LNT: Minimize campfire impacts

This is part 5 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The fifth principle, minimize campfire impacts, outlines ways you can still enjoy a fire in the woods without causing a forest fire or depleting fragile landscapes of limited resources.

Why minimize campfire impacts?

The Pole Creek Fire in 2012

There is something very primal about building a fire. For many people, camping without a fire is simply not camping at all. But with modern lightweight, portable camp stoves, having a campfire is not as essential as it used to be. But, what’s wrong with campfires?

First, campfires require wood as a source of fuel. In some places, dead and downed wood is plentiful. In others, it is scarce. If the area you’re backpacking in has a generous supply of wood then it’s perfectly reasonable to have a fire. But if you’re in a backcountry campsite with limited access to wood, it is not appropriate to have a campfire.

Second, campfires can cause forest fires. According to the National Park Service, up to 90% of wildfires are human-caused. As we have seen with the recent wildfires in California, these fires can be utterly devastating to not only the forest but to surrounding communities. Preventing wildfire is another important reason to think carefully about whether or not to have a campfire.

Finally, campfires negatively impact the soil. The heat from a campfire kills off the organisms living in the soil beneath the actual fire. The surrounding soil becomes compacted by people congregating around the fire. Vegetation may be unable to grow there for a long time to come.

Whether or not you have  a fire in the backcountry, you can minimize your impact by following a few suggestions that align with Leave No Trace.

No downed wood, no fire!

How to minimize campfire impacts?

If you’re like me, you enjoy having a campfire for warmth, light and comfort in the backcountry. There are ways to responsibly use fire in the woods as people have for eons. But first, do your research. Make sure there is no fire ban where you’re headed. In addition, find out if there are rules about specific locations you’re not allowed to have a fire, such as within a certain distance from a lake or above a specific elevation. If you’re not sure what the regulations are in the area you’re visiting, call the ranger station or land manager to learn more about if and how you can build a fire on your trip. Armed with that knowledge, here are some best practices for building campfires on your next backpacking excursion.

  1. Use existing fire rings. In the spirit of leaving minimal impact, choose to use already disturbed areas instead of create a new one. Keep your fire small. Collect dead wood with a diameter no larger than your wrist. Never cut down live tree branches. And please clean up the remains of your fire after putting it out. Do not leave a pile of trash in the middle of the fire ring. Pack it in, pack it out.
  2. Build a mound fire. To build a mound fire, lay down a fire-resistant cloth on the ground. Ideally, locate your fire on top of rocky soil and not in the middle of a lush meadow. Gather mineral soil from a previously disturbed area, such as beneath the root mass of a fallen tree or in a dry streambed. Mineral soil is soil that does not contain a lot of organic matter. Create a 3-5″ high mound on top of the ground cloth and flatten out the top. Build your fire on the mound. After enjoying your fire, completely extinguish it and scatter the ashes away from your campsite. Try to make it look like no one had a fire there.
  3. Use a fire pan. If you’ve got the space, carry a fire pan with you into the forest.  The fire pan’s sides should be at least 3 inches high. Adding a mound of soil to the pan as described above will help insulate the ground from the heat of the fire. As before, fully extinguish your fire and scatter the ashes.
  4. For more tips on building a Leave No Trace compatible fire, download this informative .pdf from the Forest Service.
An unnecessarily large fire ring.

Oh, and one more thing: always completely extinguish your fire before leaving it! It’s the most important thing you can do to minimize your potential impact on the land and people.

In case of emergency

If you are stranded overnight, cold, lost and in an emergency situation, then build a fire! Consider your health and safety as well as the health of the environment. Of course, be mindful that your fire doesn’t set off a forest fire, but if you need to create a fire ring on a previously undisturbed area to get through the night, by all means do that. Keep in mind that Plan Ahead and Prepare is the first LNT principle, and that should prevent you from needing to spend an unexpected night in the woods in most cases.

Questions about anything you read? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear more about how you practice Leave No Trace.

LNT: Leave what you find

This is part 4 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The fourth principle, leave what you find, refers to minimizing your impact on a space by leaving it as it is, not removing plants, animals or artifacts. Here’s an exception: remove all the trash you want! (See principle 3)

Hiking in Capitol Reef

Why leave what you find?

