Trip planning: making an outline

You’ve got a sweet idea. You did some preliminary research. Now it’s time to make a rough outline of what your trip is going to look like. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Paper and pencil
  • Road maps
  • Internet access and/or hiking books

Let’s get started. I’ll use a trip I took in 2011 as the reference point for the outline making process, since I made nice overview maps of each day that I wrote up on my blog. If you start reading here, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

You’ll want to start a couple of things concurrently, the map and the itinerary outline.

The map

Using Google Maps in conjunction with paper maps is the best strategy I’ve come up with for helping prepare a trip overview. Based on your research, you probably have some ideas for a handful of “must-see” locations on your trip. Find these on Google Maps and your paper map.

Why Google Maps? You can quickly and easily plot a route, quantify the distance between points and note any points of interest along your route.

Switch back and forth between the Google and the paper to find things you may have missed otherwise. You’ll be able to tell if your dream itinerary will be able to fit into the time span you have or if you’re going to have to call in sick for an extra week.

The outline

Grab your paper and pencil…or create a spreadsheet, Word document or whatever suits your style. I go back and forth between using paper or typing on Word. It’s easier to change plans when you can just delete text in a word processing document. But sometimes it’s nice to put pencil to paper.

Here’s a framework for getting started:

  • Date
  • Distance/time
  • From > to
  • Stops and notes

And an example:

You can customize the columns to suit your needs. Maybe you want to note camping or hotel locations, or add a section for permit information, or add room for Plan “B.” You get the idea.

Remember that this is a first draft that you can modify as more information becomes available. The most important pieces are to have start and end points, with a rough distance between them. Some places that are tucked back off gravel roads will take much more time to get to than a rest stop on a major highway. Be sure to estimate the time it will take and not just list the mileage.

Considerations

Most of the information you’ll find online about visiting popular destinations will tell you how amazing it is…but only in the perfect weather and best lighting. Be sure to read up on what weather to expect while you’re visiting a new area. You might happen to travel during a 100-year storm event, or experience driving in snow or navigating around washed out roads. Know that Instagram shares the highlights, but those don’t happen every day. Be prepared to research the weather and keep checking the latest updates during your travels.

Also, be aware of seasonal closures or other access issues. Do you need an advanced permit to get to that backcountry campsite? Are there fire-season closures? Snow closures? Is it hunting season? Are you allowed to go off trail there? These factors may influence which day you visit a certain place, or if you cross it off the list entirely.

Build in some flexibility. Be willing to change your plans on the fly if you gather new information while you’re out. This is where having a shareable Google Doc can be handy for communicating your change in plans to a responsible party back home. You did leave a trip itinerary with someone back home, right?

For my 2011 trip I built in a bunch of flex time around the things I really wanted to see. That allowed me to make diversions based on recommendations from people I’d met along the way. That was the only way I would have ever known about Hot Lake, for example.

Movie set? Historical reconstruction? Resort spa? You decide.

Remember that failing to plan is planning to fail. An outline will provide a framework for your trip, allowing you to hit your objectives while also building in some flex time to explore.  Next, we’ll tackle the packing list!

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