Planning a high route? Three critical mental adjustments.

Within the backpacking community I have sensed increasing interest in “high routes,” such as the the Sierra High Route, Wind River Range High Route, and Kings Canyon High Basin Route. I think this concept will continue to expand, with most of the emphasis on “route” rather than “high,” since there are thematically similar opportunities in non-mountainous areas like southern Utah.

The appeal of these high routes is easy to explain:

  • For backpackers who have mastered on-trail hiking, high routes are a new challenge and necessitate the development of new skills.
  • For thru-hikers who lack the free time they once did, or who have already completed the long-distance trails that interest them, high routes are a more compact yet completely worthy backcountry experience. (Read: Short is the new long.)

High routes are a step-up from conventional backpacking trips, however. And if you are planning one, I think you must make three critical mental adjustments:

To complete a high route, everything must go right. Your attempt, for example, cannot coincide with an extended and active monsoon pattern, which in this photo is making it unsafe to be traversing the Great Western Divide, home to eight 13'ers and a highlight of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route.

To complete a high route, everything must go right. Your attempt, for example, cannot coincide with an extended and active monsoon pattern, which in this photo is making it unsafe to be traversing the Great Western Divide, home to eight 13’ers and a highlight of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route.

1. Accept that you may not finish.

High routes are like mountaineering expeditions: to reach the summit, everything must go right. You need a window of stable weather; you can’t be surprised by the conditions, like steep lingering snow or unsafe river crossings; and your group must remain on pace, mentally sharp, and physical healthy.

On three of my high route attempts, I’ve had to pull the plug, one even before we left Colorado for Wyoming. These experiences were tough to swallow, but I think it’s the nature of these routes. My advice: Have a backup plan and backup maps, and appreciate the learning that goes along with failure.

The idea of wilderness is very appealing, and draws us to places like Grand Staircase-Escalante. But the reality is usually less glamorous: the experience is not neutered by graded trails, designated campsites, and nearby services; and your vulnerability is a constant, low-level stress. Can you mentally manage that?

The idea of wilderness is very appealing, and draws us to places like Grand Staircase-Escalante. But the reality is usually less glamorous: the experience is not neutered by graded trails, designated campsites, and nearby services; and your vulnerability is a constant, low-level stress. Can you mentally manage that?

2. It will be very mentally taxing.

High routes pass through the wildest and most remote terrain that an area has to offer. In doing so, they remain largely off-trail and normally feature exceptional vertical gain and loss. The cumulative experience tends to be very intense.

When off-trail, you must always pay attention and you must constantly make decisions. For someone accustomed to on-trail travel, where hours-long autopilot is the norm, this level of engagement is tiresome.

On top of that, the travel is rarely easy, even if it’s not a “high” route. Talus and scree, brush, wetlands, blowdowns, uneven slabs and grass — all the naturalness that you never noticed because trails smoothly route you through, over, or around it. If it is a high route, expect constant up and down. For example, the Kings Canyon High Basin Route averages about 700 vertical feet of change per mile, about twice that of the John Muir Trail.

Finally, you will need to digest the experience on your own, or only with other members of your group. Run-ins with other hikers will be limited to the trail sections, which are a comparative flash-in-the-pan versus the off-trail segments, and probably no hikers you meet will understand where you have been or what you are experiencing. Oh, and this should go without saying, but don’t get hurt. You won’t be found in 15 minutes by the next hiker who comes along, and evacs from trail-less areas are not convenient.

Extensive talus and huge vertical relief, par for the course on the Wind River High Route. It can get old.

Extensive talus and huge vertical relief, par for the course on the Wind River High Route. It can get old.

3. Plan to hike far fewer miles per day.

Off-trail travel is inherently slower. First, you spend more time standing still: confirming your location using your topographic map plus data from your watch, altimeter, and/or compass; and then formulating (and, in a group setting, communicating) your navigational plan of attack for the next section.

Second, you simply hike slower, for the aforementioned reasons. Sometimes it’s a simple ratio of your normal hiking speed, e.g. 75 percent for easy off-trail travel. But on days or routes with exceptional vertical change, you may hit your “vertical quota” and have no gas for additional miles. For example, on my Kings Canyon thru-hike last month, I found that I could climb about 7,000 vertical feet per day. On the second full day, I covered 27 miles before hitting this limit; but on the fifth full day, I eeked out only 17. On both days, I was tapped.

How much slower will you be? It’s impossible to say, as it varies tremendously with the backpacker and the location. It’s best to use precedent. Ideally, a high route guidebook will include some time referenences. If not, or perhaps in addition to that, talk with another backpacker who has done the route and with whom you share similar navigation skills and fitness.