I was out hiking with my husband in Capitol Reef National Park a few years ago. As my eyes were scanning side to side, taking in the beautiful desert scenery, his eyes narrowed in on a small rock in the trail. He stopped to pick it up and said “hey, look: an arrowhead!” He has a crazy superpower in that he can find these things anywhere. It was a cool moment where we observed the shape of the stone and he taught me a few things that he’d learned in high school about Native American crafts. I took a picture and then he bent down to replace it on the trail. The next sharp-eyed visitor will have the opportunity to see that arrowhead.

If we’d decided to pocket it and keep going, then no one else would be able to have that moment of discovery. And the arrowhead would probably be shoved into a box in the garage, never to be looked at again. This is just one example of how one small decision can impact visitors looking for their own cool experience.

This principle applies both to human artifacts and living plants. Taking flowers, cutting live branches, carving initials into trees and other acts that disturb living things are not advised in the spirit of leaving a minimal impact on the environment.

How to leave what you find?

Find a pretty flower? Take a picture.

It is human nature to want to leave our mark on things or to take mementos home from our travels. But it’s now easier than ever to grab your smartphone and snap a photo of the cool things you discover while out exploring public lands.

Also, consider how your campsite alters the landscape. After packing up your belongings, try to disguise your presence by brushing over tent areas with sticks and leaves. Block off any inadvertent user trails you may have created during your stay. Make the area look as it did before you arrived.

Cairns

Navigational cairns

Historically, cairns have been used as navigational tools. They are stacks of rocks that mark trails and routes across the landscape. Cairns are often seen above treeline, where there is no other way to mark the trail. In poor conditions, these rocks are incredibly helpful to hikers who need to find their way.

But another type of cairn exists: the decorative cairn. Often they are made in large clusters. Some people find them artistic, beautiful, charming. Others see them as disruptive, ugly, unnecessary. I find myself in the latter group. While I am grateful for cairns marking a difficult to follow path, I abhor cairns that are placed there to “enhance” the landscape. When I go out to explore a wild place, I most enjoy seeing little to no evidence of other people having been there. So, if you like to build cairns, I’d like to offer you a compromise: build cairns to your heart’s desire, take all the photos, post to Instagram, satisfy your creative needs. But, before you leave, dismantle your artwork. Return the rocks where you got them and move on. Then you and I can both enjoy the wilderness in our own way.

A legal note

The Leave No Trace Principles are suggested guidelines, not laws. But it’s important to note an exception here.

Native American ruin at Wupatki National Monument.

From lnt.org: “Cultural artifacts are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. It is illegal to remove or disturb archeological sites, historic sites, or artifacts such as pot shards, arrowheads, structures, and even antique bottles found on public lands.”

We have lost so much of our history to people who have raided cultural sites in the past. It is important to preserve this heritage for the generations to come. To read more about this Act, click here.

Questions about anything you read? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear more about how you practice Leave No Trace.

LNT: Dispose of waste properly

Loo with a view

This is part 3 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The third principle, dispose of waste properly, refers to food waste, human waste and garbage. Knowing how to deal with each of these before your trip will help you make responsible decisions about waste in the backcountry.

Why dispose of waste properly?

From a personal experience perspective, it’s disgusting to see trash and human waste on the trail. It takes away from the experience. I have seen it all, from human feces, toilet paper, water bottles, food wrappers, orange peels, dog waste bags, broken tents, the list goes on and on. I even came across a backcountry campsite that had piles of lemon and lime halves all over the ground, like they had a margarita party and left their waste behind! It is unsightly and inconsiderate to leave waste behind.

From an environmental perspective, human and pet waste can contaminate water supplies. Food scraps can train wild animals to come to rely on humans for food or even make them sick. Products like sunscreen, soap, and insect repellent don’t readily biodegrade and can linger in the soil and water. There are many reasons to be mindful of what you may leave behind on a hiking or camping trip.

As the saying goes: “pack it in, pack it out.” And also, “Your mother doesn’t live here. Clean up after yourself.”

How to dispose of waste properly?

In order to manage waste in the backcountry there are some simple things you can do.

Minimize the trash you generate. Carry what you need. Repackage food into zipper bags or reusable containers. Choose reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastic. and fences are put in place to concentrate the impact.

