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Be Prepared? Absolutely. But against what? Why and how to assess environmental and route conditions.

How did I eventually settle on this kit for the Alaskan Arctic in March? By first understanding the conditions I would encounter there, and then determining the gear, supplies, and skills I would need.

On every backpacking trip, I have three primary goals. In order of importance, they are to:

  1. Survive
  2. Maintain a realistic level of comfort
  3. Have “fun,” the definition of which is subject to personal interpretation

When I embark on a trip, I always try to abide by the Boy Scout motto — “Be prepared” — by bringing three types of resources, either carried on my back or between my ears, to help me achieve my goals:

  • Gear, e.g. clothing, shelter, stove, etc.
  • Supplies, e.g. food, water, fuel, etc.
  • Skills, e.g. how to hike efficiently, select good campsites, purify water, start a fire, navigate on-trail and off-trail, ford snowmelt-fed rivers, stay warm when it’s cold and wet, etc.

But how can I ensure that I am, in fact, “prepared” for a trip?

When I hiked from Arches to the Grand Canyon in February & March 2009 I decided to carry snowshoes for 180 miles between Hite and Escalante, in fear of deep snow in the Henry Mountains. If I had known where to look, I would have been able to see that there was not enough snow (i.e. not enough coverage and not deep enough) to warrant them. Instead, for a week I felt foolish for unnecessarily carrying snowshoes across a desert.

Option 1: Assemble a catch-all kit

This thinking goes, “By packing a lot of stuff, I will therefore be prepared for everything that comes my way.” Basically,you pack your fears. Beginner backpackers constantly fall into this trap — I was a case-in-point at the start of my first thru-hike, the Appalachian Trail in 2002. But experienced backpackers are not immune either, especially when wandering into new landscapes or climates for the first time.

If you adopt this approach, you’ll probably survive the trip — and maybe even Armageddon. But unfortunately you usually also become a “Camper by Default” — because of the weight and number of things you are carrying, the only way to maintain a realistic level of comfort and to have “fun” is to spend most (preferably, all) of your time in camp. Sorry, but hulking backpacks automatically make hiking  an arduous activity between camps, not something that can be enjoyed as a distinct activity within a backpacking trip.

Option 2: Know what you need to be prepared against

This is my preferred strategy. Immediately after deciding to go on a trip, I ask, “What are the environmental and route conditions I will likely experience on this trip for which I need to be prepared?” Then, in light of these conditions, I select the gear, supplies and skills that will make me precisely prepared — not under-, over-, or mis-prepared.

By knowing the conditions precisely — plus the gear, supplies and skills that are compatible with these conditions — I can usually take fewer and lighter items. For example:

  • If I know the average and record temperatures, I don’t have to take “extra” clothing or an excessively warm sleep system.
  • If I know how often I will cross perennial water sources — or reliable seasonal water sources — I don’t have to carry extra water bottles or extra water.
  • If I know there will not be insects, my shelter does not need to have bug netting and I don’t need to carry insect repellent or a headnet.
  • If I know there is enough daylight to avoid hiking at night, I don’t have to carry a super bright (and heavy) flashlight and/or an extra set of batteries.

Because of the abundant precipitation along Alaska's Lost Coast, I knew that fire-starting would be an important skill to have. Frequent fires gave me opportunities to warm up, dry out, and make hot drinks, which kept me safer and happier.

List of important environmental and route conditions

Climate

  • Average high/low and record high/low temperatures
  • (Note: adjust about 3 degrees for every 1,000 vertical feet.)
  • Average and record high/low precipitation per month
  • (Note: precipitation can be affected significantly by orographic lift.)
  • Precipitation type, e.g. rain, snow, hail
  • Precipitation frequency, e.g. constant, sporadic
  • Humidity
  • Wind
  • Cloud cover
  • Patterns, e.g. prevailing storm direction, ominous cloud formations, seasonal weather patterns

Daylight

  • Hours between civil sunrise and civil sunset
  • (Note: expect 30-60 minutes of less daylight due to heavy cloud cover.)
  • Daily/weekly change
  • Moon cycle

Footing

  • Snow-covered or snow-free
  • If snow-covered: amount of snow coverage, composition of snowpack, daily/weekly changes in snowpack
  • If snow-free: rocks, dirt, sand, vegetation, dry, dusty, wet, muddy, smooth or uneven?

