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How to Plan a Day Hike

Above Treeline Warning - White Mountains

When I go day hiking or backpacking, I begin preparing a few days in advance by watching the weather forecast and documenting my trip plan. It’s a good habit to get into especially if you hike in the mountains or on more remote trails. I make a point to leave a copy with a relative or trusted friend, who knows when to call 911 or 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
  • Recent trip reports
  • Routes and major landmarks
  • Distance
  • Elevation gain
  • Special gear needs
  • Water crossings and water level
  • Water sources
  • Look up time estimates in local guidebooks
  • Sunset time
  • Turnaround time
  • Bail out options
  • Parking spot
  • Group review before the hike. Everyone should know the plan.
  • Leave a trip plan with a reliable person who will call the State Police if we’re overdue. This includes the precise time in which they should call for help. It depends on the route and time of year, but I usually add specify a time that’s about 12 hours later than when I expect to finish. I also carry an inReach mini 2 satellite messenger on my hikes so I can contact search-and-rescue earlier if required or send my emergency contact a text message with the inReach mini 2 if we’re running late and I have satellite connectivity.

This kind of preparation is critical when you will be 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.

  8. Other things that I do preparing for a hike: First I don’t pick the hike, I pick the day and the area that has good weather – benefits of being retired. I give a series of options to my hiking buddies and let them pick their prefered hike. The list includes: driving distance/time, hiking distance and elevation gain. I find members of the group will independently check, fire activity/smoke, stream flood constraints, ferry reservation availability, recent trip reports and any other concerns – which will affect the hike choice.
    Once the hike is chosen, I put together a rough itinerary, most important of which is the estimated hiking time: so, I can estimate the energy and water to bring; and make decisions if and where to source water along the hike (makes a big difference to pack weight).
    I load my phone with the route on two different hiking aps. I print out three copies of the hiking map and annotate them for the three audiences: one for my family to be left on the table at home, one for a ziplock bag in my pack (in case my electronics fail) and one to leave on the dash of the car (in case of a rescue party needing the info confirmation). Info annotated on these map copies includes: car description and plate number, cell phone number, satellite text address, names of hiking group.
    If hiking with a larger club group I also try to obtain everyone’s satellite and cell numbers before heading out. Just in case we get split up.
    And, there is the gear selection, which is dependent on trail conditions, expected weather, …

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