AMC Outdoors, April 2002
By Michael Lanza
It was my first big trip to the West. Two friends and I mapped out a five-day backpacking trip through Yosemite National Park. Soaring granite cliffs, tremendous waterfalls, real big mountains—I trembled with excitement for weeks before getting on the plane.
Looking at a map of Yosemite now, I’m amazed that we thought we could walk our intended route in five days. We had scaled back the distance once during pre-trip phone conversations and on the trail found ourselves forced to moderate our goals again. Apparently, the contour intervals leaping upward through numbers like 7,000, 8,000, and 9,000 feet seemed unimposing from our kitchen tables. All those squiggles on the map where the trail compressed itself like an accordion had left little impression on us. And we didn’t consider that we might wilt in the high-altitude sun beneath packs that resembled family-size refrigerators.
Sure, a backcountry journey sometimes involves physical hardship. But whether you’re heading out for a weekend or that big dream trip, suffering unnecessarily because of bad planning is as dumb as dirt. Planning well also makes your trip safer: The decisions you make before setting foot to trail can head off the epic that becomes a funny story only long after you’re home.
Before the Trip
The first question addresses the big picture: Where to go? Some people pick a destination based on something they read or heard. Whether you do that or start from scratch, there are numerous decisions to make before jetting or driving off someplace that will affect the quality of your trip.
Learn about the place and find out whether it has what you want. Are you looking for forests, alpine lakes, wildlife, or mountain views? Do you prefer a remote wilderness experience with few other people, or want to see a well-known place that probably draws crowds? Are you comfortable only on trails that are well marked and maintained, or willing to attempt paths that are rough and difficult to follow? Find out about the condition of access roads in remote areas. Know and follow regulations.
Get a guidebook and a map. But remember that while most are accurate on distances and the location of trails, others can be way off, or different sources may offer conflicting information. See what year the book or map was published—information may be dated (some U.S. Geological Survey topographic quad maps, for instance, are decades old and don’t show all trails). Read between the lines: Do trail descriptions show that the author has an intimate knowledge of the place?
Depending on how well you know your destination already, tap into as many sources as necessary, including websites, magazines, the management agency (speak with someone who actually goes into the backcountry), friends, an outdoors club, a local guide service or outfitter, and employees at a local gear store.
If solitude is your goal, look for steeper, harder trails as far from pavement as possible. Or, if you have the skills, go off-trail. Pick a destination far from population centers and avoid marquee attractions like summits with significant elevations (14,000 feet in the West, 4,000 feet in the Northeast). The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management provide information about all their lands, including those lesser known. Even in popular public lands, you can lose the crowds by asking a backcountry ranger which trails are most heavily used and which attract few hikers. And hit the trail when most people don’t-early morning, mid-week, and off-season.
Check your gear, making sure it’s functioning properly. Leather boots may need waterproofing, a stove may need cleaning. Head off problems before going into the backcountry. Store your gear organized for quick packing. Use a checklist. Keep food, fuel, batteries, and other supplies stocked to help you get out the door quickly for short trips. Carry only what you absolutely need. Beyond emergency gear, ask yourself whether everything else is indispensable, or whether the benefit of anything outweighs the fact that you have to carry it. Do you, for example, need two mugs, or could one person eat from the pot? Save those nearly empty toothpaste tubes at home for backcountry trips. Share communal gear like the stove and first-aid kit among the group, avoiding redundancy.
When flying with gear, be aware that airlines generally prohibit transporting any fuel and often prohibit camp stoves. Ask your airline beforehand. I keep my camera gear and film in my carry-on bag. Most X-ray machines around the world are film-safe, but inquire first if you’re traveling into less industrialized countries. Politely request that your carry-on be hand-inspected rather than risk frying your film in an ancient X-ray machine.
The better your physical condition, the more you’ll enjoy a trip. Exercise regularly, getting in three or four cardiovascular workouts a week of at least 30 minutes each, and preferably at least one much longer workout or hike, and you’ll probably be fine on any trip of moderate difficulty. Train for hiking with a heavy pack by hiking with a heavy pack.
Consider the emotional and physical limits of everyone in the group. A relative novice—even someone fit and active—may be intimidated by anything unfamiliar. Involve everyone in pre-trip planning, to ensure all understand what they’re getting into.
On the Ground
When planning the distance you’ll hike, consider the speed of everyone in your party and how hard each person wants to work. Know how fast you all hike in various terrain. Find out: Does the trail cross talus, exposed slabs, boggy tundra, extensive muddy areas, or rivers or creeks that may be dangerous or impassable in certain seasons? Expect going off-trail to be much slower than hiking on trails.
Know the climate where you’re headed so you can pick the best time of year to go and know what to bring. Are there rainy and dry seasons? How late into summer does snow linger at higher elevations? How much snowpack from the recent winter and spring remains at higher elevations? Is there a thunderstorm season that brings the threat of lightning at high elevations or flash floods in a canyon? What are the average high and low daily temperatures each month? What’s the average monthly precipitation? Is there a time of year when the bugs are unbearable?
Expect high altitudes to slow you down, and plan time to get used to them. Without acclimating, most people will slow down above 8,000 feet and some become ill above 10,000 feet, regardless of fitness level. Take a day or more to acclimatize by taking it easy while walking to, and sleeping at, higher altitudes.
The steeper the trail, and the greater the elevation gain and loss, the slower you’ll move and more quickly you’ll become fatigued. Expect every 2,000 feet of elevation gain to add roughly an hour of hiking time on a good footpath. Going down may be no faster than up. Don’t think that because you climbed Mount Washington you can race up Rainier: Attempt harder trips gradually.
Research the availability of campsites and water sources—they often dictate how far you travel every day and vary seasonally.
Find out whether there are animals that could affect your trip—from grizzlies, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes to rodents that may raid your food at night—and follow guidelines on minimizing the chance of a bad encounter.
When mapping your backcountry trip, think about your options in the event of an emergency. Be aware of how far you are from help at various points, and of “escape routes” like trails, river drainages, and logging roads that lead to civilization.
Finally, don’t be too goal-oriented. Keep an open mind about changing the itinerary as the situation dictates. Maintain a positive attitude. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun.
—Michael Lanza is author of The Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Travel, from AMC Books.