Carry a trash bag and use it. I often re-use the Ziploc bag from my lunch to haul out trash in. Trash includes fruit peels, nut shells, apple cores and other organic matter. Those pistachio shells you just threw on the trail won’t break down for several years. Imagine how cluttered the trail would be if everyone tossed their shells on the ground!

Picking up other people’s trash

Pick up trash you see while out hiking. Take a hint from the Swedes, who turned “plogging“—picking up trash while jogging—into a fitness craze. Since you’ve already got a trash bag in your pack (see the tip above!) it’s easy to grab litter you see along the trail. If you’re concerned about sanitation, like if you see some TP or bandaids on the trail, put on a pair of latex gloves or use the bag as a barrier between your skin and the discarded item. People are less likely to litter in a clean area than an already trashed one.

Wash your dishes at least 200 feet from streams or lakes. Use biodegradable soap, like Dr. Bronner’s, if any. Take the resulting “gray water” from your dishwashing chore and throw it over a wide area. This prevents concentrating human food waste in a small area, which will attract critters.

Pack out Fido’s poo. Dog poop carries viruses, bacteria and worms that can be spread to humans or wildlife. Due to the processed foods pet owners typically feed dogs, their poo takes much longer to biodegrade than the feces of wild animals who are eating a natural diet. There are a number of reasons why packing our pets’ waste out is really important. Read more on the lnt.org blog: There is no dog poop fairy. And those little poop bags you use to collect the poo in? Carry it out. Don’t set it on the side of the trail for later. I’ve seen some dog owners tie the bags to their dog’s collar or doggie backpack. It can be done!

Dispose of human waste properly. This warrants a longer discussion, which follows…

What to do with your poo

You can read entire books on bathroom hygiene in the backcountry. Actually, I recommend you do! How to Shit in the Woods is a great primer on strategies for dealing with waste in a wide range of situations, including multi-day group camping excursions. But here are a few basic principles and strategies to keep in mind.

Urine is much easier to manage than feces. You can pee in the woods just about anywhere. Try to stay 200 feet away from your camp and water sources whenever possible.

Poop can be a messy problem, but only if you’re not thinking ahead. If you’ll be hiking in a forest where there are opportunities to dig a hole and go, you’re in the best possible situation. Pack a trowel for digging a 6-12″ cathole. Poo in the hole, fill it with soil, cover it up and get on your way. If you choose to use toilet paper, bury it deep in the hole or (ideally) pack it out. There are plenty of alternatives to TP: moss, leaves, rocks and snow can do a great job too!

To make your life a bit more comfortable, always carry a hygiene bag in your backpack: Inside a resealable bag, carry some hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and another resealable bag or two. If you use toilet paper you can pack it into a ziploc bag and then use some hand sanitizer once you’re finished. Simple!

In some areas, like popular alpine hiking and climbing areas, there are rules requiring people to pack out their poop. Some agencies will provide a waste kit or blue bag for you to use. Check the local regulations before embarking on such a trip. You can carry your own hard-sided container to transport your used poo bags during your trip. An old Pringles can or plastic container with a lid works just fine. Be sure to label that container clearly!

Feminine hygiene products should always be packed out. Alternatives to disposable products, like the Diva Cup, help to minimize single-use waste in the backcountry.

And one more thing. If you forget your trowel, if you have no waste kit, and you’ve just got to go, please do us all a favor. Find an out-of-the-way place in which to do your business! Nothing drives me crazier than seeing poop right off the side of the trail or piles of TP near a forest campsite. It’s unsanitary, it’s disgusting, it’s thoughtless. Walk off the trail a bit, to a non-desirable location. Scratch a hole in the ground with a stick. Do your thing. Cover it up with leaves, rocks, dirt, whatever you can. And walk back to the trail, reminding yourself to prepare better next time.

If you have questions about how to handle waste in the outdoors, please ask below! Share your stories and strategies. And leave it better than you found it.

LNT: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

This is part 2 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The second principle, travel and camp on durable surfaces, provides guidelines for choosing campsites and walking paths.

Why travel and camp on durable surfaces?

