Tips for Planning A Backcountry Trip (Spring 2020)
There are plenty of beautiful places to explore and setup camp. Whether it’s as close as your own backyard or somewhere in the backcountry, it’s still important to plan and prepare for that next exciting trip! Right now most of us are at home in self isolation or some of us that are still working, are self isolating after work and on weekends. So what better time to plan our next trip, or plan that dream trip we've been putting off.
In this blog we will be giving advice to help with planning a backcountry trip.
- Deciding what type of trip you're going on: Knowing what type of trip you'd like to go on will help you choose your destination. eg. you'll have a very unenjoyable canoe trip, if you choose an area with no lakes or water.
- Choosing your specific destination: Using several different resources can help you pinpoint your specific destination.
- Route information: Use information to determine and plan how far you want to travel each given day, where you’ll camp, procure water and other critical details that need to be known and figured out, before you set out on your adventure.
- Gear, supplies, rentals: Are Park/Site permits and reservations required? Gear for insects, seasons/weather? What food to pack and how much? Do you need to rent/reserve gear you don't own (canoe, kayak, tent) Knowing these things will help you when it comes time to pack.
- Last-minute MUST DO's: Just before you head out on your adventure, there are a few things left to take care of.
Deciding What Type Of Trip You're Going On
First you need to decide on your trips specifics, the following will help narrow down your destination options, when making your decision on a destination.
Time and Distance: Your choice of backcountry destination will be greatly influenced by these two.
- How much time will you be spending in the backcountry? If your time will be limited, you’ll need to know how far you'll be able to travel (hike or paddle) each day, in order to make sure that you can complete the route you choose within the time allotted. Most people can travel 3-10 miles per day, dependant on their pace, which is dictated by terrain and level of physical fitness/abilities.
- How far would you like to travel? If your final destination is at a fixed distance, you will still need to know how many miles you'll need to hike each day, this will help you determine how many days you’ll need to be in the backcountry.
Location and aesthetics: If you're only able to get away for a weekend, maybe choose somewhere closer to where you live, so that you have more time to enjoy the backcountry and spend less time travelling to get there. However you may be the type of adventurer that the environment or location is more important to you when making your destination decision, so added travel time may be worth it to you. Rock or forest? Lakes or rivers? Beautiful lookouts or breathtaking waterfalls? These details will dictate the logistics of your trip.
Method of travel: Will you be hiking or paddling to get into the backcountry? If paddling be aware of all portages. Lengths, how many, will you be able to handle them?. If hiking, find out what the terrain is like, do you have the necessary type(s) of footwear that you will need to safely hike the terrain(s).
Group vs solo: If travelling solo, you will be able to freely decide on your travel speed and where to setup camp for the night. If you’re going as a group, speed will be dictated by the pace of the slowest member. However, an added benefit with a group is, you may be able to lower your pack weight by splitting up some items and sharing who carries them (shelter, stove/fuel, food). Make sure that when travelling in a group, you choose a site or sites that can accommodate your group.
Prep. time: If you're taking a trip on a whim, your desired destination may be different, than if your trip is a few months away. If you were to take a spur of the moment type trip, would your current level of fitness allow you to conquer a challenging route?
Utilizing a base camp: You might also decide to hike/paddle into the backcountry and setup a base camp, from which you can do day hike/paddle trips from. Like we mentioned before, If you’re in a group, consider splitting up the extra weight of a larger, more comfortable tent that can accommodate everyone (one person carries the fly and footprint, one carries the main tent body and one carries the poles, stakes and removable accessories eg. gear loft). If your large pack doesn’t cinch down enough or have a removable portion that can be used as a daypack, bring a small lightweight pack along that can be used for your day trips.
Seasons and weather: Remember that some trails may not be accessible in early spring because they’re still covered in snow or just too muddy.
Arranging Drop-off and Pick-up: If your not doing a loop type route and your route only takes you from one point to another, at the very least you will have to arrange a pick-up point with someone or a service that can take you back to your vehicle, or home if you were originally dropped off at the start of your route.
Choosing Your Specific Destination
Once you have your general details and a general area of where you want to go, now it's time to get to specifics planning. There are many ways to find routes that will meet your requirements and will match your skill level.
