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.
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.
- 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.)
- 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)
- 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.
- Check local backcountry regulations and wilderness area rules.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.)
- Identify local water sources.
- Check seasonal weather patterns and temperature ranges.
- Check sunset and sunrise times (See Planning a Hike: Sunrise and Sunset Times.)
- 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.)
- How much food you need to carry for your trip: 2 pounds per day is a good estimating amount that you can refine later.
- 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.
- Assemble the right gear for your trip needs based on the climate, landscape, and backcountry regulations for the area you’ll be hiking in.
- Figure out transportation to and from the trail head. Is a shuttle required? Carpooling?
- 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!