Plan Ahead and Prepare
As long as I'll live, I'll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing.
Before you even set foot on trail or paddle in water, you've already done the most important steps of minimizing your impact on the environment. By taking time to plan and prepare for your excursion, you've maximized the probability of an enjoyable, safe trek and minimized the damage you'll do. The folks that cause the most trouble tend to be those that blast out the door on a whim without thinking through all the things for which they need to be prepared.
If you decide to be a dumb dude and skip making a trip plan, either because you're too lazy, don't have time, or want to be spontaneous and free then the result is probably going to be a miserable trip, unreasonable damage to the land, and maybe even expensive rescue help. In the outdoors, you need to set goals, have a plan and resources to reach them, and be willing to change or abandon goals when necessary.
Trip Planning is Important because it:
- increases group safety
- helps you reach your goals
- makes your trip more comfortable and enjoyable
- increases opportunities to experience and learn about nature
- builds your skills in organization and leadership
- ensures you are taking steps to Leave No Trace
Considerations on Trip Planning:
- Match trip goals to participant abilities:
- List the goals and limits of your trip - what you want to see and do, how much time and money you hav.
- For each person in your group, figure out their ability level
- Choose goals from your list that fit the abilities of your entire group
- Learn about the area you will visit:
- Use maps, Internet, and brochures to get familiar with attractions
- Find out about regulations for the area
- Use email or phone calls to local land managers to find out about any new restrictions
- Create a route map showing where you're going, how long each section will take, and what activities you will do
- Confirm your crew has the abilities and desire to handle the trek
- Figure out how much food is needed for crew to ensure you have enough but not too much to reduce waste
- Ensure you have adequate water and definite places along the route to replenish your supply as well as a way to purify the water
- Identify equipment required to ensure comfort, safety, enjoyment, and Leave No Trace practices
- Be aware of the worst case weather possibilities and the forecast to be sure you have appropriate clothing
Tips on Trip Planning
- Create a menu - a healthy, nutritious menu means less weight and more energy for the trek
- Food Amounts - base your meal sizes on the needs of your party. Too little means fatigue and hunger while too much means waste and more garbage to be packed out
- Repackage - leave excessive packaging at home to reduce weight, trash, and time for cooking. Pack a meal into a zip-loc bag so it is easy to get everything for a meal out of your backpack. Use the zip-log for packing all your garbage out. Plastic bags also help reduce smell that attracts animals. Bags can be rinsed at home and reused.
- One-pot Meals - simple meals that can be cooked in a single pot mean less cooking time, less fuel, less clean-up, less dirty water to dispose of, and less overall impact.
- Physical Preparation - have practice hikes for everyone in the crew to get acquainted and build their technical skills. This lets you identify weak skills and manage them before they are required in the wilderness. As the leader of a trip, you must be prepared to address someone's weakness and either increase their skill to the level of the rest of the group, reduce the trip's goals, or have that person leave the group.
- First Aid - you can be sure someone will need first aid on every trip. At least one, and preferably all, members of your team should have first aid skills. A first aid kit adequate for your group size and trip duration needs to be taken along.
- Leave No Trace - well, of course, dude! Everybody going on your trek has to understand, adopt, and practice these LNT principles. It doesn't do much good for you to be all LNT in a group with another 3 guys that haven't even heard of it. Use what you learn here to teach them the principles and what LNT is all about. Use your practice hikes to practice LNT, too.
- Mental Preparation - one thing that gets us in trouble is not changing our plans before we're in a pickle. Before you even start your trip, tell yourself that its ok to not make the summit, its ok to miss the full moon reflected in Lake Upchuck, its ok to be a day late returning to work. There's always the chance of a freak storm, an injury, or some unexpected thing that will slow you down or require an early end to a trip. Be prepared to make the change and not 'push on' to the goal against all obstacles. If a rescue is needed, that will most likely make a significant impact due to the number of people and machines involved.