Guidebooks, websites and apps: are all great resources because you can get the info you’re going to want; trail difficulty, distance, elevation gain, directions, water sources, trail features, and details like if pets are allowed. Websites can also showcase recent trip reports that may give you the best sense of what the trip will really be like, during the time your planning to go on your adventure.
Resources we've used in the past
- Avenza Maps App
- AllTrails Online and App (requires subscription to service)
- The Explorer's Guide to Algonquin Park (paperback)
- Unlostify - A new company offering detailed Ontario Park maps
Word of mouth: If you plan on going with a group/friends, or know others who like to head into the backcountry, they are often a great resource and will be able to suggest some great locations to you. Be sure to share with them the specific requirements that you’ve already narrowed down, knowing those will help them to offer you the best advice on the location(s) you seek.
Speak to locals: You can also try contacting local hiking organizations or ranger districts in the area where you want to travel. Now there's almost a facebook group for every area/park you could ever imagine to camp in. A ton of information can be sourced from members of these groups, as many of them are locals or regulars to the area you are looking at. Remember for the most accurate and up to date information, contacting a State/Provincial Parks directly is the best option.
Maps: If you’re comfortable reading a topo map, you may be able to choose a route from details you’ll be able to find there. A good practice is to cross-reference your choice(s) with others who have a current knowledge of the trail/park, as maps can quickly become dated.
So, you’ve chosen the area/park, and you've now chosen your route. Now’s the time to start working on your day to day plan. During this planning stage it helps to have a detailed topo map of your planned route to review. Pay attention to the following so you won’t have any surprises when you get out there.
Campsites: Find out where the established campsites you plan to use are. If it’s too far from one camp to the next, figure out if there’s another likely place you can stay. Some parks do not allow camping anywhere that isn't an established site, be sure to know this information, assuming it is okay could result in an angry Park Warden. A hefty fine and most likely your removal from the park could happen, resulting in your trip being cut short.
Water sources: If you are paddling, sourcing water shouldn't be an issue. Having a filter or purifier is a must have, but they are no good to you if you don’t know where to get your water. Are there any streams, rivers or lakes you’re hiking by? Or will you need to plan a detour route to reach a water source? If you’re melting snow, you’ll need to factor in enough fuel to melt the snow. If your water is from a murky source, you will need a specific kind of filter or pre-filter.
Terrain: Before you head out, you should have a general idea of what you’ll be up against. Referring to your topo map, it will show you exactly where elevation gains will happen, the best areas for rest breaks with views. Accessing trip reports will tell you information like if a road is out, and if there are sections of the trail that are washed out or re-routed. Reports can also give info on if there is snow on the ground, lots of mud or indicate the presence of poisonous plants. Sometimes a quick search on YouTube of your desired park or route, will turn up videos that can help give you an idea of what the terrain is like and what you’ll be up against (we learned about a steep portage on our last trip this way, and they were right, it was STEEP).
Gear, Supplies, Rentals
Now that all the details of your destination are ironed out, it's now time to start planning everything you will need for the trip. The following are things to keep in mind.
Permits, permissions and reservations: State and Provincial Parks vary in their permit requirements for backcountry camping. Some Parks allow entry only through an annual lottery system. Be sure to source your information on permits and make reservations well in advance or your desired departure date.
Wildlife: The most common wildlife you’ll need to deal with when in the backcountry are the scavengers like; raccoons, mice and other rodents. Be sure to educate yourself on any dangerous wildlife that may be in the area that you will be visiting. Will you be in bear/cougar habitat? Find out how to increase your chances of avoiding/not attracting them, and what to do if you encounter cougars, or grizzly or black bears. Some Parks will have food storage requirements, such as bear canisters, hanging methods or on-site bear lock boxes. Be sure to know the parks food storage requirements prior to heading out, so that you can be prepared.
Insects: Research if biting insects are a problem where you’re going. Insect-repellent, a bug net for your hammock, and a head net can be invaluable for your comfort.
Food: Planning your meals can help you when it's time to prep. or buy your meals. Plan to bring 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of dry food per person per day, this will put you in the vicinity of 2500-4500 calories per day. Terrain elevation, speed and distance traveled will dictate how often you eat and how much. Always carry some extra food in case of emergency, you may have to wait for bad weather to pass before heading out or wait for help to come if you or a member of your group become injured.
