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Hiking Route Planning and Local Knowledge

Tuckerman Ravine Trail Closure (2012)
Tuckerman Ravine Trail Closure (2012)

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!

Trail Closures
Trail Closures

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.

Trail Conditions

Forest Service/National Park Notices

 Local Weather

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I run into people who are poorly informed about the areas they’re hiking in because they’ve based their planning on outdated information or incorrectly assumed that weather conditions would cooperate when they planned their trips months in advance.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.


  1. This a great piece. Whenever I try to to hike in a new environment/area. I always try to stop by anywhere you can find friendly locals, such as motels and gas stations. ask the simple questions about the weather, history, etc. You can learn a lot.

  2. Great things to check for.
    Might add fire warnings (no-open-fire areas), water availability as other significant variable conditions. e.g. for the first. Probably falls under another category, but whole areas (encompassing several trails) in a national park we camped in recently had been closed due to deer management.

  3. This is so true. Last year on a hike around Manchester, VT I did not take the time to find out trail conditions and ended up hiking about 5 miles uphill in the sun on a dirt road (read: no shade) before getting to the trail due to storm damage to the access road in the direction I was traveling. That brought my day’s mileage to 20 – far more than I was ready for. Painful lesson learned.

  4. We often wonder how people we see on a river or trail can just decided one day to give it a try without researching anything. Especially the rivers we kayak.

    We have rescued one too many on rapids that they never knew were even on the river. We have also come across so called “hikers” that will stop and ask us if we know where the “end” is.

    I can’t help but laugh to myself.

    • Karen,

      Ummm… well… are you talking about me?

      In 1977 we were camping in North Cascades National Park and my father decided he and I should canoe down the Cascade River. We couldn’t find any info in the park literature on it but we loaded up and turned up the gravel road that paralleled the river valley. As the road ascended the mountains, we didn’t find much in the way of put-ins and rarely saw the river. After a while, I glimpsed a bunch of white through the trees. I had my father stop and we got out to get a better view and came to the realization why there was no information on canoeing the Cascade–it more than lived up to its name and no one with more than two functioning neurons would attempt it in an open boat. We backtracked and had a wonderful trip down the Skagit, a scenic waterway that didn’t require a combination of insanity and death wish to negotiate.

      Later that same vacation trip, we camped on the Clark Fork, west of Missoula, MT. My uncle from Missoula met us there and we decided to get dropped off 13 miles upstream and canoe back to camp. For the most part, the Clark Fork paralleled the Interstate and was relatively tame, so tame that as my father and uncle fished from the canoe, to add to the excitement I purposely ran every spot in my inflatable kayak in the worst place I could find. At one point, I shot a four foot drop while my father and uncle ran the long chute on the other side of the river. I broke my paddle in the process and then, unable to control properly, got caught in a hydraulic at the base of the falls and the kayak rolled, dumping me in, where the current sucked me to the bottom and pounded me against more rocks than I cared to count. I knew I could swim neither up nor down stream so I swam cross current until the remnants of my shredded life jacket popped my bruised and bloody self back to the surface.

      After that, a glum future Grandpa sat in his kayak with half a paddle as his dad and uncle towed him behind the canoe on a rope. The Clark Fork soon lost its tame status and began to get “interesting” as it descended into a canyon we hadn’t seen from the highway. My father and uncle wiped out in a nasty eddy just as the river dropped into a seemingly interminable set of rapids. As my father and uncle swam for shore, I frantically used my half paddle to get our water laden craft to the bank before the canoe and I got swept into the maelstrom. We got out and scouted and as far as the eye could see was white froth licking upward from a steeply falling river gradient. We climbed 400′ out of the canyon, hitched a ride back to camp and returned the next day with ropes and dragged our gear out of the gorge. The following summer, I met the editor of the American Whitewater Journal at Great Falls National Park in Virginia. When I related my story, he told me that four mile stretch of the Clark Fork that we were entering had the roughest water in Montana and that a friend of his gave up and dragged his kayak out of the same canyon.

      Although my uncle was local, he had no knowledge–at least of that part of the river. After twice on the same trip being lax about getting a proper local briefing, we’ve been much better prepared for every downstream adventure since. A little more checking and less assuming would have allowed for much safer expeditions… but then I wouldn’t have all the good stories to tell!