All people who recreate in the outdoors leave a mark on the landscape. Animals do, too. However, people tend to recreate in very large numbers in specific areas. We congregate around streams, meadows and lakes. We tend not to stray too far from access points like parking lots. We move in groups. All those footfalls make an impact, but the impact is greater on some surfaces than others.

According to lnt.org, “Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond recovery. ” Alpine meadows and cryptobiotic soil are not very resistant to disturbance. It doesn’t take much to damage the habitat and once disturbed, it can take years or decades to recover. Rock, snow and sand are typically very resistant to disturbance. You can take huge groups of people hiking across these surfaces and leave hardly any impact.

It is especially important to consider surface durability when camping. Think about your behavior once you set up camp. You set your tent on the ground and spent probably 8 hours per night laying on the ground there. During the morning and evening, you walk all over the terrain surrounding your tent, trampling the vegetation over and over again. Once you establish a new campsite, it could remain disturbed for a long time to come. Each subsequent camper will continue to impact that area, making it nearly impossible to recover. Once established, it is best to continue using that site instead of creating new ones.

How to travel and camp on durable surfaces?

First, understand what surfaces are durable. Trails are created to minimize the impact on a landscape by hikers. They are designed to withstand erosive forces and provide a route through a natural space that receives a lot of visitation. If you stick to the trail, you reduce your impact by restraining your impact to a designated area. Imagine a popular place like Yellowstone National Park. If everyone who pulled up to the parking lot walked off in a different direction, the entire landscape surrounding the visitor center would be trampled and barren. Instead, trails and fences are put in place to concentrate the impact. While trails themselves are an impact on the land, they enable large volumes of people to visit and enjoy an area in a more natural state.

Follow the switchbacks!

Does that mean you should always stay on the trail? No! In places that receive high visitation, or where you specifically see “stay on trail” signs, it’s important to walk on the trail. It’s also important to avoid cutting switchbacks. Switchbacks and other trail design features are used to reduce erosion. Yes, you may shave 30 seconds off your hike time, but you are likely contributing to that trail needing more maintenance in the future. Stick to the trail in high use areas!

Off-trail hiking at its finest.

If you like to hike off-trail, as I do, there are different principles to consider. Where it is allowed, hike off-trail in areas where there are not lots of people. If you are hiking off-trail in a group, try not to walk single-file. Repetitive footsteps in the same line will create a trail of convenience, not design. Unofficial trails can cause damage to the landscape. However, if you’re walking on a durable surface like snow or gravel, you need to be less concerned about dispersing use. The bottom line is: consider the degree of impact you (and your group) is making in that particular area.  Then, make decisions that will both help you achieve your goal and minimize disturbance in an area.

Choosing a campsite that considers this Leave No Trace Principle can be challenging in certain environments. First, check the rules and regulations for the area in which you are planning to camp (see: LNT Principle 1). If there are already designated or obvious campsites, these should be your first choice. Unfortunately, some people choose to make campsites in places where they shouldn’t be, so just because  a site is disturbed doesn’t mean you should camp there. Making camp on durable surfaces is a no-brainer; do this whenever possible. Rock slabs, snowy fields and sandy beaches above high tide line are excellent choices.

A previously disturbed campsite on a durable surface.

In addition, try to use established cooking areas, fire rings and walking routes whenever possible (instead of creating new ones). When you break camp, be sure to clean up all signs that you were there and do your best to naturalize areas you disturbed. Camp like a ninja: make the site look like you were never there…

By traveling and camping on durable surfaces, we can all minimize our impact by concentrating it in high-use areas and dispersing it in low-use areas. What strategies do you use to assess surfaces and reduce your impact?

LNT: Plan ahead and prepare

This is part 1 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

If you’ve read any of the blogs on this website you know I’m a HUGE proponent of good trip planning. A thoughtful plan helps reduce your impact on the land, increases the chances of a successful trip, ensures you understand potential hazards and helps you decide what supplies you’ll need on your adventure. Let’s dive a little deeper into the benefits of trip planning and how you can plan ahead and prepare before your next foray into the backcountry.

Why prepare?

According to LNT.org, there are four main reasons that it’s important to plan ahead and prepare. The first reason is for safety. Pre-trip research will alert you to things like trail conditions, weather, environmental hazards and physical challenges you may encounter on your trip.