Maps: Source copies of maps that you can bring with you, we recommend always having a physical waterproof copy and a compass, to accompany any digital maps you may be using (handheld gps, cellphone maps and apps). Never rely solely on digital/electronic versions.
Stove fuel: How you need to prepare each meal, will determine how much fuel you need to bring. Will you be drinking coffee or eating oatmeal every morning or grab a breakfast bar and go? Will you be melting snow for water or boiling hot water for bottles in your sleeping bag? Will you be making freeze-dried or dehydrated meals or cooking regular food? Practice ahead of time to learn how much fuel you will use doing the above activities, which will help you to estimate how much you need to bring.
Inspect your gear: Ensure all your gear is in good shape and operating properly. Our previous blog covers tips on inspecting and preparing your gear. Make sure that all your footwear fits well and are comfortable. If you can, do a local overnighter as a test run or refresher for a longer backpacking trip.
Sharing gear: Going as a group? Decide who will be bringing and carrying what, to avoid duplicate or missed items. Common gear that is shared includes a stoves, grills/grates, tents/shelter and water filtration systems.
Gathering your gear: At home you should layout all the gear you plan to take with you on your floor at home. This will allow you to see what’s missing and to cutout items you don’t really need, saving you weight. Make your own or use a checklist and be sure to actually check off. Ask yourself, does the trip you've planned require something you don’t already have, or does something need to be replaced?
Rentals: Now is the time you want to look into rental gear if you’ll need it (canoe, kayak, tents and other accessories) REI in the USA and MEC in Canada have a great selection of gear for rental at fairly reasonable prices. Don't leave rentals till the last minute, book well in advance of your trip. As the camping season winds up, the availability of rental gear becomes almost nonexistent, leaving you with the choice of buying what you need or cancelling your trip altogether.
Last-minute MUST DO's
Make sure right before heading out on your trip you haven't forgot to do the following.
Rentals: Prior to heading out on your trip, we suggest contacting any companies and parks you have rentals arranged with, in order to double check and confirm your arrangements (we suggest at minimum a week in advance). If there are any issues, you want to give companies and parks sufficient time to make changes to accommodate you or remedy any possible issues. When making reservations, sometimes errors can occur or info doesn't get inputted properly, and isn't always caught.
Pack your backpack: Once you have everything in your backpack and lift it and try it on for the first time, you may find it is too heavy. In order to reduce more weight you'll have to review the need for of each item you've packed, and make a few tough decisions on what you can really go without. You can find info all over the internet on how to properly pack your backpack to distribute weight better. Look for a future blog from WILDLANDS Outdoor Gear on that topic.
Review the local weather where you're going: Although weather can change day to day, having access to a local weekly report can help you plan your days in the backcountry. Poor weather may have you postpone the day you head out, or have you heading home a day or two earlier than expected. Plan accordingly based on what you learn, or even reschedule or cancel the trip if you need to. You can't always guarantee cellular service everywhere you go, take a screen shot of a local weekly weather report before you head out. Once you're in the backcountry, if you are fortunate enough to find signal somewhere, take another screen shot of weather info as it changes and is updated.
Itinerary: ALWAYS leave a detailed itinerary with family and friends. Your itinerary should include, names of people in your group and their emergency family contacts, dates and times you plan to arrive and end your trip, name of the park, trails and access points you plan to use. A bonus but not a must is to leave a detailed map of the route you intend to use. Another good practice we recommend is to leave a copy of your itinerary under the front seat of the vehicle you have travelled in to get there.
Safety and proper planning is key in everything related to getting out into the backcountry. If you have concerns about anything related to your trip, do not commit yourself to going until you are 100% confident and comfortable with all aspects of the trip you have planned. Pushing your boundaries is a good way to learn your limitations, but we encourage you to not solo trip until you are experienced enough to do solo trips, go for a day hike/trip if you don't think your gear is prepared to keep you warm or dry through a cold, damp night. Motivate yourself to get out there, explore and have fun, but don't jeopardize your safety or others, in order to do so.
Be safe out there and have fun,
- WILDLANDS Outdoor Gear
Zach Betten, unsplash
Alice Donovan Rouse, unsplash
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