The Big Trip

Thoughts on adventure organization from the depths of packing hell

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Trekking the Bagley Icefield, Wrangell-St. Elias, AK

For a feral outdoor writer like myself, big wilderness assignments are the juice of the job, the what-gets-you-off part. Sure, it’s rewarding seeing your words and photos in print, but nothing compares to a month in big, brawling wilderness. I bring this up because I’m frantically finishing up biz and packing to leave for a four-week recreational survey of Alaska.

Hey, nice work if you can get it, but the logistics are daunting; stringing together multiple hikes, overnights and five-day trips in rapid-fire style. There’s not much leeway for rain, bugs, unexpected swamps or ‘gee this is bigger than I thought’. Right now it’s less than a week till blast-off, but I’ve also got the Outdoor Retailer Show to drop by, two feature drafts to submit, and a lot of gear to sort and pack. Amid the chaos of finding my ‘old reliable’ stuff, reading maps, and prepping kits of various types, I’ve come up with some tips for fellow hike-a-holics who might be prepping for an annual summer expedition.

[] Keep a master calendar that includes the lead-up to your trip: You can print custom pdf calendars free off the internet. Pencil and count off days, write down airline times, allow for travel and shuttles, record important details like the time and place of a rendezvous, possible route delays, numbers of motels or outfitters. The visual layout of a calendar helps you accurately budget days and avoid list-induced mistakes.

[] Scout, scout, scout: Learn your trip, and the area. Desktop mapping programs like Google Maps, Google Earth, expertGPS, and others are invaluable for learning the topography, viewing aerial photos, estimating distances and ‘bombsighting’ waypoints to pre-load onto your gps for extra security in new country or bad weather. Check the internet for trip reports, photos and information contacts like guidebooks, land managers and local club chapters. Friendly e-mails and phone calls to people with first-hand knowledge can yield a wealth of information, and help answer questions about little known areas.

[] Get as much advance route info as possible: Climbers call it ‘beta.’ Some purists think it lowers the adventure. But in big wilderness, challenge is rarely lacking, and mis-assumptions about your intended trip can lead to problems you often can’t solve in the field.

[] Learn current conditions: Is it a cold, wet summer? Was last winter a deep snow year? Will water be easy or hard to find? Don’t get surprised when you show up and find ‘it wasn’t what you expected.’ Call land managers, local stores and outfitters to get the latest before you head out.

[] Have a packing list. I keep one on my computer, separated into categories like: Clothes, Shelter, Cooking, Travel, Photography, and Miscellaneous. A separate addendum lists all the specialty gear for different trip types like canyoneering, mountaineering or paddling.

[] Camping: If I’m going to be camping at trailheads, I’ll take a second sleeping bag, pad, mini-stove, cup and headlamp. That way I can pack up the night before for a faster departure, and not have to pull my life apart just to sack out if I return exhausted.

[] First Aid: On big trips, you’ve got to take a full-on medical kit, even if you begrudge the weight. Most off-the-shelf First Aid kits should be stripped down and re-filled to suit your upcoming challenge. For wilderness adventures this means adding tons of bandages and trauma dressings (absorbent blood pads, stretch wraps, gloves, antiseptics, tape and clotting agent), along with plenty of ibuprofen and blister repair. But “Kit” means more than just what goes in your pouch. Think about sleeping pads, and pack or tent parts, you can use as splinting materials, what kind of straps you might bind it all together with, whether your trek poles and snowshoes can make a sitting litter – greater parts to your emergency system.

[] Get your footwear right. For big trips I always choose comfort and durability over specialty characteristic like sticky soles or ankle support. If the shoe fits comfortably day after day, and it doesn’t fall apart, everything else is gravy.

[] Layering up: My biggest challenge in backpacking distant lands is getting the clothes right – not just knowing the temperature, but the winds, humidity, and local storm patterns. I never go on long mountain trips without a full shell-layer set up (pants, jacket, gaiters, gloves) and lightweight base layers. Worn together, they’re excellent for hard exercise in prolonged storm. Shell gloves let you cruise through wind, rain, snow or devil’s club, while fleece gloves get soaked and stay soaked.

[] After I’ve assembled all my gear, I lay it all out and start making hard choices to save weight and bulk.

[] You readers undoubtedly have expedition packaging thoughts I’ve missed in my careless haste. Feel free to step up and swing in the comments section below. — Steve Howe