Preparedness for the Backcountry and Beyond

When approaching a backpacking trip into areas unfamiliar or if the trip is greater than an overnight, we have a very deliberate process of planning.  This same approach is applicable is many ways; from vacation planning up to and including crisis preparedness for a variety of scenarios.

Given our backgrounds in military service, business operations and project management and our diverse backcountry experiences, the modality outlined here is an amalgam of planning methodology.  Simply put it’s “A” way.  I encourage all to create a framework that works best for you and your traveling party.

Climate remains one of the biggest factors in outdoor movement and activities.  Just looking at history, one of Ike’s most important staff members when planning D Day was James Stagg, his chief meteorological officer.  Understanding the weather conditions for your route of travel to / from, the area you will make camp and how terrain (more on this) may be impacted/impact the weather are critical components to overlay on all planning.  Be cautioned to not just take into consideration your chosen days of the outing, but the days leading up to and after your trip.  Weather impacts can have second and third order effects on a number of factors, such as rivers swells, flash flooding, slides, dried out water sources, etc.  Historical details are also good to know.  Understand your area for its meteorological history.  If late seasons squalls have occurred in your target area three of the last ten years, your planning should reflect that contingency.

Sources for weather include the NOAA National Weather Service  and a host of other reliable sites.  Also seek out “trail notes” and blogs to collect a first person perspective on the conditions.  If you find yourself behind on meteorological lexicon, NOAA provides this glossary with a search function http://w1.weather.gov/glossary/ .

On par in importance, some would argue more important, with knowledge about climate is gaining an understanding of the terrain within your area of interest.  In planning a trip, we pore through a volume of information on a park, trail or camp’s terrain features/characteristics before committing ourselves to further planning.  A map study is always our first step in the process. For popular locations, like Yosemite or for our upcoming trip to Zion, we use National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps, but maps are easily located online at a variety of sources.  When considering an urban/suburban preparedness situation, ensure you also locate good “street maps” and leverage the local library for city engineering style maps of the local city centers.  This can help in determining rally points, choke points, locations to scavenge or hole up, etc.

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In your map study, you need to locate some of the following:

•    Water Sources – determine where they are along the route (primary, secondary, tertiary)
•    Trail Heads – locate where you can “put in”
•    Established trails, secondary trails, roads, etc.
•    Bail Out points – for contingencies/emergencies
•    Safety concerns – drop offs (see Red River Gorge, KY for this as an example – sheer drops a foot from trails), flood plains/flash flood areas (Zion as an example – The Narrows), etc.
•    Route Reconnaissance – understand all of your primary, secondary and tertiary routes, locations to camp, proximity to major terrain features, elevation gain/loss
•    Proximity to main roads (emergencies), towns and private property for potential interaction with locals, etc.
•    Familiarize yourself with location of First Responders (Park Service, Law Enforcement/Fire, Hospitals, etc.)

Once you conclude your “old school” map study, leverage the internet for further research through blogs, forums, online diaries etc.  Fortunately, the backpacker/outdoor community has been sharing their collective experiences (albeit at varied degrees of quality) for some time.  Dig into a variety of sites and you will soon see who are the good sources/writers within that community.  Some will give details as minute as latitude /longitude waypoints for your GPS while others get into the more flowery aspect of their experience.  I suggest you absorb both in your planning.  Understanding the first hand experiences of a varied group of people can assist in you determining how your party may react.  Caution that this is the internet and no vetting has taken place on the quality of the information so select your sources, read on, double back and see if things check out through multiple sources.

A terrific source in more commonly traveled trails and parks is YouTube.  You can see pictures/Go Pro first person video of the terrain, flora/fauna, water sources, safety considerations all from the comfort of your living room.  Don’t be hesitant to leverage this source (if you can get over the horrible music many seem to select for their videos).

Of course, if you are local to the area or planning for a potential emergency preparedness response, a route reconnaissance and section hiking the environment is your best research by far.  Walking the ground and seeing things is invaluable compared to the more remote methods described above.

Coupled to route planning for backcountry trips is the ever frustrating permit process. Each park has a unique system for obtaining permits.  The best source for information on the different processes is NPS.gov.  The permits awarded will define a good part of your planning time line to include travel dates, the chronological order of your activities and route and camp site selection within the park.  Due to the varied approach of the different parks it’s best to begin permit requests and planning at least six months prior to your target trip dates.

Once the majority of the administrative planning is complete, one must determine what to bring on the trip.  A myriad of questions answered within the planning assist in determining the “gear” required.  Shelter, food, water, clothes, emergency equipment selection are all impacted by terrain, weather and length of trip; questions answered within the initial phase of planning.  Regardless of when or where you should always bring along the Ten Essentials.

Selection of tents, clothing and sleeping bags are good examples of gear impacted by weather.  Pack selection for size and functionality are driven by length of time spent out (capacity) and terrain (technical climbing, canyoneering, plateaus).  Selecting the amount of medical supplies and emergency equipment like a beacon or something more complex like the InReach Explorer (GPS, signal, beacon, text, maps, etc) are also driven by all of these factors.  Questions within gear selection are also determined by local policies, as is the case of a Bear Barrel in certain areas.  Specialized equipment are also items dictated by the locale of your trip.  As an example, when planning an early spring hike through Subway in Zion National Park, a party would want to consider such items as neoprene socks, Wet Suit tops and climbing ropes/harnesses for canyoneering.  And consider that all such equipment is required for one 9 mile trek in the park. Ask yourself throughout the planning stage, what else?  What am I missing regarding equipment for basic needs, safety and creature comfort?

Equal to understanding the outside stimulus in your planning cycle, consideration should be applied to your mindset, fitness and training. Familiarize yourself with the basics of backcountry travel. Test and evaluate your needs with short, practice trips and readjust as needed.  When preparing for a targeted trip, ensure you have thought through your timeline and route and consider any special needs you may have.  Also consider your party when planning and in selecting equipment.  Your parties make up (human/pet) by size, ability and knowledge base will drive your plan and with that your selection of equipment required.

In this internal assessment, your fitness is another factor.  Climbing off the couch after a winter of TV watching and holiday eating and expecting to knock out a multi-day 50-mile trek over rugged terrain is setting yourself up for failure.  From a general preparedness aspect, maintaining fitness, diet and an overall healthy lifestyle will allow you to not slip too far down the power curve, but a focused training plan for a specific trip pays dividends.  Assess your general fitness baseline, then look at your route planning and other considerations and determine the level you feel is required.  Do not sugar coat or lie to yourself in this determination.  You will pay for it if you do.

trauma kit
As discussed with special equipment needs, advanced skills may be required for a trip. Once determined, assess your skill against this challenge.  Hiking Subway in Zion, are you prepared to rappel 30 feet safely with a harness and rope?  Will you know how to employ Bear Spray and understand its capabilities?  Like fitness, a true assessment of the skills required will keep you safe and help you enjoy your experience.

The above information are some basic considerations to begin planning for a backcountry trip or beginning crisis preparedness.  With your planning and research, you will likely find yourself asking more questions, which precipitates further learning and research on the topic.  Seeking reputable training in necessary skills are encouraged and will further polish your planning approach for future trips

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