The second reason is to help you practice Leave No Trace. In order to minimize resource damage, you’ll need to know things like what footwear to bring, whether or not there will be toilets and water sources, if hiking off-trail is allowed, where camping is allowed, etc.

The third reason is to accomplish your goals in a safe and fun manner. Want to get to the top of that mountain? You’d better bring an ice ax and crampons. Want to camp at a pristine, backcountry lake? Hope your group has the navigation skills and fitness to get there. Want to enjoy some solitude in a National Park? You might want to check where the most popular sites are and when/how to avoid them.

Lastly, trip planning is important for you to build self-confidence and to learn more about the place in which you’re recreating. Having a sense of pride in the public lands you go out to enjoy is important both now and in the future. A well-planned trip that goes well and feeds your soul will develop a desire to continue loving and protecting these shared resources.

So with that in mind, what are we waiting for? Let’s plan a trip!

How to prepare?

With the help of the Internet and social media, it’s easier now than ever before to plan ahead and prepare. Once you know where you’ll be headed, who you’ll be traveling with and/or what you want to accomplish, you can do some research. Your research will help you decide:

  • how much food to bring
  • how much water to bring
  • what safety supplies you’ll need
  • what permits you’ll need to secure in advance
  • what clothes and shoes to wear/pack
  • where the trails go
  • what hazards to plan for
  • etc…

With experience, the trip planning process will become more natural and simple to do. For your first trip, keep it simple! Have someone else help you. But please do put some thought in before you go. And, upon your return, take a moment to ask, “What could I do differently next time to be better prepared?”

For more details regarding how to plan a trip, check out my 4-part trip planning series:

1.  Coming up with the idea

2. Making a trip outline

3. Making a packing list

4. Go forth and be flexible

Feel free to share your trip planning tips or questions in the comments. Happy trails!

The final hike of Hike366

The date was highlighted on my calendar: MAY 10. It was the day that I’d fly into the Boston airport for a short visit with my family. It was also the last calendar date I needed to complete the list of 366 hikes. In 13 years I had never hiked on May 10. This was my year.

My dad picked me up from the airport and we immediately drove 2 hours to the trailhead. We stopped for coffee and breakfast because I was running on just a couple hours of bad plane sleep. We had a twelve-mile day ahead.

A history

It felt fitting to complete this project with my dad. I remember trips to Connecticut when I was a kid. Connecticut. It felt like an exotic, distant land. I grew up in Rhode Island, so my sense of distance and time was pretty skewed (I would later learn). Driving just an hour away felt to me like flying across the country. When we landed in a campground in rural Connecticut, I rushed out into the green trees and tall grasses, my imagination on fire. These camping trips meant so much to me. We caught frogs, played games, went swimming, made campfires and took walks in the woods. Hikes.

These hikes were nothing epic. I remember stopping frequently to look for animals or admire the flowers. We flipped over rocks, wandered off trail to explore unique looking things and took time to learn about the world around us. Mileage, time and elevation gain were foreign concepts. We were just out walking as a family.

But I lost interest in these moments as a teenager. It wasn’t cool to hang out with the family anymore and we took vacations to theme parks instead of the forest. In college I was much too busy to hike and besides, all my city friends weren’t interested. It would take several more years for me to reconnect with hiking and spending time out in nature.

The final countdown

Flash forward to today. I was bubbling over with excitement at the idea that I had done it. I was just about to complete a project that I’d been working on for years. Just like my dad, I was very good at starting projects and much worse at actually finishing them. This one was happening.

At the start of the hike!

Our hike began at the Gunstock Ski Resort, which was just ramping up for its summer season activities. We had taken an Uber to get here, since our walk was a one-way traverse. An employee of the resort pointed us to the start of the trail and we were off.

Not long into the adventure we ran into an off-duty hiking guide, who accompanied us on the first three of nine highpoints we’d reach today. He was friendly, very chatty and knowldgeable about the area. When we reached the firetower he bid us adieu and we set off into the woods on our own.

We’d truly be on our own until the very last highpoint. Solitude. Yes. A recurring theme of this project.

