“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
- Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
Once you have selected your destination, then it’s a question of sorting out the nuts and bolts before embarking on your journey.
Whilst there is no universal archetype by which each and every hike can be planned, there are certain basic questions and concerns that need to be addressed before you head out into the wilderness:
- Alone or with a group?
- Leave trip details
- The Unexpected
ALONE OR WITH A GROUP?
“Never walk alone” is a common refrain heard from Park Rangers, Liverpool Football (Soccer) fans and Rodgers and Hammerstein aficionados the world over.
In so much as it relates to hiking, it can be considered sound advice for beginners and/or experienced hikers venturing into unfamiliar conditions. It should not, however, be taken as an all-encompassing gospel truth. Whether you hike solo or with a group depends on three principal factors:
- Your level of experience.
- The prevailing conditions.
- Personal preference.
Walking alone in the wilderness can be immensely rewarding. However, problems can occur when hikers venture solo into terrain and conditions for which they are not prepared. It is therefore important to always balance intangible considerations such as freedom, self-determination and connection with nature, with a realistic assessment of your backcountry skill set.
HIKING IN A GROUP
- In case of injury or illness, help is close at hand.
- Minimizesthe possibility of getting lost.
- Comradeship with like-minded people.
- Opportunity to learn from those with greater experience. Helpful for beginners.
- Possible to share certain gear, such as shelter and stove, thus decreasing pack weight.
- Compromised sense of freedom: pace, campsites, breaks, food choices, starting and finishing times are often determined by the group leader or by general consensus.
- Bigger wilderness footprint.
- Minimizes chances to view wildlife.
- If you choose to hike in a group, make it a small one. The bigger the group, the larger the environmental impact.
- Know your fellow group members before setting out. The last thing anyone wants is for their hike to be ruined by a personality clash out on the trail.
- The freedom to choose the pace at which you walk, where you camp, what you eat and when you take a break.
- Heightened feeling of connection with your natural surroundings.
- Opportunity to see more wildlife, as a solo hiker represents less of a potential threat.
- Reduced impact on the environment.
- You are on your own if injury or illness occurs.
- Your pack may be heavier as sharing equipment is not an option (eg. tent, stove, maps).
- Need to be constantly aware of your position, as there is no one else to point you in the right direction if you happen to drift off with the fairies.
Before undertaking any multi-day hike it pays to be in good shape. Why? Two principal reasons:
Enjoyment: The fitter you are the less you struggle, physically and mentally. This particularly holds true during the first few days of a hike. By being in good shape, you are able to focus more on the beauty of your surroundings and less on the distraction of how exhausted you feel.
Health: A good level of pre-hike conditioning minimizes the likelihood of stress/repetition related injuries such as knee and achilles ailments.
For a detailed look at Hiking Fitness, see the HEALTH & SAFETY section.
One of the keys to a safe and enjoyable wilderness experience is pre-hike research. Internet, guidebooks, maps, Outdoor magazines, experienced hiker friends; knowing what you are getting yourself in for before embarking on your journey can make all the difference.
WHEN TO GO?
In Season: Ideal weather-wise, but depending on where you are hiking, crowds may be an issue. May not be the best time for those seeking solitude, however it is the optimum period for beginners looking to gain experience.
Out of Season: No crowds, but weather can be an issue. Generally requires a higher level of backcountry skill and experience in order to deal with what could potentially be difficult conditions.
The Shoulder Seasons: Can be an ideal compromise for seasoned hikers wanting to avoid the crowds, but at the same time providing the possibility of good weather.
Other Contributing Factors: Flora (e.g. autumn colours, spring foliage), fauna (e.g. migration, mating season) and cultural (e.g. ceremonies, festivals).
Maps and/or Guidebook: If you are planning on hiking off the beaten track in developing countries, whenever possible it is wise to organize topographical maps before departure. If you can’t download what you are looking for off the Net, two companies that have a wide range of international mapping options are Omnimap and East View Geospatial.
Historical Weather Data: Instrumental in making an educated decision about when you want to go and what you will need to take equipment-wise in order to have a safe and enjoyable hike.
Permits: Organize permission (e.g. If trekking over private lands) or permits (e.g. National Park, camping or hut fees) before setting out.
Resupply points and/or Mail Drops: Most countries offer the service by which a Post Office will hold mail until the recipient comes to collect it. These packages are usually addressed General Delivery (USA & Canada) or Poste Restante (Australia, NZ and many other countries).
Getting There & Away: Always have a backup plan in case injury, illness or other circumstances force you to finish early.
Once you have obtained all the general information relevant to your proposed journey, it’s time to work out the details of your proposed route:
Estimate time and distance; both for the hike in its entirety as well as for individual sections
Identify possible campsites.
Note the location of water sources.
Note the location of notable landmarks and/or points of reference along your chosen route.
Identify potentially hazardous areas and possible evacuation routes (see Weather below)..
Prior to setting out, objectively assess your level of fitness, experience and skill. Problems in the backcountry can occur when ill-prepared hikers attempt routes that are currently beyond them.
Keep it Simple: Research the terrain and conditions you are likely to encounter, and then take only what you need (see Gear). Emphasize necessities over superfluous luxuries…………your shoulders, back, knees and ankles will be grateful. The essence of Going Lighter is all about taking a simpler, less cluttered approach to your time in the backcountry.