      • Again, I laugh to myself, but at the same time, I am happy you are all ok and live to tell this story. We will all live and learn at some point in our lives. Some just live bigger than others before they learn the lesson.

        Good story though, thanks for sharing it with me.

  5. I love reading your posts because they are so helpful. I was wondering if anyone else who reads this blog hikes in SoCal like I do and would know the kinds of resources listed here, but in my area. Thanks!

  6. Great post. I usually check if the trail I’m going to hike has a website – usually advisories are posted there.

  7. I find preparing for the hIke as much fun as taking the hike! I access all the maps I get my hands on, as well a Satelite Photo’s and then calling the Local Ranger District and the Fish and Game Departments covering that area for Hunting Information. Often it is advisable to Wear an Orange bag over you Pack in a Rain Cover Fashion. I also call ahead to Hotels Motels and Hostels and even sometimes Resturants which may be seasonal. And then three sources of Weather Information a couple of days prior to the Hike. As I stated on another Post, I try to find Old topo Maps of the area, which contain twice to three times as much information as newer maps including Water sources, Old Wells, Mines, Small Lakes, old roads, especially logging Roads which you may need to use should a trail get washed out or a Foot Bridge washed out. I also like to gather information about the Flora and Fauna and Geology of the Region as well as Wild Life and what plants may be eatable in the area…Sounds like a lot of work but it pays off in the end and I enjoy it…

    • We have great old maps of the Whites and they are very informative. I stare at them for hours. Like you, the planning becomes more than planning – it is a discovery process and loads of fun.

      • I grew up around topographic maps and have file cabinets full of them. To me, a topo is like having a good book in my hand. I’ve taken many long journeys by map alone.

        Some years ago, my wife hired a family friend to try to get me “organized”–an endeavor with chances of success about as great as comfortably hiking Mount Washington wearing just shorts and T shirt. I noticed trash bags full of topographic maps and I recovered them. The ensuing conversation with the friend finished something like this:

        “But those are OLD.”

        “Yes, but they haven’t moved the mountains!”

        After the map fiasco, my helper and I joked that her job morphed into hiding the tools we’d left out in the shop.

        That friend joined our family on a number of trips, and yes… we used the OLD maps!

  8. Speaking of topo maps, the newer US Topo USGS 7.5 minute series maps have an aerial photography layer, however, the contour lines come from vector data generated from a point cloud of elevations that smooths over sharp changes in terrain. I much prefer the older 7.5 minute topo quads. They have more detail on the actual terrain, although the information on trails, roads, structures, etc. may be years to decades out of date. Finding some of the older. overgrown, obsolete roads from these has helped me bushwhack on occasion. When I’m hiking, I download and print the older maps on both sides of waterproof paper and carry them with me. I will download the aerial photography (and the maps) to my cell phone/GPS/baby sitting device.

  9. Some time I would like to see your process for route planning for a multiday hike. An example would be the steps you used to plan your route for the TGO.

  10. Excellent Article, Local Knowledge of hiking routes is key to a good hike and potentially finding trail extras that you would not have normally known about like a sweet swimming hole!!

  11. Got a good one today to share with you all. I again was Hiking out the Talladega NF when I came upon a young man and his young lady in their late teens. They asked me if I knew where “Frog Pond” was. I said no, then took out my Topo Map, and my NF provide Map, and the Friends of the Forest Provided Map and could not find Frog Pond anywhere. They told me they had seen a sign on the Forest entry road just off the main highway that said 2 and half miles ahead.. I asked them how long they had been walking, he said, well they parked the truck about a mile back on the side of the road and followed the trail figuring they’d run into the Pond.. I gave them some water and some Beef Jerky and suggested that they retrace their steps back to their Truck and go back to the place they saw the sign and check again. I gave up my Friends of the Forest Map and let them have it..They followed my advice and returned the way they came. I continued on to where I was going did some fishing, caught nothing and returned to my truck. As I was leaving the Forest I took the Road I thought they came in on and yes indeed, 15 feet into the Forest there was a sign that said “Frog Pond” .25 miles…not 2.5 miles but .25 miles..And there it was in amongst the trees a flooded Primitive pond. I did not see them on the road so I guess they made it out OK…

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