On solitude

I’d come into solo hiking out of necessity. As it turned out, my adult friends weren’t interested in hiking, either, so if I was going to get out I’d need to get out on my own. This was terrifying at first, but it grew on me. I liked the feeling of being deep in the mountains by myself. I enjoyed learning how to be self-reliant, how to problem-solve in real time without having someone else to fall back on for advice. I loved the quiet that solo hiking brought. And with my dad here today, I felt all the benefits of solo hiking with a bonus: I got to share lots of special moments with him. The summit views, the snake across the trail, the pretty flowers, the sparkling lakeside lunch stop. Instead of taking a picture to show him later, we were able to have those experiences together.

The grand finale

It was a long, hard day. Nine highpoints meant lots of ups and downs. New Hampshire meant lots of steep ups and downs. But we pushed through, together, racing to stay ahead of storm clouds and finish the hike in a reasonable amount of time. There was no turning back, since we were hiking to the car at the other end.

Atop the last highpoint, a broad summit with panoramic views, I took a deep breath. We did it. There were a few other people there, sitting and taking it all in. It was a popular hike, and a heck of a climb to get up there. This was a place to rest and reflect. So we did.

The hike down involved some bouldery, steep descents. The adventure wasn’t over yet! We shared the trail with some people still going up, others coming down. Near the bottom we met a guy who was working on a very similar project to mine, except his goal was to hike that single trail on all 366 calendar dates. Wow!

Last hike complete!

Now that the hiking is done, what does that mean? I have focused so intently on this goal for so long that I’m going to need time to figure out my next steps: for this project and for my next hikes. I’ve got a long list of trip reports to catch up on, photos to edit and organize, big ideas to put together. My next step is to tell the whole story. My drive to complete Hike366, what it means to me and what lessons I can share with others. Hiking has been, and continues to be, a source of passion and meaning in my life. As an activity that can be done every day of the year, it is a great way to remain grounded (literally and figuratively) in the ever-more-complicated world.

So, stay tuned. I’m not done yet. I’m definitely not done hiking. But I’m also not done speaking. There’s lots more to be shared. Follow the Instagram feed for almost daily photos and keep an eye on this blog for more good stuff about hiking.

On being a responsible hiker

I’m freshly back from taking a much-anticipated two week road trip. My partner and I spent most of those two weeks driving, hiking, camping and exploring new places. We covered a lot of ground and had a number of diverse experiences. In all those miles of hiking, one theme kept coming up again and again.

That theme? The responsibility of hikers to know and practice Leave No Trace principles.

On nearly every hike we did, I observed violations of these principles pretty regularly. People carving their names into rocks and trees. Trash littering the sides of the trail. Toilet paper, and worse, a big pile of human poop not more than a foot off the trail. The remains of poorly placed campfires. Footprints in cryptobiotic soil. And there were things we could not observe: geological features and artifacts that had been taken out of the environment by past looters and trophy-collectors.

When I’m out enjoying a hike I try really hard not to let my thoughts focus on negative things that bum me out. But some of these experiences really bummed me out. Who poops on the trail!? How would you not KNOW that is not an okay thing to do? And I was shocked by how much graffiti there was: on rocks, trees, signs, literally anything something could paint, carve or ink up had someone’s name on it. So weird. It would seem that in the age of social media, leaving one’s mark on a place would be a thing of the past. You can easily take a picture and share it worldwide within seconds. And yet, graffiti doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

It is therefore going to be a recurring theme of this blog, for the next few weeks at least, to focus on each principle of Leave No Trace. My goal is to identify the principle, explain why it matters and then offer practical ways to put that principle into practice. I hope that in my heart no one means to do the environment or other people wrong, and with the right education and practice that we can all learn to share these special places with each other, leaving the land as we found it.

Or better. We picked up trash on almost every hike and we cleaned up every messy dispersed campsite we stayed at (they were all littered with trash). On hikes I only sometimes remembered to carry a little trash bag. Other times we shoved trash into outside mesh pockets of backpacks or into our pants pockets. At camp it was much easier to walk around with a bag and toss away all the garbage before we set up our things.

I am glad that so many people are excited to get out and experience the wonders of our natural world. The next step is to advance the notion of being a responsible hiker and a good steward of the land. I’ll start by writing blog posts and sharing more insights in the Instagram feed, but I have a feeling it’s going to get bigger than that. Stay tuned, and share your ideas about how you think we can all be a little better to preserving our land and being mindful of each other’s experiences outdoors.