- Rules Change - maybe the maximum group size was 10 last year, but it's 8 this year. Or maybe you could stay at a campsite 2 nights last year, but it's now 1 night. Get the latest regulations for the park or wilderness area you are visiting and read them. The ethics of leaving no trace are not based on rules and regulations, but on doing what you understand is best for the land you visit. In some places, specific rules need to be put in place and enforced even though education has been shown to be a much better solution than rules. See my article about Rules versus Ethics for details.
- Group Expectations - People expect noise and crowds in campgrounds, but not in a remote wilderness. If your group is new to backcountry use, take them on a few frontcountry trips and work your way up to a wilderness experience. The backcountry is not the correct place to learn or practice proper land ethics - it is the place to perform it correctly.
- Group Size - The smaller the group, the less trace is left. A larger group needs more sleeping, cooking, eating, and sitting space. A large group squeezing into a small campsite causes the site to expand. Larger groups dividing into smaller campsites near each other impact the space between from the social traffic caused by visiting. Keep your group small and, if you have a large group, consider creating two or more smaller groups, each with its own itinerary.
- Time Your Trip - Visit a location in an off time whenever possible. Mid-week treks will encounter much less traffic than weekends. Try to avoid times that maximize impact, such as when trails are muddy.
- Good Gear - By using appropriate gear, you will create less impact. A hiker in shoes will be more likely to skirt a mud puddle than someone in waterproof boots. It's easier to find durable sites for two 2-man tents than a 4-man tent. Extra water resistant clothing will help prevent the need of a fire. A map and compass will keep you on the trail and out of trouble.
- Local Knowledge - know what impacts are most likely where you are going. In an Arizona desert, cryptobiotic soil might be a concern, but it may be lichens in Montana or high fire danger in Utah. Taking time to learn about the area makes for a more interesting and safe trip.
- Reflection - on your way home or when you get home, take some time to reflect on how well your planning worked. Make notes of what you can do better next time, specific advice for this particular router or area, and general thoughts on ways to improve.
Examples to Consider
- A group experienced with hiking in Montana takes a 3-day trek in Arizona. Hiking in a dry riverbed so their tracks will be washed away in the rainy season, they are surprised by a flashflood caused by a mountain rainstorm 15 miles away. Better knowledge of the local geography would help.
- Two men go on a hike in Colorado. Above treeline, the trail becomes faint and finally disappears. With a map and compass, and the skills to use them, they continue their hike and return safely.
- On a trail in the desert southwest, the water source marked on a map has run dry. A group of hikers make it back to their vehicles, very thirsty, when they had to end their trek at that point. If they had hiked on to the next water source and it was dry, they would have been in danger of dehydration. Checking with local authorities is a good idea.
- A group of Boy Scouts planned a week-long trek in a Montana wilderness area. When they reach the trailhead, a sign states a fire ban is in effect. All their meals were to be cooked over campfires and they did not bring a back-up stove. A quick trip to town and $75 later, they had a stove, fuel bottle, and fuel with only a half day of hiking lost. They were lucky, but not prepared.
- Three backpackers that hiked the Appalachian Trail together two years ago plan a 250 mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail from Kennedy Meadows to Tuolumne Meadows. The frequent 11,000+ climbs are much more strenuous than they had expected due to the thin air. They often arrive at planned campsites late at night and do a poor job of site selection, unnecessarily damaging the area. They wind up finishing only half their planned trek.
- A small group of backpackers planned a route using a map. Part of the route was cross-country with no trail. But, since they did not understand all the map symbols and did not use its legend, they thought a line across the route was just a county or agency boundary. In fact, it was the border of private property and they encountered a barbed wire fence in their path. A river on one side and steep mountains on the other meant they could go forward or back at least five miles. The next morning, county sheriffs were at their campsite issuing citations because they decided to hop the fence and continue on.
Teaching Plan Ahead and Prepare
- General Teaching Advice - good ways to get people to learn
- Activity - One Pot Meal
- Activity - Mystery Destination
- Activity - Gear Grab
- Activity - Two Packs