake..Big Big Big Mistake….Bringing alone a totally incapable female companion who was totally out of her element…Oh it was bad….The funniest, or the most Humorist, or the Most funny stories coming out of a hike Mistake? Leading a macho testosterone ladened group of Deputy Sheriff’s on a Sierra 16 mile two night round trip hike…Oh I got stories..I actually think I got a promotion for keeping my mouth shut..LMAO from the memory of that hike…….

  6. Scott March 27, 2014 at 9:42 am #

    My 3 boys and I had quite a change of plans when our alcohol stove fouled the first night of a 3 night trip. I use a mix of alcohols (3:1, methanol:isopropanol). The isopropanol supplier (Red Heet) started including fuel injector cleaner in the product just before this trip. It dawned on me as my stove flame slowly shrank that the oily residue of the fuel injector cleaner was plugging up my fiberglass wick. As the alcohol evaporated and burned, the oily fuel injector cleaner accumulated in the wick. Now we always make our blend using 90% isopropanol from the pharmacy!

  7. Roger March 27, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    Sounds familiar.
    Early days.
    Returned home with 6 lbs of food.
    Complete as hoc improvised trails since maps/roads were washed out on an island.
    Water source was a mosquito swarm of mud
    Parked at the bottom parking lot added 1 extra mile to trailhead.
    Slept shivering on a summit in a badly labeled 40F before I knew they were all lying marketing gimmicks.

    Live and learn.

  8. Liz March 27, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    I’ve had cold nights from not enough insulation and carried way too much food, but give me time and I’m sure these other mistakes will happen to me too.

    Oh, and there was the time I was doing a long run last winter in Vermont (not hiking-related per se but still relevant) and the road I needed to complete my loop was closed for the season. Had to call my friend to bail me out or else I would’ve run 24 miles that day instead of the planned 18.

  9. John March 27, 2014 at 10:38 am #

    Making sure my hiking partners are prepared for the trip has been a theme for me. Reaching the summit of a Catskills peak after dark when my buddy announces that he forgot his sleeping bag. Day 5 of an 8 day trip when my two hiking partners are running out of food. Day one of a 5 day Olympic park traverse and two members of the 4 person group take a different trail hiking out of the river valley- eventually making it back to the trail head after dark completely oblivious that they were hiking alone for hours. My girlfriend running out of panic when the night was closing in on the AZ trail. – falling injuries and cougar bait we’re my concerns with that one. My beginner mistakes years ago include putting my food in anearby

    • Philip Werner March 27, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

      Sounds like you should try solo backpacking….

      • John March 27, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

        That may solve a lot of my problems!

  10. John March 27, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    My beginner mistakes include trying to store my food in a near by stream and raccoons eating it all. Hanging food on a branch in Yosemite and the bears ate it. Not testing my tent and having it leak horribly on the first night. Having no rain gear whatsoever and being close to hypothermia. A 35 mile trip became a 60 mile trip when the bridge was washed out on the road in tithe trailhead . Sleeping on the ground witha summer weight sleeping bag. And no ground pad in February. Getting naseaus eating carob chip laden trail mix. Having no idea there would be snow on my route in April in the Olympic park. Having no bug protection. Shelter on the Ny AT in July. And the list goes on…..

  11. Seth March 27, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

    The water mistakes reminds me of hiking in the Bigelows with my son. Hiking in 90 degree weather, I asked him if he would help even our loads by taking some of our gear in my pack. So he took all the water out of my pack to help lighten my load. Soon after, he disappeared down the trail and out of sight. (mistake #2, always stay together) A couple of hours later, I dove my head into a stream and drank plenty figuring it couldn’t be any more harmful than heat stroke which was starting to look like a sure thing.

  12. Greg Brouelette March 27, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    “All of the times I’ve carried way more food than I actually ate.”

    Every . . . Single . . . Time

    I seem to do this on every trip. I always forget that my appetite drops for the first day or 2.

  13. Higgins March 28, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    this year was my first year snow shoeing, and that trip over greylock mt. was challenging there was a big snow melt when i moved up trail from october mt. there was only about 4-5 inches in Cheshire. I almost left my snow shoes behind, little did i ever imagine there was two-three feet of snow between mark noepel shelter and bascom lodge. it was a great experience with great views and glad i snow shoed, i often spend to much time planing. but have often made some errors and bring two much food now hearing how much snow they got up there i’m glad i ended my trip at the north end of greylock and didn’t continue on to vt. I left two days before they got the last big snow fall in the middle of march. water freezing up and filter, baby wipes, ect freezing up during that polar vortex, changing my winter gear to accommodate now. I kept most of it on me and warm but shifting stuff around and leaving it out in camp for a few min was all it takes, now going to carry astringent for cleanliness on long winter hikes

  14. Grannyhiker March 28, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    Another backpacking history that sounds just like mine! We do learn a lot from the experiences, though! Well, most of the time–I still took way too much food on my last trip (overestimated appetite of teenage grandson).

    My biggest problem in more recent years came from not allowing an extra day or two for contingencies. I ended up learning this one the easy way. On one trip (planned to be major), my dog got sick the second day and continued to upchuck on the third day. I turned around, not wanting to be stuck miles from any trailhead with a veterinary emergency (fortunately, after a couple days of rest the dog was fine). This turned out to be a good thing, because otherwise I’d have been camped well above timberline (at Elbow Lake in Wyoming’s Wind Rivers for those who know the area) when over a foot of snow hit that lasted a couple of days. I hadn’t factored that into my schedule, so the dog and I would have had a couple of foodless days and my anxious relatives would probably have called SAR. Since then I’ve planned in a couple of contingency days for longer trips. If there is no contingency, I can always exend the end of the trip a day or two.

  15. Grandpa March 28, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    My best stories come from creative bad planning.

  16. happy hiker April 1, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    I once did a multi-day hike and didn’t expect the temperature to drop well below zero – I froze at night and didn’t sleep at all since I didn’t have proper insulation and gear.

    • Grandpa April 1, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

      So… you weren’t a “Happy Hiker” on that trip, were you?

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