On every backpacking trip, I have three primary goals. In order of importance, they are to:
- Maintain a realistic level of comfort, and
- 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?
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.
List of important environmental and route conditions
- Average high/low and record high/low temperatures
- (Note: adjust 3 to 5 degrees for every 1,000 vertical feet, depending on humidity — temperature changes are greater in arid climates)
- 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
- Cloud cover
- Patterns, e.g. prevailing storm direction, ominous cloud formations, seasonal weather patterns
For an in-depth tutorial on predicting backcountry weather, read this.
- 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
- 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
- Types, e.g. trees, brush, none
- Shifts due to elevation, slope aspect, exposure
- Allergens, e.g. poison ivy
- Combustibility for fires
- 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 angle
- Cloud or tree cover
- Reflectivity on water, snow, ice
- Distance, terrain and time between water sources
- “Mini bears,” e.g. mice, racoons, marmots
- Types, e.g. mosquitoes, black flies, no-see-um’s
- Peak intensity
- Intensity fluctuations based on time of day, location, wind
- 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
- Lingering snowfields
- River fords
- Flash floods
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.