If you have completed a high route, are there other mental adjustments you would deem critical? And if you’re planning your first, I’m interested in knowing your expectations versus your previous backpacking experiences.

Posted in , on July 31, 2015
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23 Comments

  1. Manny Alvarez on August 1, 2015 at 8:37 am

    As you approach what appears to be a “summit,” assume it is a false summit.

  2. Ben Maynard on August 1, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    Hey buddy, great post! I really enjoyed it! High routes seem like they would be a lot of fun!! Also, i meant to ask could you possibly take a look at your different gear list sections to see if they’re working? (when you have time that is). I’m really interested in doing some of the larger hikes that you’ve done in the past and would like to try them! I’d love to do the Great Western Loop or the C2C route. But hope to hear from you soon and have an awesome day!

  3. Birger on August 1, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    A general positive attitude while still being able to properly asses and be fully aware of the situation and your own skills are I think the most important parts. I guess it’s what you meant with “know when to stop and go back” which is nothing to be ashamed of ; it’s just responsible. Safety always goes before reaching a summit and hubris can be the biggest danger to hikers, more than the mountain or the conditions.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 1, 2015 at 5:52 pm

      I would add that “turning back” is not a lesson that most thru-hikers have ever learned. As one, I experienced relatively benign conditions and had an obvious footpath to follow. It wasn’t until I started doing off-trail trips in places like southern Utah and Alaska that I learned to back down. It didn’t sink in right away, either — after consecutive weeks or months of steady forward progress, it’s hard to think that today is somehow different.

  4. Lee Tintary on August 1, 2015 at 11:28 pm

    Sometimes granite slabs and grassy slopes are much more enjoyable than the alternatives offered by loose, dusty trails, eroded by countless hooves of mules. Likewise, I prefer a scree slope, and even a talus field to walking over irregular softball sized rocks produced by dynamite (Middle Fork of the Kings River). In regards to the mental gymnastics of plotting a path through the “maze” that off trail routes typically provide (Palisade basin coming off of Potluck is a good example), George Steck offered a great discussion in his book Grand Canyon Loop Hikes where he discussed “up and over v. contour around.” It takes the same time – each chooses his own poison, which is precisely the beauty and madness of off trail travel.

  5. Brian Buettner on August 2, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Thanks Andrew. This post helps take some of the sting out of not being able to complete a section of the SHR from Roads End to Mammoth Mtn. Last week 3 experienced hikers and 1 not so experienced hiker set out for this 9 day adventure. Unfortunately, we were forced to turn back 3 days in when the less experienced hiker severely sprained her ankle on loose granite (turned out to be a break after a hospital visit). We spent a year planning this trip and it was heart breaking to have to bail. Fortunately, we had maps covering not just our route but also the broader area. This helped us find the easiest way out, which we were able to do without needing to contact additional support. So I might add, when hiking a high route a bailout plan with the necessary maps can help.

    • Andrew Skurka on August 2, 2015 at 9:07 pm

      Sorry it went down that way. I know how much you had been looking forward to it. Not too late to give it a second go this year if you can make the logistics work for your other partners.

      Re bailout maps, I like having a paper overview map, either a recreation map like the Trails Illustrated or the USGS 30×60 series if only those are available. Also like to have high res detailed maps like USGS 7.5 quads on my phone, since sometimes you need that extra layer of detail to navigate back to main trails or sometimes even to navigate on very lightly used trails.

  6. Ryan surridge on August 2, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    Is the wind river high route happening this year? Your post alludes to “pulling the plug” on a trip to Wyoming, will you be able to reschedule?

    • Andrew Skurka on August 2, 2015 at 8:40 pm

      Last year, we tried to get up in late August after failing earlier in the month.

      Yes, it is happening. End of the month.

      • Ryan surridge on August 3, 2015 at 2:08 pm

        Glad to hear it! Can’t wait for the map set to follow. Definitely on the bucket list.

      • Jed Augustine on August 4, 2015 at 12:14 pm

        I will be headed out on the Wind River High Route 8/14. We’re starting at Big Sandy and terminating at Green Lakes 8/23. Might we see you?

        • Andrew Skurka on August 4, 2015 at 11:01 pm

          Slight chance, but unlikely

  7. Dave on August 4, 2015 at 8:46 am

    We did a hiigh route a few weeks ago, but while theere were traiils goiing up, obviously maintained by horrse riders who had no idea what awaiiited them, but at end, there were no trail going down. We had to follow game trails and hope we didnt spook a grizzly.