Vegetation

  • Types, e.g. trees, brush, none
  • Thickness/density
  • Shifts due to elevation, slope aspect, exposure
  • Allergens, e.g. poison ivy
  • Combustibility for fires

Navigation aids

  • Visibility, e.g. open or forested
  • Topographical relief, e.g. subtle or prominent features
  • Quality of trail tread
  • Signs, blazes, cairns, posts
  • Quantity/frequency of use or social trails

Sun exposure

  • Altitude
  • Sun angle
  • Cloud or tree cover
  • Reflectivity against water, snow, ice

Water availability

  • Distance, terrain and time between water sources
  • Reliability

Problematic wildlife

  • Bears
  • “Mini bears,” e.g. mice, racoons, marmots

Insects

  • Types, e.g. mosquitoes, black flies, no-see-um’s
  • Peak intensity
  • Intensity fluctuations based on time of day, location, wind

Remoteness

  • Distance and time to the closest trafficked road and the closest town with services
  • Natural barriers to self-rescue, e.g. canyons, thick brush, big rivers
  • Cell reception

Natural hazards

  • Lingering snowfields
  • Avalanches
  • River fords
  • Flash floods
  • Tides
  • Lightning

Informational resources

What resources should you consult in assessing environmental and route conditions? These will help:

  • Climate atlas and historical weather data
  • Landsat images, e.g. “satelite” view on Google Maps
  • Geo-tagged photos, e.g. photos on Google Maps
  • Topographical maps, e.g. USGS topos viewed in National Geographic TOPO! software
  • Guidebooks, databooks, and water charts
  • Official information published by land mangers and trail associations, made available on their websites and in their printed materials
  • Communities, e.g. online forums, hiking clubs
  • Local experts, e.g. backcountry rangers, lodge owners, experienced backcountry users

Sample: Environmental & Route Conditions Assessment

For a sample assessment, read this post.


11 Responses to Be Prepared? Absolutely. But against what? Why and how to assess environmental and route conditions.

  1. James D. Marco June 1, 2012 at 6:15 am #

    Andrew,
    A really excelent article about preplanning and researching the area(s) where I will be hiking. Bouncing between the rolling hills of the Finger Lakes Trail(North Country Trail) and High Peaks Area I often forget that conditions are very different between the two here in NY. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Sonoma Hiking Trails June 1, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    Andrew,

    Big fan here, I enjoy following your adventures – you are truly an inspiration…

    As a self-proclaimed ultralight gear nerd, I just wanted to voice my appreciation how you’ve shifted my obsessing over a trip’s gearlist pack weight (“what is the lightest pack I can carry?”) to focusing on the conditions I will be experiencing and working back from there (“what are the conditions I’ll encounter and what do I really need for that?”). Having an ultralight pack is not the goal, being safe and reasonably comfortable is what counts.

    Just wanted to say thanks for keeping me from ever going out “stupid-light!”

    Best,

    Brian
    Sonoma Hiking Trails

    • Andrew Skurka June 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

      I am really glad to hear this – thanks for sharing. I once aspired to always be “ultralight” too, but slowly I saw how lighter was not always better. In fact, besides my cat food can stove I don’t think that I carry the “lightest” item in any category – to do so would require too many compromises in safety, comfort, durability, efficiency, etc. And the results speak for themselves!

  3. Mandy June 29, 2012 at 8:56 am #

    I love this orientation and it strikes me as a far better way to go light than spending a fortune to shave a few ounces. Thanks, this is a great list.