Trip planning: go forth and be flexible

So much for rock climbing…

In 2011, I made a brilliant plan to head into Yosemite for some epic rock climbing with a friend. We went through all the steps of the trip planning process and left town psyched to hit the rock. But then, nature threw every curveball she had and we were forced to make lots of decisions on the fly to get the most fun out of our spoiled adventure. It was a very real reminder that the best made plans can…sometimes not work out.

That leads us to the last step of the trip planning process. This is more of a state of mind than an actual step. Go forward with your plan, but remain flexible. Not only to deal with unexpected situations, but also to allow yourself time to explore things that you learn about while you’re out on your trip. Let’s dig deeper.

Rolling with the obstacles

What are some of the factors that can derail even the most meticulously planned trip? Here are the big ones:

  • weather
  • illness
  • car trouble
  • road closures
  • full campgrounds
  • activity/location did not live up to expectations
  • weather
  • did I mention weather?

When planning a trip months or even weeks in advance, you can’t really predict the weather on any given day. Checking climate data and familiarizing yourself with normal weather patterns is helpful but only to a point. Freak snowstorms can blow in. Wildfires can rage through. Hurricanes. Landslides. You get the picture. Sometimes you can deal with a little more rain, snow or heat than you anticipated. But sometimes adverse weather can make certain activities not fun or even dangerous. Knowing when to cancel and redirect your adventure is key to being safe and enjoying your trip.

I have experienced all of the other factors on various roadtrips. I got really sick on the second to last day of a solo trip to California. I’ve had to take half the day to fix leaking hoses in the car, stopping in tiny, remote towns to ask for help. I’ve had to change camping plans due to all the spots at my desired rest stop being taken. And I’ve pulled in and immediately right out of parks that were not what I thought they would be (hiking in an off-road vehicle playground, yeah no thanks).

Being open to new ideas

Capitol Reef National Park. Have you ever heard of it? Most people I talk to have not. I had not heard about it until just a few hours before we arrived there. I was leafing through my Zion/Bryce guidebook while sitting in the passengers seat on a drive through Utah. I just happened to notice that there was a section in the back on Capitol Reef. After reading a little bit about the park and looking at some of the photos, I opened up the map book to see where it was. Holy cow, we weren’t that far from it. I asked my partner, who was driving, if he’d be interested in a detour. “There’s this amazing hike!” I said. “And canyons, arches, fruit trees and more!”

Well, this was a pleasant surprise.

Since I built in some flex time to our roadtrip plan, it was no big  deal to divert off our path for a couple of days and check out this park. It was one of the best decisions we’d made on this trip.

Often, locals are excellent sources of information that you won’t even find in any guide books. Park rangers, too. So once you’re in an area and have the lay of the land, start asking people where they like to go. What would they recommend? If you’ve got the flexibility to check something else out, you might discover your next favorite place.

I hope this series of articles helps you plan your next roadtrip, big or small. Always start with a plan, but don’t be afraid to shift gears. Hey, what’s that around the corner? There’s only one way to find out…

Trip planning: making a packing list

Let’s recap. You’ve brainstormed some trip ideas. You’ve gathered your resources. You’ve mapped out a trip outline. Now you’ll need to put together a packing list. This list will include gear, food, clothing and any other necessities to make your trip successful (with minimal stops at the store).

If you’re taking a road trip, there are several different categories of items you’ll need to make your trip fun and comfortable. I use a combination of several packing lists when preparing for a trip. Your list will be determined by several factors:

  • How long you will be traveling
  • How much space you have
  • Access to stores along the way
  • What kinds of activities you’ll be doing
  • The anticipated weather along your route
  • Your personal needs and wants
  • How much cooking you plan to do

Food and kitchen supplies

The first thing that comes to my mind is food. What are we going to eat? How much time and space will we have to prepare meals? What about snacks? How much room is in the cooler? I don’t like getting takeout or eating in restaurants as my sole sources of nourishment on a road trip. I do include some flexibility to enjoy local delicacies and try new restaurants along the way but it’s much cheaper and healthier to prepare your own meals. Besides, it give you something to do at camp.

