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The Manual: Plan an Expedition

Go big with these expedition trip planning tips.
 june 2010 skills plan an expedition 445x260(Illustration by Supercorn)

You finally cleared the decks for that long-awaited dream hike. But whether this season brings a straightforward John Muir Trail thru-hike or a complicated Alaska bushwhack, big expeditions require a lot more planning than a three-day weekend. The legwork you put in now can make your adventure safer, more enjoyable, and more likely to succeed. Here’s how to pull off that life-list trip and plan an expedition.

Scout the Route

  • Dig deep for beta. Cross-reference topos, Google Maps, aerial photos, and elevation profiles to find the best route, resupply points, and campsites. Online trip reports, photos, and forums (like whiteblaze.net for the AT) also provide hard-to-find info.
  • Preload bombsighted waypoints. Put them in your GPS (for tutorials, see backpacker.com/trips); with practice, you can bombsight key spots, like passes or stream crossings, to within 100 feet or less.
  • Set realistic mileage goals. Big-trip loads are heavy and day-after-day travel exhausting. For off-trail routes, consider 1 mph an average pace; for on-trail trips with a 12-day load, perhaps 1.5 mph. In Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, budget two weather days a week.

Mark Your Calendar

  • Circle trip dates, plus the lead-up period. Include start/finish dates for tasks like grocery shopping, packing, and training. Highlight deadlines for permit applications, airline or shuttle booking, and holidays that might stop mail on a resupply day.
  • Ship a “bounce box” filled with extra gear to key resupply points. (Allow 10 days for delivery, or pay for expedited service.) UPS usually works best for remote spots, but you need a ship-to location like an outfitter or motel (call for permission). Or mail it USPS “General Delivery.” Write on the box, “Hold for , to arrive .”
  • Create a trip itinerary, with daily mileages, start/stop points, cruxes, etc.

Prep Your Gear

  • Create a packing list Print one from backpacker.com/checklists and start assembling your kit a few months early to identify gear that needs attention, like a DWR treatment on a tired rain shell. Also, if hiking the cusp of spring or fall, you might need different gear at the trip’s end than at the beginning.
  • Pack a bounce box Include items like socks, underwear, lighter or heavier clothes, spare shoes, sunglasses, books, depletable items (like sunscreen, vitamins, food, batteries, and memory cards), quarters and soap for Laundromats, and mailing supplies (prepaid UPS labels, tape, addresses, pens).
  • Package meals in waterproof bags Mark them Day One, Day Two, etc. so you don’t raid all the chocolate on day three. Allot more food for tail-end days when you’ll be ravenous. To keep food weight and bulk low, pack calorie-dense foods like nuts, peanut butter, and cheese. Although vacuum-packed cheeses may separate into oil and curd, they’ll keep for weeks in cool mountain weather.
  • Assemble a first-aid kit Include beaucoup dressings, blister-repair items, and any medications.
  • Locate gear shops near resupply points Ask the proprietors in advance to hold some fuel for you.
  • For remote trips, carry an emergency signaling device Buy or rent a PLB, SPOT, or sat phone. And consider rescue insurance. Two options: American Alpine Club membership or Global Rescue.

Get Fit

  • Stick religiously to a training program. Strains and sprains, often due to poor conditioning, tank many trips. Trail running, especially on hills, combined with leg- and back-strengthening exercises, prepare you the most efficiently. For legs, think squats, hamstring curls, and calf raises.
  • For a good basic regimen, each week do: three to four cardio sessions (with one of these being a long endurance hike with a weighted pack), two strength-training sessions (each separated by at least one day), and one to two rest days. Start this program two to three months before your trip. On any big trek with heavy loads, if you don’t strengthen your back muscles beforehand, you’ll be hunched and hurting. Melanie Pfister, a Pilates instructor in Jackson, Wyoming, prescribes this routine for a strong, ache-free back.

1. Balancing table
START Get on your hands and knees, keeping your spine in a neutral alignment, parallel to the floor.
GO Slowly and simultaneously stretch your right arm forward and your left leg back. Extend them as far as they will go while keeping your spine straight; the raised arm and leg should be level with your torso. Hold for 20 seconds, then return to all fours. Repeat with the other leg and arm. Do three, 20-second extensions on each side.
BENEFIT Warming up and toning the back, butt, and hip-flexor muscles, which work together to keep the spine aligned

2. Superman
START Lie on your stomach with your arms in front of you.
GO Lift your legs, upper torso, and arms off the ground at the same time, arching your body upward. Hold this upward crescent for 30 seconds. Repeat three times.
BENEFIT Strengthening the spine’s stabilizer muscles, which prevents slumping forward and rounding your back

3. Shoulder fly
START Fill two quart-size bottles with water, or grab dumbbells of a challenging but not form-hampering weight (e.g., two pounds). Lie on your belly with a large pillow under your chest to elevate your upper torso. Holding one weight in each hand, extend your arms out to either side, forming the letter T with your body. Keep your elbows slightly bent.
GO Bringing your shoulder blades together, lift straightened arms up as high as comfortable, then lower them slowly (five seconds). Do three sets of 15 reps.
BENEFIT Building the upper back, which pulls the shoulders back; this counters tightness created from leaning into pack straps and curling the shoulders

Begin Final Countdown

The day before hitting the trailhead, check all of your preparations and critical gear one last time.

  • Call rangers, pilots, or outfitters for conditions, and check recent trip reports and weather (try weatherunderground.com and forecast.weather.gov).
  • If a bush pilot’s flying you into a remote region, overfly your route on the way to your dropoff, especially if it’s rarely hiked. This can save you if your plan was conceived with disastrous overconfidence.
  • Have a backup plan, plus prescouted bailout points along the route, in case weather or injury derail you.
  • Leave an itinerary with a family member and also a local outfitter, ranger, or pilot, since they’ll probably be the first to know if you miss your due-back date.

Ship Stoves
Most airlines prohibit any stove that’s been used or isn’t in its original package. And hazmat rules restrict you from shipping used burners via USPS, FedEx, or UPS. Either scrub your burner and pray baggage handlers don’t find it (we can’t recommend this, but it usually works). Or buy or rent a stove at your destination. Buy your fuel there, too.

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