Light & Safe: It is great to go as light as possible, but never do so by compromising safety. Everyone is different. Find a balance which is right for you. Experience in the wilderness will ultimately be your best teacher in regards to what you can and can’t do without. (see Going Light).
At Home: Keep all your hiking equipment in one cupboard. Make a gear list and tape it to the inside of that cupboard. Same principle applies for your hiking clothes. This will save a lot of last minute rushing around trying to locate everything. Speaking from personal experience on this one.
Food tastes better in the outdoors. I guess it’s a combination of fresh air, beautiful surroundings and all that exercise you’re doing. It also represents the most regularly anticipated and most commonly fantasized about subject that occupies a hiker’s mind. Yep, even more than that other one.
In keeping with its exalted status, it stands to reason that no matter whether you are a Gourmet, Spartan or somewhere in between, food will play a significant role in your hiking plans. On shorter trips of a week or less, our body’s natural reserves are such that we can pretty much eat anything and still be relatively ok. However, for longer walks, nutritional (i.e. vitamins and minerals) needs come into play, thereby necessitating a little more thought and planning in regards to our on-trail diet. Ideally a balance should be struck between quantity, quality, taste, variety and simplicity.
How much food you need depends on multiple factors such as metabolism, level of exertion, age, sex and climate (i.e. you need more in cold weather). Your own personal experiences in the outdoors will ultimately be your best guide. As a general reference point, it is estimated that for three-season (i.e. summer, autumn, spring) travel the average hiker needs to carry approximately 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of food per day. How that quantity is divided up will dictate your energy levels and ultimately your overall health out on the trail.
- The Breakdown
Food consists of three main elements: carbohydrates, fats and proteins. To achieve optimum hiking efficiency, we need to strike a balance between all three. For extended hiking trips, nutritionist and long distance hiker, Dr. Brenda Braaten, Ph.D, recommends the following caloric breakdown: 45-55% carbs; 35-40% fats; 10-15% protein. For shorter hikes, where potential weight loss is not so much of an issue, you can decrease the amount of fatty foods you carry and increase the quantity of carbs and proteins. For a detailed look at the caloric requirements for hiking, see the following link from Bushwalking.org.au.
- Eat Small & Often
Snacking regularly (say every hour-and-a-half to two hours), as opposed to three big set meals a day, is conducive to a more efficient hiking approach. You are not as weighed down with a full stomach, your muscles won’t be as stiff because your breaks aren’t as long and it’s better for your digestive system. Most importantly, by feeding your body small amounts at regular intervals, it is easier to maintain your energy levels throughout the hiking day. TIP: Keep your day’s snacks near the top of your pack for easy access.
When it comes to food, long distance hikers can be a very demanding bunch. They want nutrition, but they want it to come in a compact, lightweight, easy to prepare, high caloric density package. Oh yes, preferably it should be economically priced as well. For an in depth overview of the nutritional side of backpacking foods, see Dr. Braaten’s excellent series of articles, Pack Light, Eat Right.
- Fresh Foods
Whether on trail or off, fresh, organic foods will always be nutritionally superior and provide greater energy than processed and refined fare. Unfortunately, for backpacking purposes fresh foods are generally heavy and have a limited use-by date. If you choose to carry fresh items, eat them in the first couple of days of your hike, thereby eliminating the heavier items straight off the bat. TIP: When leaving towns/resupply stops during longer hikes, I will generally try to pack out a bag of fruit and vegetables along with half a dozen boiled eggs.
Bring food that appeals to you. You may have ticked all the boxes in regards to nutrition, high calorie density and overall weight, but the fact is that if you don’t enjoy the items you have packed it’s like a metaphorical black cloud is looming over each and every meal. Find a balance.
Unless you can subsist on the same food day after day (and many ultralight hikers do), plan on packing a variety of options. Don’t underestimate how easily you will become bored with certain foods.
During longer treks, bring along easy to prepare items (e.g. quick-cook pasta, freeze dried & dehydrated foods) which require little preparation time. At the end of a long day, you want to be spending your time eating and relaxing rather than slaving over a three-course feast. Remember, even the most simple foods usually taste great when you are in the Great Outdoors.
Before setting out, always check the latest weather forecast. If conditions take a turn for the worse, you need to be aware of your options in regards to:
- Possible evacuation routes.
- Emergency shelters or campsites.
- River crossings that may become impassable during heavy rains.
- Canyons which may pose a flash flood danger in the event of a sudden downpour.
- Exposed areas such as treeless ridgelines……….whereabouts can you descend if an electrical storm is approaching?
LEAVE TRIP DETAILS
Always leave your hiking itinerary details with a responsible contact person. Once you have completed your walk, be sure to inform the contact that you have finished. These points especially hold true if you are hiking solo.
You may have planned your trip to the umpteenth degree, but Mother Nature has ideas of her own.
When you enter the wilderness by all means be as prepared as you possibly can, but at the same time go with an open and adaptable mindset. Schedules that are set in stone are rarely a good thing when it comes to backcountry travel.
Find a balance between the planned and the spontaneous. Leave rigid expectations at the trailhead. Your trip will be all the better for it.