My meal planning list includes two parts: the meals and the grocery list. For a long trip, you’ll need to plan multiple stops at the grocery store for fresh food, so it’s a good idea to time those grocery re-supply days on days you’ll be in a larger town. It’s not impossible to shop at a hole-in-the-wall rural grocery store but the chances of finding good produce can be slim. Of course that depends where you are: in the middle of the desert in the winter time or in a prolific farming area in the summer?

Start by making a grid of all the days you’ll be traveling and make columns that include breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Write down the meals you’d like to make for each box in the grid. Keep in mind that some preparations can be used multiple ways, like chili. Make chili once and then have chili dogs, chili on baked potatoes, chili mac, etc.

Make sure to refer back to your trip plan when thinking about your meals. If you’ll be out climbing a mountain all day, for example, you’ll probably want a quick and hearty breakfast, an easy, packable lunch and a super easy and high-calorie dinner. If you’ll be playing tourist around town, you might plan a more elaborate breakfast, go out for lunch and make a nice meal around the evening campfire.

Pro tip: when you’re making your grocery list, don’t forget the condiments! Butter, oil, mustard, salad dressing, spices, etc will make your dishes much tastier.

Download the Road trip meal planner

Camp supplies

In camp, you want to have enough supplies to be functional and relatively comfortable. You should be able to set up and break it down easily and quickly. You should be self-sufficient, able to cook food, supply water, keep clean and provide adequate shelter, all while minimizing your impact on the land.

I have tent-camped my entire life and have been able to keep my supplies to a minimum while still meeting all of my needs in camp. The next spreadsheet includes my camp packing list as well as all of the supplies mentioned in the next sections. Give it a look.

Download all the gear checklists

Hiking gear

I hope you’ll get out and do some hiking on your trip. This is a hiking project after all. The second tab on the gear checklist includes everything you’ll need for a typical day hike. Keep in mind that every hike is different, so your needs may vary slightly. But the basics are all in there, and you may as well get into the habit of carrying the basics on every hike.

Review the list of the ten essentials whether you need a refresher, or if you’re hearing about it for the first time.

Winter provides its own challenges, so the third tab in the gear checklist includes some things you’ll want to think about putting in your winter hiking pack. Items like ice axes and crampons require some practical knowledge as well, so be sure you’re tackling adventures that are within your ability level. If you want to venture out into winter mountaineering, it’s best to find a mentor, hire a guide or take a class!

Download all the gear checklists

Car comforts

Finally, if your road trip is going to involve a lot of car time, think about what will make that drive more enjoyable. Here are my top 5 creature comforts.

  1. Podcasts. When you’ve got hours of driving ahead, it’s nice to have something to listen to. Radio stations can be, uh, limited when you’re 200 miles from anywhere, so having a long queue of podcasts can be entertaining and educational. Audio books or your favorite CD collection make great alternatives.
  2. Cozy clothes. Would you rather sit in the car for 6 hours wearing a stiff pair of jeans or some comfy sweats? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Dress comfortably (and that includes shoes) when you’re gearing up for a long drive. You can always change into more formal attire before you drop in to a fancy restaurant, but chances are you’ll be just fine wearing your car clothes out and about.
  3. Good snacks. No need to get hangry and have to swerve in to buy crappy fast food along your drive. Keep the car well-stocked with a variety of foods and beverages to choose from. Make sure the passenger can reach the food supply without having to pull over, too.
  4.  Books and maps. All of your guidebooks and maps really come to life when you’re actually traveling through the area. Even if you did thorough research at home, pull out the guidebook and see if you missed something. Find yourself on the map and notice if anything suddenly grabs your attention. You might discover something you missed!
  5. Rest breaks. While this is not something you need to remember to pack, it is something you need to remember to do. The human body does not like to be still for multiple hours at a time. Take regular rest breaks and get out of your seated position. Do some jumping jacks. Climb a tree. Run around. Do a cartwheel. Have a dance party. Do not worry about what the other people at the rest area think of you. If they’re super cool, they’ll probably want to join in.

Worst case scenario: you forget something on your list. You either make an extra stop at a local store or you improvise. Both options end up being interesting learning experiences. Start packing!

The last installment of this series will be all about executing your trip and being flexible. Aren’t you getting excited for your next big adventure?

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!