    That said, I do have a minor argument with the overly detailed trip planning that is now available at the click of a button. It is now possible to suck a good-sized chunk of adventure and uncertainty out of any trip thanks to online tools. We sure as h*** didn’t have these kinds of options when I started venturing out! Maybe people who have never known life without the internet don’t realize what they’re missing. But there’s something to be said for the days of check the map, check the weather, and go.

    To be clear – I recognize that this post really isn’t explicitly about discovery, and I’m well aware that with careful planning you can carry less, walk more, and discover a whole heck of a lot more. I’m a big fan of doing it this way, myself. I guess I just wanted to remind myself, and anyone else who might be listening, of the reason I go out in the first place: to discover, explore, and adventure in the unknown. As long as detailed planning supports that purpose, I’m all for it. And as for where it interferes… well, this traveler may occasionally choose to stay in the dark until I get there.

    Keep up the good work, Andrew. I love it that you’re out there living such an inspired and inspiring life!

    • Andrew Skurka June 29, 2012 at 9:06 am #

      I have battled with this issue myself: Is seems counterproductive to intentionally extract the uncertainty out of an “adventure,” doesn’t it?

      But I’m comfortable with my approach. I figure that by doing this homework, I can take on much bigger trips than I otherwise could, but without exceeding thresholds for safety or comfort. There is simply no way that I could have completed a trip like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition without having done all of the pre-trip prep. Sure, it was much less adventurous than if I had flown to Kotzebue in March, asked a local how to get to Buckland, and started skiing south — but I don’t think that strategy would result in a safe return to Kotzebue six months later. It would have been a different kind of trip — more wandering, less focus — and that style doesn’t really appeal to me right now.

      • Dogwood January 14, 2014 at 3:04 am #

        “Is seems counterproductive to intentionally extract the uncertainty out of an “adventure,” doesn’t it?”

        Absolutely, although there’s always a degree of uncertainty no matter the level of preparation or the hike. It’s unavoidable, unless you can see the future.

        Curious, how often did you find yourself off route, or let’s say not where you wanted to optimally be, on the Alaskan Yukon Trip disregarding intentional detours(like that river crossing you did by going 1/4-1/2 mile upstream to the river source at a lake and crossing in the packraft)? Did you ever find yourself several miles off course for example? I’m guessing you largely stayed close to your intended route. You were using GPS at times w/ the map and compass navigation at other times, right?

  4. Joe December 30, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    Be prepared, not equipped. Maybe that should be over-equipped.

  5. Dogwood January 14, 2014 at 2:46 am #

    Snowshoes w/ airbags = flotation devices for the Escalante River section of the HDT? I assume your referring to the HDT? It may have been your tracks I followed over the Henry Mts. in mid April 2009. They looked to be a few wks old. I’m sure much snow depth had melted off since you went over though. There was some postholing in waist deep drifts in the then warmer Apr weather on the road up to the top. It was howling with 35 mph wind gusts. It was rather short lived thankfully.

  6. Jack May 14, 2014 at 5:34 pm #

    Re: The picture of the fire. I sincerely hope that it’s just the way that picture was taken that makes all of those sticks and twigs seem so close to the fire. You might wish to make some mention of fire safety when you mention fires. No one wants to risk starting a forest fire. For those of you who are rolling their eyes about now, stop and think just where you are going to be if your cooking fire starts a forest fire. Better to carry a stove and fuel than to find yourself surrounded by a raging inferno! And, yes, fires do really get out of control no matter how many times you’ve used one. My friend’s brother lost his outbuilding and nearly lost his home a few years ago simply from buring the trash, something he had done for decades. The wind picked up unexpectedly and pushed the fire onto the drought-dry lawn.

    • ann April 7, 2016 at 9:24 pm #

      I noticed that, too. No fire ring, but lots of loose fuel scattered around.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Happy Friday – tips and tricks from the week | Pale Spruce - June 1, 2012

    […] Be Prepared? But against what? – Yes, it’s another link from Andrew Skurka.  Not stalking his posts, but this one has some good info about how to prepare for an adventure and how spending some time analyzing your route can save you a lot of weight and be better prepared. […]

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