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!

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!

Trip planning: gathering resources

Once you’ve got an idea for a trip, the next step is gathering resources. This research phase of trip planning is one of my favorite things to do. There are so many possibilities and it’s fun to imagine how each one might play out. It can be very hard to pick and choose, but this is the time to dream big and discover what magic you can make happen.

Step two: research

There are several ways to get information about your adventure destinations. Here are my top four:

1. Books

2. Maps

3. Word of mouth

4. Internet

We’ll take a look at each one of these categories of information in turn. Using all four will help you paint a better picture of what’s out there.

Books

The first thing I look to when planning an adventure is the library. It might be my home library, the public library or an Internet bookstore. Nothing replaces leafing through a hiking or travel guidebook to get an idea about a new place (or maybe a familiar one!). Unless you have a really clear idea of what you want to do, a guidebook is an excellent place to start.

Over the years I’ve accumulated a pretty comprehensive collection of local hiking guidebooks, plus a few from the distant places I’ve traveled:

What can you get in a book that you can’t get online? You get an overall sense of an area. You can see an overview map of where all the sights are located. You have an expert’s curated list of places to start with. You can see mileage, relative difficulty, driving time, elevation change and many other features of various places very quickly, without having to do multiple searches or waiting for individual pages to load online. Having a book is a great time saver. And you can take the book with you when you travel, so if you need to make a last minute change of plans or want to find something quickly nearby, you’ve got that information in your hands. And it works with or without access to WiFi!

Yes, books cost money. But you’d be surprised what you can find at the library or at a used bookstore. Shop online and search for used books, too. Think of it as an investment in your experience. Spend $20 now and save time later.

Maps

I love maps. There’s nothing like spreading out a map on the kitchen table and poring over every detail in search for something amazing or curious. A map gives you a visual reference of all the ideas that are bouncing around in your head. Once you have a list of hikes or points of interest you want to see, you can grab a map and a stack of post-it-notes and start to visualize your trip.

There are a few different types of maps that are useful in trip planning. The first is a state gazeteer.

This is your big-picture map. Use this in conjunction with Google maps to plan out a driving route for your next big road trip. This map might also indicate some points of interest that you’ll want to research in more detail. I’ve discovered some things I never would have known about just by looking at my route in the Gazeteer and searching for points of interest along the drive.

Next you might want a map that provides some more details. Forest Service and BLM overview maps are great tools for providing a little closer view of your area of interest. These will include all those little side roads you’ll need to navigate to get to out-of-the-way places. These maps may also reveal some special places you wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

But they’re not hiking maps, so you’ll also need…

Hiking maps. These provide much better detail on a smaller scale. A hiking map will indicate locations of trailheads, ranger stations, points of interest, etc. They will have topographic lines so that you can get a better sense of the lay of  the land. You’ll see rivers, mountains, canyons, plains, forests, lakes, etc. This is the map you will want in your backpack when you set off on a hike. You can also use these maps to get ideas on how to link up peaks or plan backpacking trips.

National Geographic, Adventure Maps and Green Trails Maps produce excellent maps for those of us on the west coast. You may find other brands that cover different areas of the U.S. and the rest of the world.

If you’re  technologically inclined, you can also print your own maps from websites like CalTopo or National Geographic Maps. Personally, I prefer the larger area covered by the waterproof, foldable maps as opposed to a printout on standard letter paper. Your mileage may vary.

Word of mouth

Once you’ve scoured the books and maps that cover a given area, think about reaching out to people who are frequent visitors to that region. Ask your friends. Post a question to a regional hiking message board. Seek out adventurers on Instagram and send them a private message. People love sharing the places that are meaningful to them, within reason. Don’t go asking a local to out their secret hangout. They won’t take very kindly to you. And PLEASE don’t go asking a question that you could easily answer by doing a few minutes of research. It pains me to see the same questions asked over and over again by a person who has not spent any time studying the map or book first.

