Why do people get lost or need to be rescued when they take a hike or journey into a backcountry area? One of the chief reasons is a lack of preparation and planning.
One way to prepare yourself is to write up a trip plan to help you assess different route options and determine if you need to bring extra gear, food, or water on your trip. A trip plan helps ensure that the route you want to take is a good match for the time you have available and the people you plan to go with.
Leave a copy of your trip plan with a trusted friend or relative who can call search and rescue if you don’t come home or contact them by a certain time. If they have your trip plan and know who to contact, they can call search and rescue to come and find you if you’re lost or injured. If you’ve followed your trip plan, it reduces the area that search and rescue teams have to search to find you.
A topographic map is one of the primary sources of information that you’ll use to create a trip plan. But there are other good sources of information that you might refer to including a guidebook, weather forecasts, and sunrise and sunset times. Seasonal information like river gauge levels or avalanche forecasts can also be important to assess the safety of stream crossings or backcountry ski routes.
Estimated Travel Time
When planning a trip, it’s important to estimate how long it’s going to take you to hike your chosen route. If it’s a day hike, you’ll want to finish it before the sun sets. It’s much more difficult to follow trails at night and it’s easy to get lost. If it’s a backpacking trip, you’ll want to make sure you have enough time each day to hike between your intended campsites and that you complete the trip within the time you’ve allotted. Planning travel times is also useful if you plan on hiking in a group, so you can screen out people who won’t be able to keep the pace.
When planning, list the trails you plan to follow and the distance you need to travel on each one. If it’s a multi-day trip, break out your distance estimate by day to see if it’s reasonable or whether you need to redistribute the distance across more days.
Estimated travel time = Pace per hour on flat terrain + 30 minutes for every 1000 feet of elevation gain
The amount of time required to hike a trail is a combination of your pace when hiking on flat ground + the extra time it takes you to hike uphill.
If you’re using a guidebook to plan your route, you can often find the cumulative amount of elevation gain along it. You can also derive the amount of elevation gain by adding up the contours on a topographic map, but don’t subtract the corresponding descents. Be sure to do this for every hill or mountain along your route: subtracting the elevation at the beginning of your trip from the elevation at your final destination is insufficient.
If you’re hiking or backpacking, there is a well-established formula that you can use to get a good estimate of how long it will take you to walk a given distance and elevation gain. When hiking off pavement, most people walk at a 2 mile per hour pace, plus 30 minutes for each 1000 feet of elevation gain.
Here are some examples of how to use that information to compute an estimated hike time.
- For 6 miles with 500 feet of elevation gain, the estimate is 3 hours + 15 minutes
- For 10 miles and 4000 feet of elevation gain, the estimate is 5 hours + 2 hours
- For 16 miles and 9000 feet of elevation gain, the estimate is 8 hours + 4.5 hours
You can adjust the formula if you walk faster (on average) or slower on level ground, by substituting a different number for the mile per hour element of the equation. In winter, I’ve found that substituting 1 mile per hour for 2 miles per hour leads to good travel time estimates since surface conditions usually require the use of snowshoes or crampons.
Now that you have the total distance and elevation gain of your route, how do you decide if you’re physically fit to complete it or if you’ve bitten off more that you can chew? Everyone is different, but use previous experience as your guide. If you’ve never done that much distance or elevation gain per day before, or carried as heavy a pack previously, be more conservative in what you plan to accomplish. Once you establish a baseline, you can build on it on subsequent trips.
While you’d think checking the weather forecast the day of your hike would be common sense, you’d be surprised by the number of hikers who don’t do it. Proceeding with a trip in poor weather or without proper clothing, equipment, and experience can lead to serious problems if you plan on venturing into hazardous terrain. There’s nothing wrong with postponing or cancelling a hike when the weather is crappy.
When checking the weather forecast, it’s also important to differentiate between a valley forecast and a higher elevation forecast, since bad weather at higher elevations is almost always more severe than weather at lower elevations. The potential danger is the highest when hiking above treeline where you’re not protected by tree or vegetation cover, because:
- Higher wind speeds can blow you off your feet and make it difficult to walk.
- Cold temperatures and wind chill can heighten the risk of hypothermia or frostbite.
- The change of surface from dirt to boulder fields increases the chance of lower leg injuries.
- Heavy cloud cover increases the chance of becoming disoriented if you don’t have navigation tools.
- The risk of being struck by lightning is greatly increased when you leave tree cover.
NOAA has many good online tools for forecasting backcountry and mountain weather conditions on the Weather.gov website. Many people also like to refer to the Mountain Forecast website for a different presentation of the same information.
Sunrise and Sunset Information
I constantly see search and rescue reports about hikers who have been caught out after dark without headlamps. While carrying a headlamp on hikes is a must-have, I suspect the reason that hikers are “benighted” also has to do with underestimating travel times (covered above) and not knowing how many hours of sunlight there are in the day. This is important to check, especially in late autumn when the length of days gets incredibly short.
Trails become much more difficult to follow after sunset, even if you have a headlamp, because you have far fewer visual cues to help you see where the trail is. If you’re hiking on an un-blazed or poorly blazed trail, it can be very easy to lose the trail if the ground is covered with rocks or roots. It’s even worse in autumn and early spring, when the ground is covered with dead leaves that hide any evidence of other hikers’ tracks and footprints.
Parking and Vehicle Information
Including the location of your parking spot and vehicle information in your trip plan is useful if search and rescue has to come looking for you. If you’ve left a trip plan with a relative or trusted friend, they can email the entire trip plan to SAR, including this information.
The first thing SAR will do is to check your parking spot to see if your car is there. If it’s not, they’ll assume you hiked out already. If it is, then they can follow your route and try to locate you on foot or from the air. If you change your plans or don’t park your car where you said it will be in your trip plan, it’s important to communicate this fact to the person you’ve entrusted your trip plan with before you begin your trip.
This has been a quick synopsis of the trip planning process and the type of information to include in a trip plan. I go through this same check list when I plan and document my day hikes and backpacking trips, leaving a copy of my trip plan with my wife. Going through the process of planning a hike in this much detail usually doesn’t more than 30 minutes and can be useful for sharing trip details and assumptions if you hike and backpack with other people. It’s also a good planning aid to make sure that you’ve packed the right clothing and gear for a trip, particularly for more challenging trips in remote locations.