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February 2001

Organize Your Backpacking Trip

Meet Jamie and Joe, who need help with everything from planning to packing to eating well. Enter our team of experts, with a few simple tricks designed to turn them-and you!-into well-oiled backpacking machines.

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Planning A Trip

“Even though Joe and I have been backpacking together for only 7 months, we already have a year’s supply of mishaps,” laments Jamie. “We figured 15 miles a day in November in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness would be a cinch because we live at a much higher elevation.” They turned around a mere 72 hours into their 10-day trip, having averaged only 7 miles per day due to numerous blowdowns along the trail.

Like those of many busy people, Jamie and Joe’s “adventures” become misadventures due to a lack of research and trying to cram too many miles into too little time. What’s more, their tendency to overpack (“we’re afraid to go to the zoo without proper provisions”) inevitably slows them down.

Expert Advice
Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center, University of Washington, Seattle

“Jamie and Joe’s situation isn’t unusual,” says Dr. Marlatt, equating it with research he’s done on New Year’s resolutions. “The people who fail (to follow through) are good at coming up with resolutions, but haven’t figured out how they’re going to carry them out.” Without a clear, step-by-step plan that considers potential snags, an ambitious goal will never become a reality. Every successful backpacking trip has three steps: pretrip planning, the trip itself, and a post-trip wrap up.

Pretrip Planning

  • Do the research. Joe started well by reading up on the 100-Mile Wilderness and ordering maps, but he didn’t go far enough and get up-to-date trail information from rangers or recent hikers. Had he taken this step, he’d have known about the blowdowns that obliterated much of the trail.

    After you call the land manager for information, log on to our message boards at www. to get the latest scoop from hikers recently in the area.

  • Identify and plan for possible barriers to success. Are you physically ready for the terrain and length of the trip? Can the slowest person in your group maintain the pace? Do you have the skills and gear to handle the worst weather you could encounter? If you answer no to any question, modify your goals.

  • Think one day at a time. Instead of picking a site as a goal and then calculating the miles you’ll have to hike per day, turn the process around. Estimate what you can accomplish each day under given conditions. By breaking your trip into daily chunks, you won’t be tempted to make sweeping generalizations that overlook important factors like elevation gain and trail conditions.

Technique to try: Let’s say you want to determine how long it’ll take to hike from Klondike Notch to the top of Yard Mountain in New York’s Adirondack Park. Here’s how:
Step 1: Figure the trail distance by tracing it with a length of string,

then lay the string next to the map scale. In this case it’s 1.25 miles. The average hiker’s pace is 2 mph on rolling, groomed trail, which means it would take 30 to 40 minutes to hike this section. But since it’s not flat from Klondike Notch to Yard Mountain, you need to figure in elevation.
Step 2: Count the number of contour lines that send you uphill and downhill to determine elevation gain and loss. On the map there are 7 descending contour lines. Each contour interval is 10 meters, so the descent is 70 meters. Translated into feet, 70 meters equals about 230 feet (1 meter equals 3.281 feet, so 70 x 3.281 = 229.6). Use the same calculations for the ascending contour lines (31 lines uphill = 1,017 feet).
Step 3: Calculate your hiking time. Every 1,000 feet of vertical gain adds 1 hour to your hiking time, so trekking 1,017 feet up Yard Mountain means adding 1 hour. The hike will take at least 1= hours. Don’t assume that descents are faster, since rock ledges or other obstacles may slow you down.
Step 4: Allow extra time if you plan to take photos or like to stop to look at flowers, or if trail conditions are tough.

    The Trip
  • Be flexible. Surprises will happen, but if you’ve done your homework, you can improvise the rest. And realizing you can’t cover all the bases will keep you from getting frustrated when things don’t go as planned.

  • Keep a log to record weather and trail conditions, pace, time spent eating and setting up/breaking camp, enjoying the view, plus other information that’ll help you plan future trips.

Post-trip Wrap-up

    Planning for your next trip always starts on the ride home.

  • Learn from your “accidents.” By keeping a record of your trip, advises Dr. Marlatt, you can pinpoint poor decisions and avoid them next time.
  • Assess as you unpack. Did you use each piece of gear? Leave unnecessary items home next time. Repair broken gear and make a list of food, first-aid, and camp supplies you need to replenish. Buy them on your next shopping trip.

End Result

To test their new skills, Jamie and Joe started planning a trek along the Teton Crest Trail in Grand Teton National Park, but soon found that snow still blanketed the high-elevation ridge. So, they opted for a shorter, less snowy route up Cascade Canyon and over Paintbrush Divide.

Thoughtful planning and excellent conditions made for a reasonable 2=-day, 20-mile trip, with hours to spare for lolling on sun-drenched rocks and photographing the Grand Teton radiant with alpenglow. They even had time for after-dinner games, a luxury they’d never enjoyed on previous trips. “We were always trying to go as far as we could and see everything in a short amount of time,” explains Joe. “This was so much more fun!” adds Jamie.

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