  8. Mies Mos on August 16, 2015 at 3:10 am

    What kind of shoes would you use for, for instance, the terrain with all the talus pictured above?

    I’m a recent convert to the lightweight backpacking idea, and I’ve been wondering about shoes. When I hike in the Alps or Pyrenees, the picture above of the talus quite well portrays the terrain I’m often facing. Now when I read (the mostly American) websites about UL backpacking, everybody seems to use trail runners. I can imagine trail runners are great for on-trail use, but how do they stand up to something like the talus or really steep loose scree slopes?

    • Andrew Skurka on August 16, 2015 at 7:27 am

      I have worn trail running shoes for all of my trips in terrain like this. But they’re robust trail running shoes (durable upper, sticky outsole, protective toe cap, etc.), not the feathery light varieties that are more popular among trail runners nowadays. Try:

      * Salomon X Ultra
      * La Sportiva Ultra Raptor
      * Salewa Speed Ascent

      • Mies Mos on August 19, 2015 at 8:33 am

        Thanks for the suggestions, and thanks for the blog. It has (with similar blogs) challenged many of my firmly held hiking beliefs.

        As for the question in your original post: I have no idea how ‘trails’ and ‘high routes’ here in Europe would compare to what you have in the States. But I’ve noticed a few changes when I went from hiking marked trails to mountain routes that are more an idea than an actual trail. The most important for me was a subtle change in perspective. Whereas before it was mostly about me doing a certain amount of kilometers every day, I feel that with high routes I have to ‘negotiate my path’. I really love this phrase because it assumes there is another party involved. So it’s less about me, and more about me in the surroundings.

  9. Doug K on August 25, 2015 at 10:22 am

    I learned to backpack on high routes, mostly in the Drakensberg mountains of S. Africa. At that point the trails were basically whatever the cattle smugglers and locals used to get from the Lesotho high country, up and down. Trail suggestions were marked on the map as ‘soek-ie-pad’, Afrikaans for ‘search for the path’. Actual trail hiking as in the US seemed a bit odd at first, too easy 😉 and rather disgusting, when ‘sharing’ the trail with horses, horse apples and the deep muddy ruts full of horse pee.

    Agree, the biggest single factor is to accept that turning back needs to be built in to the general plan – don’t get summit fever or its complication, goal miles for the day..

  10. Birger on September 3, 2015 at 8:19 am

    Oh, Andrew, I was just wondering, what kind of footwear would you recommend for a high route? Ofcourse it’s probably extremely dependant on the terrain and how steep and rugged the road is, but would you still choose trailrunners over hiking shoes? Also in your book you recommend boots for mountaineering, which I think in this case would be good when there is skree, although a midcut boot should suffice.

    • Andrew Skurka on September 3, 2015 at 8:29 am

      Refer to the comment a few above.

      I’ll add that I just finished a route with a LOT of talus and scree. It’s entirely possible to navigate such terrain with trail runners. Without high ankle protection, you need to be more deliberate with foot placement, but that small compromise is well worth the benefit of having a more comfortable shoe for all of those easier miles.

  11. David on December 24, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Do you think if this becomes popular, there will be more regulations from doing off trail route hikes? I was reading an blog article at Section Hiker on stealth camping and he was not happy about it, and expressed other people in a position of authority were not happy about it too. Seems like some want more regulation about what people can and can not do in wilderness areas. But, I understand… keep the national forest beautiful, and out of harms way from people who can not “leave no trace”.

    But, I have hiking off trail for some time and find it completely engaging. Just what like to know your take on its future and possible regulations that will prevent people from exploring.

    • Andrew Skurka on December 24, 2015 at 8:24 pm

      If there is any regulation, it will be a location by location policy. SEKI just completed a backcountry policy eval and made no changes to off-trail regs, and seemed mostly unconcerned with it based on the attention they gave it relative to other issues, eg traffic on the JMT. Whereas in the Whites, maybe there is more concern among policy makers — not sure, Philip would know more.

    • Andrew Skurka on December 24, 2015 at 8:25 pm

      Also, I never see this as being something “popular.” The skills needed are too advanced, and the experience is inherently too hard.

  12. Backstroke on November 13, 2016 at 11:51 pm

    I just completed 10 days in the Sierra above the treeline climbing six 14’ers, and to everything that has been said about high routes I would add that altitude matters! Above 10,400 ft or so I notice that I do indeed slow down, my legs are not tired, but my body does not completely cooperate and I slow down. It frustrated me and it took a while to just accept it. I posted the trip here: https://www.trailnamebackstroke.com/soshr-14er-2016/

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