You’ll get MUCH better beta from people who can tell you’ve done your homework. They’ll be more willing to turn you on to less popular places if they’re confident you’re not a typical tourist. This is especially true of park rangers. They’re so used to dealing with terribly unprepared visitors that they’ll send you right to the best stuff if you demonstrate just a little bit of knowledge 🙂

Internet

I put the Internet last for a reason. Most people start here first. Maybe I’m an old curmudgeon, but maybe I’m on to something here. There is a wealth of information on the Internet. It is totally overwhelming to start your search here. When I began researching my Arizona trip I found a great website called hikeaz.com. But there’s just so much information on that site I couldn’t make any sense of it. I hadn’t wrapped my head around the geography of the state, so I had no clue where most of the hikes I found were located. And it just felt like information overload.

After I did my book and map research and created a list of hikes that I was interested in, then hikeaz.com became a useful resource. Save yourself the trouble and read the books first!

I’ve got a personal list of favorite websites to do adventure planning research and I’ll share some of them here. Know that most of the best websites are regional or activity-based. So if you want to plan a mountain biking trip in Utah, then find a mountain biking resource or a Utah travel resource online. There are few national databases but they’re not particularly good at any one thing. Search around and when you find a valuable resource, bookmark it.

General adventure planning:

Outdoor Project: Full disclosure, I contribute content to this website so I am a little partial to using it. The database keeps growing and growing, and the site catalogues a wide array of adventure types: skiing, rafting, hiking, biking, hot springs, etc. You can search by specific location, activity type and region.

Hiking and climbing:

Mountain Project: This climbing-focused resource provides route information for rock and alpine climbing around the world. They also have an app that you can use to download and store route information on your phone.

Summit Post: If you want to get to the top of a mountain via hiking or climbing, this is your website. Search for a summit or an area. Get background information, driving directions, route beta and recent trip reports. Plus there’s a forum that is divided by geographic region so you can post your questions for the locals there. An excellent resource.

Super Topo: Another rock climbing guide, Super Topo has print guidebooks in addition to online beta. There are descriptions, reviews, photos and some free downloadable guides.

Pacific Northwest:

NWHikers.net: A very active forum for local hikers, this website is geared mostly towards trails and routes in the state of Washington. A great place to look for recent trip reports and to ask questions related to hiking in the northwest.

Oregonhikers.org: What began as a website for Portland area hikers to share information, the new Oregonhikers.org contains information about hiking areas across the state. Trip reports, trail information and updates from local hikers make this a great resource for hiking in Oregon.

Washington Trails Association: This comprehensive website includes hike descriptions, recent trail reports, hiking-related blog posts and more. Join the WTA on trail maintenance trips and group hikes, too!

Other online resources:

Many people live on social media so this is a great place to connect with others who like to adventure, too. Go to Instagram and search for hashtags that interest you, and try to be specific: #hiking #oregon #oregonhikers #mounthood etc. Follow the people who are doing the fun things you want to be doing and watch their feed! Send them messages if you have a question about something they’ve just posted, or if you think they might be an expert in an area you want to learn more about. Most people are happy to share their knowledge (especially if you’ve done some research first!)

Facebook groups can also be a great source of brainpower and updates on recent trail/road conditions. Search for a group that suits your needs. For example, before I road-tripped down to Southern California I joined a group of California hikers. There I was able to connect with some folks to learn more about what to expect on my trip. I then shared my trip reports after I returned from my adventure. Remember to give a little back instead of just asking questions and taking information. It’s just good karma.

Go forth and gather!

Trip research can be very time-intensive. But it’s an essential part of the trip planning process. First, it will help you devise a plan that meets your wants and needs while sticking to your parameters. Second, it will help you optimize your time so you’re not stuck figuring everything out on the fly. And third it will get you REALLY EXCITED about the adventure you’re about to undertake! Now you’re ready to make a trip outline. Happy trip planning 🙂

Trip planning: the idea

To me, planning a trip is an exciting adventure. The possibilities are endless. I’ve learned that not many other people feel this way so I would like to share a series of posts that walk through the trip planning process in hopes of clarifying what it’s all about and inspiring others to tackle this monumental task themselves.

Right now I’m in the middle of planning a road trip that will span at least 2 weeks. Not a small undertaking, but not a huge deal either. People hit the road for months at a time. But it’s been a couple of years since my last road trip and there’s a lot of ground I want to cover. It’s best to think about these things in stages, so this blog will come out in stages. First things first…

Road trip, anyone?

