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Collaborative Backpacking Trip Planning Tools

Doodle.com Voting and Scheduling Software
Doodle.com Voting and Scheduling Software

Coordinating a backpacking trip with multiple people in it can be a real PITA if you’re hiking with peers and you are not the appointed “it’s-my-way-or-the-highway” leader of a hiking group. Having just completed a trip like this, here are a few tools that I used to facilitate the trip definition process and reduce the work of information sharing between participants including the dissemination of trips plan and emergency contact for spouses.

While I wasn’t the leader for this hike – a Winter Presidential Traverse attempt, I doubt it would have happened if I hadn’t stepped up and helped the participants get organized. It’s ironic in a way, because all of us are hiking and backpacking leaders for the Appalachian Mountain Club and we’re very organized when we can use the club’s scheduling tools to coordinate hikes for other people. But when we need to organize our own “bootleg” hikes, things can get messy!

Conference Call Scheduling

My friend Alan Graham turned me on to Doodle.com (see above) when we were planning a Lightweight Backpacking for Scouts seminar last winter. It’s a free online voting service that you can use to run polls or schedule conference calls where you give participants a number of different times to choose from. All the invitees can see each others’ responses, which encourages them to converge on a common time to hold the call. My hiking friends were impressed when they saw it in action.

Conference Call Service

We held one group call planning call in preparation for this hike where we went over a planning agenda that I put together and distributed beforehand. One of my friends had a conference call number from work which we used, but if you don’t have one there are also lots of free online calling services on the web. I like freeconferencecalling.com the best, but it requires that you make a long distance call to dial into a conference call. On the other hand, it is compatible with VOIP phone services like Skype, which is what I use for most of my voice communications. Skype also has a group calling feature, but it’s a bit cumbersome to set up for each call.

Planning Agenda

I pulled together a planning agenda before our conference call and sent it to all the trip participants. Most didn’t bother reviewing it in advance, but it helped keep the discussion on track and ensure that we hit on all of the key points we needed to review. Given that we were headed into fairly dangerous above-treeline conditions, I wanted to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to define what their personal limits were in terms of risk exposure and that we discussed how and when decisions would be made while we were enroute. We also discussed pre and post-hike logistics, group gear, safety gear, emergency contacts, and group information sharing tools.

While tailored for above treeline winter backpacking, this planning agenda is fairly generic and may come in handy if you need to plan a backpacking trip.

Tuesday 2/26, 7PM – Winter Presi Traver Planning Call

    • Conference Dial-in Number:
    • Participant Access Code: 421438#
    • Define Primary Objective
    • Trip Dates, including staging
      • Route Plan
      • Mileage and elevation per day?
    • Planned Campsite Locations
    • Bailout Routes
      • Valley Way
      • Lowes Path
      • Israel Ridge Trail (to Lowes Path)
      • JewellTrail
      • Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail
      • Edmunds Path
      • Crawford Path
    • Car Spots
      • Appalachia
      • Lowes
      • Base Station
      • Highland Center
    • Risk Tolerance  (Go/No Go
      • What conditions would necessitate trip cancellation or bail out part way?
        • Winds
        • Temperature
        • Visibility
        • New / Pending Storm
      • Would we consider a partial traverse?
      • If one of us has to bail part way, do we all walk out together?
      • How do we resolve disagreements about Go/No Go decisions?
      • If trip is postponed, what is the minimum number of people required to reattempt hike?
    • Decision Point Locations (suggested)
      • Appalachia Lot
      • Valley Way Tentsite
      • Madison Hut
        • Thunderstorm Junction
        • EdmundsCol
        • Sphinx Trail Junction
        • Gulfside/Clay Loop – South Junction
        • Mount Washington Hiker’s Alcove
        • Lakes of the Clouds
        • Edmunds Path
        • Crawford Path Junction north of Mt Pierce
    • Camping
      • Alpine, conditions permitting.
        • WMNF winter camping regulations
        • What weather conditions would abort above treeline camping?
        • Are our tents sufficiently robust for expected conditions?
        • How many tents will we bring?
        • Who is sleeping with whom?
        • What time will we stop each day?
        • What time will we wake up each day?
        • What time will we leave camp each day?
      • Snow Walls
      • CampKitchen and Dining Fly
      • Food plan – individual or group food
      • Fuel Needs per person
      • Leave No Trace Expectations
    • Personal Gear
      • Plastic Boots w/ removable liners
      • Crampons
      • Ice Axe
      • Snowshoes
      • Full face protection
      • -20+ sleeping bag
      • 2 sleeping pads
      • Wind pants/jacket
      • Insulation pants/jackets
      • Etc.
    • Shared Gear
      • Tents: how many?
      • Avalanche Shovels: how many?
      • Stoves: how many?
      • Pots: how many?
    • Emergency Gear
      • Do we need 5 first aid kits?
      • Personal Locator Beacon
      • Cell Phone (s)
      • Etc.
    • Pre-hike Lodging and Arrangements
    • Post-hike Lodging and Arrangements
    • Emergency Contacts
    • Relevant Medical Conditions
    • Shuttle Plan
    • Pre-Trip Assignments

Google Docs: Route Plan, Car Spots, and Emergency Contact Info

After our 90 minute planning call, the vast bulk of our pre-trip preparations were managed using one shared google document that listed our route plan, expected campsites, car spots, license plate numbers and emergency contacts. This is all the information that a SAR rescue team would want if they had to come get us.

I created a Google spreadhsheet and shared it with all of the trip participants so they could edit it dynamically without going through me. I also shared the document with our spouses/partners in view-only mode so they could refer to it in an emergency.

Route Info Sheet and Emergency Contacts
Route Info Sheet and Emergency Contacts

I have to credit Andrew Skurka for showing me the power of Google Docs for group trip planning like this. Andrew uses it for sharing information with all of the participants and guides on his Ultimate Hiker and Advanced Navigation Trips, and I am sold on its utility for this purpose. It completely eliminates giant email threads and keeps group information organized and easily accessible in a device and location independent way.

Summing Up

These online collaboration tools are very useful for planning group hikes where the route is not predetermined by a designated leader in advance and decisions must be made by a group enroute depending on highly dynamic weather, trail conditions and hiker fitness. While I’m sure they will evolve further, I had enough success using them on my last backpacking trip, that I expect to use similar tools for group planning on future backpacking trips and bushwhacks.

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  1. Nice summary and thank you for the resource on free conference call. I found the conference call very helpful. When the group gets big, planning is not longer as simple as meet at the favorite corner cafe. I have questioned about whether continuously using my work number, even though it didn’t cost the company extra, so a free one is much appreciated.
    Google docs has been invaluable for coordinating large group of people. We had a river trip to Alaska last summer, with ~16 participants from 4 states, coordinating flights, carpools, emergency contacts, gear list, action logs etc was surprisingly easy with google docs.

    • That’s a pretty incredible logistics burden! Google Docs really rocks and so do a lot o ftheir other tools like forms, and discussion groups, for keeping all of the threads and one-to-many communications easily retrievable and organized.

  2. Great tips! I use doodle a lot, but i didn’t know about google docs, its seems like a great tool for such a trip! Thanks for the post….

  3. Just Your Average Hiker

    Great Post! Thanks for sharing! The Doodle app is now a new tool in my toolbox, thanks to this post, saving countless group emails for trip planning.

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