- All miles are not equal.
- I’d rather hike than plan.
- Flexibility and back-up options are good plans.
- Learning to read maps is a valuable skill.
- Navigation skills are gained through experience.
- Being lost or disoriented is frightening.
- I remember being a planner. I enjoyed the process but somewhere along the line it became more of a burden and I learned to be prepared but not to worry about the details. This philosophy works better when:
- I’m hiking solo and don’t have to provide expectations or details to others
- My time is flexible and I can enjoy the journey rather than worry about being driven by time and location
- These days planning for me includes:
- Usually having a paper map.
- Downloading digital maps for offline use.
- Photographing pages from my trail books or taking screen shots from web pages or saving web information to an offline app such as Pocket.
- Obtaining permits and getting updated trail/road conditions information from ranger stations and visitor centers.
- How many days of food do I want to carry?
- Where’s my first water source?
- How do I get to the trailhead?
- Many hikers like to plan for each night’s campsite with daily mileage goals. With limited vacation, many have to get permits 6 months to a year in advance. The process becomes more complicated the more people in a group. This process leads many to what I call analysis paralysis whereby worry or detailed thinking takes priority over actually doing.
Predicting daily mileage is a huge challenge since a trail is rarely consistent. These factors slow me down:
- Technical terrain
- Trail obstacles
- Sustained elevation gain
- Routes requiring navigation skills
- Carrying too much weight (usually water or seasonal extras)
- Being out of shape
I track most of my hikes using a phone app. I’ve done this for many years and one of the best tools is daily mileage per hour versus active miles per hour. The daily average takes into account breaks, for me that means a lot of photo and breathing stops. I also pay attention to elevation gain and loss since those affect my average and also are a telltale sign of my current fitness level.
- Map Reading – I love maps, so learning to decipher the details has been fairly easy although there are still a few things that give me pause. There are plenty of resources to help you gain map and compass skills but practice and curiosity have been my keys.
- Digital Maps and Tracking – Using the tracking feature on digital maps has improved my skills and confidence in areas such as these:
- I can compare where I think I am intuitively to where I am in reality.
- When a trail disappears on the ground, I can verify that I’m nearby and heading in the correct direction.
- When there isn’t a trail, I can verify I’m heading toward my trajectory and can adjust based on topographical lines.
- I like to mark my track with waypoints that might be useful on future trips or during my exit such as water sources and campsites. I’ll indicate whether the water source is seasonal or is a wet feet crossing.
I currently use Gaia as my primary digital mapping app and pay for premium membership which includes helpful layers such as National Geographic, National Parks, USFS, snow levels, fire history, geology, etc. You can find great tutorials on YouTube and the Gaia blog. I also use Avenza and wrote this blog post with helpful tips, Hiking with Geospatial PDF Maps (Avenza).
I don’t have an internal compass or landscape memory. I work really hard at “staying found” as they say when teaching map and compass classes. I know I’d struggle if I couldn’t depend on my phone but I’m very aware of that possibility and try to take precautions. Obviously I could drop and break it, lose it, or run out of battery (although I carry an external battery to minimize this risk).
Itinerary and Safety:
I’m the first to admit that I’m not very responsible when it comes to leaving a detailed itinerary with friends and family. Of course this directly relates to my lack of planning, and even more so to my disdain to commitment. My way of staying responsible and accountable is a little different than many but works for me.
- I have a network of friends/family who I text my loose itinerary which basically says the trailhead from which I plan to start, how many days of food I’m carrying, and my exit date ETA.
- I’m faithful about using my inReach for check-ins. I send a message at the beginning and end of my trip indicating the location of my car, every evening and morning from my campsite, and each time I change trail or find myself crossing sketchy terrain including uncomfortable water crossings. I can also text any major change of plans.
I wrote this blog post after working with SAR teams on rescues where they lost significant search time not having this information, Dear Friends & Family, If I become a Missing Person . . .