Step one: the idea

Any specific details must spring from an initial idea. A thought. A possibility. Perhaps you have some vacation time you have to use before a certain date. Or you want to visit a relative in a different geographic location. Or perhaps catch a particular season or weather condition. There’s always a seed. And your job is to determine where best to plant that seed.

I knew I wanted to craft a trip around the completion of the hikes for the Hike366 Project. At the time I started planning, my finish date was April 13*. That was my seed: a date. Then I could ask myself the following questions in order to pick a location:

1.  Is there good hiking in mid-April?

2. Is it an area I haven’t been to?

3. Is it driving distance from my home?

4. Are the roads/trailheads accessible in April?

5. Is there a variety of things to do and see around this location?

These questions helped me narrow down the infinite possibilities into a much more manageable number of choices. 1: it would definitely have to be an excellent hiking area. 2: I love novelty, so I’d like to find a place that was new to me. 3: I didn’t want to have to fly anywhere and I enjoy long road trips, so this idea narrowed down my choices to the western half of the U.S. 4: April is a tough month to plan for in certain locations due to snowpack, so it would have to be somewhere warm. 5: I’d be on the road with my husband, and although he likes hiking, he would prefer to mix it up with a variety of activities. There would ideally be places to see along the way as well as a number of interesting things to do besides hiking.

With those questions in mind, I quickly ruled out places like all of the Sierra and Cascades mountains, most of the state of Washington and Oregon. Within driving range included Idaho, Southern California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. Our last road trip took us through a few of those states and I’d just driven to Southern California in the spring. That easily brought me to Arizona: a place that I knew very little about and would have ideal hiking conditions in early spring. It felt a little far away, but once I started mapping it out, Arizona became much more plausible in my mind.

You can cover a lot of ground hiking in Arizona. There’s the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. There’s the northern half with its snowy peaks and the southern half with towering Saguaro cactus. There are slot canyons, mesas, mountains, desert, tribal lands and national parks. Like Oregon there are wide open spaces and busy cities. There was a lot to choose from. One quick glance at hikeaz.com opened the door to thousands of possibilities.

Not all decisions are this clear.

Here I had to ask myself another set of questions. Your questions might differ based on what’s important to you. Here’s my list:

1. Can I get away from the crowds?

2. Does it provide different scenery than the desert I live in?

3. Does it have unique and interesting natural features?

4. Can I camp nearby?

5. Is it within a reasonable driving distance?

The distance came up again because I was already stretching the length of the drive time to get to Arizona. I decided that while southern Arizona looked incredible, it was simply too far away. I’d be driving past plenty of things that met my criteria on my way there. So I decided on Northern Arizona, the part OUTSIDE Grand Canyon National Park. I’d been there once, a long time ago, for a day. All I remember is the stench of urine and the throngs of people. Now I know there are parts of the Grand Canyon where you can get away from all that but I had the feeling that Arizona had more in store for me. I did a little digging around online, using Google searches, scanning Instagram feeds and reading hiking websites. Yeah, Northern Arizona was going to meet my needs and suit my values.

In Summary

Planning a trip is a fun activity that does not need to intimidate you. It will help your actual trip go more smoothly, feel more meaningful and be more memorable than if you left it all to chance.

You’ll need a seed before you begin to brainstorm. That seed may be: time frame, location or activity type.

Once you have your seed then determine a list of questions that can help you narrow down the possibilities. Think logistics: amount of time you have, your budget, your interests, etc.

Then once you have a shortlist of places to go, make your decision based on your interests and values. You might need to do a little preliminary research online to get to “know” your options a little better. Choose the option that feels right and then you’re ready for step 2!

I would love to hear your ideas for upcoming trips. Please feel free to share in the comments section, or ask some questions related to the trip planning process. There are a few more installments in this series to come, so stay tuned!

 

*I’d later find out, when reviewing my trip data, that in fact May 10 would be my last day. Ooops! I’d already got myself invested in the Arizona trip that I did not change my intention to go there. That just means I get to plan another adventure in May.

 

Ready for step 2? Learn more about gathering resources.